Measuring 21 miles long by 5 miles wide, Vieques is substantially bigger than Culebra and distinctly different in ambience. Though still a million metaphorical miles from the bright lights of the Puerto Rican mainland, the larger population here has meant more luxurious accommodations, hipper restaurants and – unfortunately – more petty thievery (particularly on the beaches).
Vieques was where Puerto Rico’s most prickly political saga was played out in the public eye. For over five decades the US Navy used more than two-thirds of the island for military target practice. The war games ended in 1999 after a misplaced 500lb bomb caused the death of a Puerto Rican civilian and set in motion a protest campaign that led to the navy’s long-awaited withdrawal.
Since the official military withdrawal in 2003, Vieques has regularly been touted as the Caribbean’s next ‘big thing,’ with a pristine coastline ripe for the developer’s bulldozer. Fortunately, environmental authorities swept in quickly after the handover and promptly declared all of the former military land (70% of the island’s total area) a US Fish & Wildlife Refuge. The measure has meant that the bulk of the island remains virgin territory to be explored and enjoyed by all.
Development elsewhere has been slow and low-key. Although many guesthouses and restaurants have expanded their business since 2003, much of this growth has centered on ecoventures and small but luxurious boutique hotels. The island has no golf, gambling or Las Vegas–style glitz, and the only real resort is the newly opened and much-hyped W hotel, built on the site of another former resort complex. The pace or scale of development seems unlikely to change in the short term. Vieques’ residents – many of whom are US expats – are fiercely protective of their Caribbean nirvana.
The name ‘Vieques’ is a 17th-century Spanish colonial corruption of the Taíno name bieque (small island). The Spaniards also called Vieques and Culebra las islas inútiles (the useless islands) because they lacked gold and silver. But over the centuries, residents and visitors who share affection for this place have come to call Vieques ‘Isla Nena,’ a term of endearment meaning ‘Little Girl Island.’
These days Vieques is synonymous with its gorgeous beaches, semiwild horses and unforgettable bioluminescent bay.