DAY ONE: The wheels of the Cessna bounce along the short stretch of tarmac, hot from the gleaming Caribbean sun. After a brief, 25-minute flight across the eight miles of ocean from San Juan, I have arrived on the little Puerto Rican island of Vieques, a relative newcomer to the tourism scene. Used as a training ground by the U.S. army until 2003, the island remains largely undeveloped and from the air the dense, uninterrupted tropical canopy lends it the appearance of a deserted isle waiting to be discovered and explored.
The first native to welcome us is a yellow island dog basking in the sun beside the runway, who does so with a lazy nod before closing his eyes and returning to his nap. My fellow travelers and I walk up a short ramp and into the W Vieques airport lounge where we stay only a moment before a van arrives to take us up the road to the hotel.
The first and only luxury hotel on Vieques, the Patricia Urquiola-designed property feels a bit like a super-swanky surf shack, blending into its beach-side setting instead of competing with it like so many mega resorts. I’m struck by is the beautiful use of reclaimed wood throughout the space, beginning with the massive lobby doors, which swing inward to reveal a breezeway with a view of the Caribbean. Heading through to the common Living Room area, my mood is instantly lifted by the whimsical artwork and dashes of bright colors in the form of throw pillows and well-edited knickknacks scattered around the breezy, light-filled space.
I spend the first day by the pool, unwinding with an umbrella drink and taking in the crowd. It’s a young but successful group carrying on poolside conversations about screenplays and start-ups and holidays spent in exotic locales. The afternoon is incredibly relaxing save my rising insecurity about the fact that I haven’t written a screenplay or sold anything on the internet besides some old jewelry on Ebay. I make a mental note to be more enterprising, then order another round.
As the sun sets, the first day ends with an early dinner at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant miX, where dishes like the macaroni ham and cheese and roasted mango and tropical sorbet make for a happy food coma and easy sleep.
DAY TWO: Up early and straight to the fitness center for 8am yoga lead by a lithe, seemingly ageless local woman. The secret to her success, she explains, is rising from a cross-legged, sitting position to standing at least twenty times a day. We all give it a go, grunts echoing across the outdoor pavilion, making it through just a handful before resorting to child’s pose. Así es la vida.
The afternoon is also active, with an ocean kayak followed by a picnic on Red Beach. My guide is apologetic as we pull into the bay. “Very crowded today,” he says, shaking his head. I survey the white sand, scattered with only a dozen or so tourists and locals. Crowded? “You should see New York,” I reply.
DAY THREE: I kick the day off with a bike ride, one of my favorite ways to take in a new place. An intriguing idiosyncrasy about Vieques is that it’s home to a large population of wild horses. Shorter and stockier than their contiguous U.S. counterparts, they’re sweet creatures and used to people, totally unfazed as I whip by on my bike. Some islanders do manage to tame them. On my way back to the hotel I ride by a local teenage boy on horseback, a crude rein crafted from frayed rope in one hand and a cell phone in the other.
As dusk settles over the island, I trade my bike for another kayak, this time from Abe’s Tours, and set off with a few others to explore the island’s main attraction: the bioluminescent bay at Puerto Mosquito. Our little group is led by Abe himself who looks the part of a salty sailor with seashells dangling from his long, dreadlocked hair, his head covered by a well-worn, red bandana. He spins a good yarn, too, keeping us entertained with tales from a life spent in the sun as we bump along a narrow, pot-hole-filled dirt road.
At last we arrive at the island’s bio bay, one of the brightest in the world, and we don’t paddle far before our oars begin to create glowing ripples as they break the water’s surface. In his Cruzan lilt, Abe explains the science behind the phenomenon, occasionally hitting the side of the kayak with his oar, which causes fish to scatter in front of us, their florescent wake like something out of Tron. “If only you could be here when it rains,” Abe says wistfully. “That’s the coolest.”
Minutes later, as if he’d summoned the clouds himself, the sky opens up and the rain pours down, each drop illuminating the surface of the bay as it hits the water. A million puddles of light exploding all around us. And then, just as quickly as it had started, the rain subsides and the stars reappear overhead, illuminating a group very wet people, struck silent by the awe and joy of the moment.