I just returned from a trip to beautiful Vieques with my best friend. We're two straight guys in our late 30s who like outdoor activities and exploring. And since my friend is an organic farmer, we're into eating good local food of all price ranges and styles. I frankly found most of my research -- here, on Facebook and with a Rough Guide -- to be either wrong or hopelessly out of date. Here's a quick guide to newbies:
Vieques is gorgeous, undeveloped and has very little tourist infrastructure. This is wonderful from a holy-cow-these-views-are-incredible! perspective, but food, lodgings and getting around are a bit of a challenge. I definitely recommend a visit to this place if you like taking it easy, snorkeling, boating and don't need a lot to do from an entertainment perspective . And if want quiet. There's a lot of quiet here. Also, it helps if you like wild horses.
The only smart way to arrive is by air from San Juan. The ferry is unreliable and has no set schedule. We found this out the hard way and wasted a total of 5-6 hours traveling from SJ to Fajardo, waiting 3.5 hours for a very late ferry, and then taking another hour to get across the ocean. Also, there were almost no cabs to meet us at the terminal. It was a huge waste of time. On our return we took Air Flamenco for $65 one way. It was a jaw-dropping beautiful flight in a tiny plane. Took 25 minutes. Do it.
Once you arrive and drive around for a few days, you'll realize there is almost no one here. The economy is very depressed. There are two small towns -- Esperanza is on the beach and mostly for tourists (from PR and globally), Isabel is by the port and mostly for locals -- and a handful of restaurants. Most guest houses (and many large private homes) have "for sale" signs (Se Vende) and the few restaurants that are open for business are your only choices as a tourist, unless you feel like eating roadside bbq, which is probably delicious. Most of the recommended restaurants in my new guidebook were closed. As were many guest houses. Bring a novel and expect quiet except for Esperanza, which is full of serious drinkers and salsa-blasting pick up trucks. Everywhere else is basically empty. Including scores of gorgeous, small crescent-shaped beaches.
Food is a challenge since there are no farms on Vieques, only a few tiny backyard gardens for local greens. The most expensive tourist places are the best option as is the lovely Sol Food truck by the eastern preserve, but don't expect many vegetables. We found healthy eating to be a challenge, and we're really not that picky. We just want to stay trim and feel healthy. If you can manage to bring a few kilos of kale, you'll thank me.
For lodging, there are no hotels on Vieques except for the brand new and maximally anti-environmental W resort. The resort is absolutely beautiful if you like non-specific, cocoon-like hyper-luxury and sexy design, but you will gain no feeling of the island. My sense is that the staff wasn't local and the food was reportedly very expensive and not very good. If you need proper luxury at all times and price isn't an option, stay here. If you want to meet a few locals and like having non-corporate experiences, stay in any guest house.
Be warned: Esperanza is full of bars and Puerto Rican tourists and locals who only listen to salsa at deafening levels -- usually competing with each other. We became friends with a traveler staying in town who couldn't get to sleep until 3am every night due to partying. She did, however, learn to salsa.
We stayed at the Crow's Nest, a lovely guest house in the middle of the island, just off a main road. It was rustic and not as ship-shape as most American tourists would expect (mold spots on the ceilings, shabby construction, dirty windowsills), but we're glad we chose it. On our first morning we were greeted with a view of green forest foliage and clear sightlines to the ocean and Puerto Rico beyond. Gorgeous. The place is for sale so the "continental" breakfast was only processed white bread and some bargain brand cereals, but the coffee was tasty and the staff were very pleasant. I'd stay here again. We had the apartment with two large rooms, two bathrooms and a terrace with a view.
You have to rent a car. There are very few transportation options and there are no schedules. They really only rent jeeps since the best beaches are on pitted dirt roads that require you to drive about 5 mph and have a strong stomach. We never saw an ugly beach. Get a jeep.
As for gas, the ferry is so bad that one day the gas truck didn't arrive and we were low -- mostly because the bargain-basement place we rented from (it was the only place left with a car) only gave us half a tank to get started. We spent four hours the next morning waiting in line for gas with all the locals. Apparently Martiza's, one of the few professional car rental businesses, has their own gas reserves so I'd go with them if they have cars. Be sure to fill up your tank if you see the gas station is open. There are only two on the island and they're 100 yards apart.
Now that you've arrived, chosen a quiet guest house and have a jeep, go exploring to the many wonderful, small beaches and spend your days playing and snorkeling. The beaches are gigantic expanses of white sand like in the movies, they're mostly small coves with fairly narrow strips of sand fringing aqua blue waters. The water is warm and inviting. The best decision we made is to rent fins and snorkels and hunt for reefs where we could gape a brilliantly colored fish. It was a cheap activity, very active and a lot of fun. If I were on the island for longer I'd do some boating, but the options are fairly pricey. That said, there is literally nothing else to do on the island, so we would have gladly done it. There's no real surf and no "scene" outside of people walking beaches, reading books and doing a few water sports like kayaking.
One last word: always lock your car and never leave valuables on the beach, keep them in your vehicle. My friend constantly locked the truck each time we parked even though we were on some random dirt road in the middle of nowhere. I teased him that he was the city guy (remember, he's a farmer) and I'm the trusting local yokel (I live in Manhattan) but he just gave me a knowing look each time. Later that day I had my rental fins stolen when I took a walk to look at fiddler crabs.
Beyond that unfortunate incident, nothing wrong happened. We chatted with a few locals who were very nice, but they never really had much advice on where to go or eat, probably because there are so few options. This place has no gambling and really just no people, so it's great for families. Bring a few board games and you'll have the time of your life. Or if you're younger or don't have kids or whatever, bring some books and a good friend.
I'd come back. The reality is I'll probably explore Culebra on my next trip since Vieques is lovely but we really saw all of it, but who knows? I could easily spend a few days here, but not much longer than that. If I were to write another book or screenplay, this would be a romantic place to do it. No distractions.