No wonder Hunter S. Thompson adored this place – this is gonzo living. Wild horses, dogs, and roosters rule. Pelicans circle overhead. Colorful street food is sold from rickety roadside containers, and hibiscus flowers grow to the size of dinner plates. A sea turtle paddles by when we arrive which we consider a sure sign of good luck and welcome.
Our first glimpse of the Caribbean is profound. The sea goes from greeny blue to bluey green with a solid line of deep turquoise at the horizon. The shallow tide laps gently at the shore leaving the beach soft and clean. Tiny sand-colored crabs wear their eyes on top of their heads like Ricky Martin wears his sunglasses. Breakfast of Champions, Vieques-style, starts in the airport parking lot with papaya-rum punch and a shot of chicau (pronounced chee-chow) whose anise flavor riffs on Sambuca with hints of bathtub gin. Our potent morning cocktails are as friendly and uncensored as Ricki, our server. Her partner Lyman stands behind the bar grinning like a fox. Ricki says Lyman honed his technique in St. Thomas or was it Paris or maybe San Francisco which we discuss in great depth with a lot of early morning vigor. When we pile back into Bill’s white beater with cups of rum punch we’re ready to begin a fine day of sightseeing and tales of love, honor and tragedy from before any of us were married or even house-trained.
We keep the magic going at the farmer’s market where we sample savory cheese scones from Bayonda’s bakery. We grab some tropical blooms from Lalita, the flower queen of Vieques, which brighten the boot of Bill’s island beater. Lali also gives us prickly island fruits for a special blender drink. The fruit is ugly – really kind of forbidding – but we’re already thinking about the rum.
Today’s conch fritters are deep fried balls of chewy sea heaven with garlic aoli. “Lechon,” the island’s slow-roasted pork, is tender and falling-off-the-bone succulent. We picked up our pre-ordered lechon at 7:00 a.m. in a warm, heavy foil-wrapped packet. Salads are sort of a bore, okay, but island fruit is a sweet relief and always interesting. We begin planning the night’s meal at midday and decide on street-roasted chicken, with legendary rice and beans from Shaunaa’s. We are determined to avoid Puerto Rico’s ubiquitous “mofongo,” a claggy yucca mash. Try the roadside ceviche, though, sold in plastic cups. Delicious, muy bien. Wash it all down with Medallo beer.
Eat, drink, nap, repeat.
Roosters rule the island and appear in the streets and in your ears and on the walls of Siddhia Hutchinson’s gallery in town. (Those are Siddhia’s roosters at the top.) At Gallery Galleon, Pablo Neruda’s poems are reimagined by artist Richard Giglio as stunning poem-paintings. “May whatever breaks be reconstructed by the sea with the long labor of its tides.” We visit Becki’s friend Min at her beautiful island home, and it starts to dawn on me that a person can have a pretty refined life in this eclectic tropical paradise. We especially love the pool with its ironwork ceiling open like a basket to the sky. Her bed painted with calla lilies and draped in mosquito netting isn’t bad, either. If and when when I grow up, I want to be just like Min.
The Wild Isle
Bill’s natural curiosity and joie de vivre make him an outstanding tourguide. Our rambles include a crumbling sugar plantation with rusty cauldrons, antique brick and stonework, a jungle hike through lush trees with giant termite’s nests the size of Volkswagons, and best of all, a tangled woodland trek where we see a sensitive wild fern that curls like a ticklish child at the touch of a finger. All this local color is followed by a posh lunch at the W Resort (Bill loves contrast), where I have an outstanding octopus salad. The outdoor dining room is posh and breezy. Nice. It’s Dave’s birthday and our celebration includes many Medallo beers and a game of beach bocce. Bill lets Dave win – it’s his birthday. The word “bromance” leaps to mind as I watch the two of them bobbing amiably in the turquoise surf. A hairy coconut sits next to me and bit of teal fishnet hangs across the view from my “bohio,” or beach shack. Becki finds a spiky little sea urchin and I feel like a happy 21st century Robinson Crusoe.
A Touch of Spice
The mysterious blender drink from Lali’s prickly soursop fruit is cool, milky, and slightly sour. Bill adds vanilla, cinnamon and of course, rum, which makes it more interesting. We sip and admire the graveyard across the way with its jumble of white monuments like sugar crosses in the sun. Beyond, it’s sparkling Caribbean blue all the way to San Juan. With exquisite views and a relaxed, bohemian vibe, the little island of Vieques is perhaps one of the best kept secrets in the Caribbean. We’ll be back. •