Vieques: The Boom Is Over

I'M ABOUT 20 MILES off of Puerto Rico's east coast, lying on an unnamed and empty beach on the eastern end of the island of Vieques. After kayaking 45 minutes to get here, I decided to spend some quality time with my towel. A year ago, this would not have been possible.
When I lived on Vieques in 1998, the beach I'm lying on—along with two-thirds of the entire 21-by-six-mile island—was locked up behind a chain-link fence. In 1941, the U.S. Navy built bases on both ends of Vieques, relocated thousands of locals, and began using the eastern tip for bombing practice. When a stray bomb killed a civilian in 1999, the contentious issue of the Navy's presence flared into protests and civil disobedience.
Last May, the Navy relented and left. The fences came down and 17,100 acres of former Navy land were turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create a national wildlife refuge. We suggest you get yourself to Vieques now, before the calm after the munitions boom is replaced by the crowds of the commercial boom. A word of warning: Heed the signs indicating that unexploded ordnance may be in the area.
The best way to experience the island is to base yourself in one of its two towns—Isabel Segunda, on the north side, or Esperanza, to the south—or at one of two rustic lodges tucked back in the hills among the banana groves, Hix Island House ($175-$260 per loft; 787-741-2302, www.hixislandhouse.com) or La Finca Caribe (doubles, $80; 787-741-0495, www.lafinca.com). You'll want four-wheel drive, but don't be surprised if your rental's gas gauge doesn't work—just embrace Vieques's don't-sweat-the-details vibe and get on with experiencing these newly reopened spaces.
** The East End
There are two main attractions on the east end—Red Beach and Blue Beach—both of which can be accessed via the Garcia Gate, 2.5 miles northeast of Esperanza.
To get to Red Beach, drive 1.5 miles east of Garcia Gate until you see a turnoff to the right. A mile down the road, you'll see a peaceful one-mile-long cove with silky sand and gentle waves. Or if you prefer to ditch the car, guide Karl Husson, from La Dulce Vida, in Esperanza, can escort you there via a 2.5-mile muddy mountain-bike ride on singletrack that spits out onto Red Beach ($65 per person; 787-617-2453).
A mile past the Red Beach turnoff, the road ends at Blue Beach, a mile of sugar-white sand meeting turquoise ocean. Bonus: Three-acre Isla Chiva lies 200 yards out in the bay. Swim to its western side and you'll find a reef swarming with puffer fish and barracuda.
** The West End
Wilder than the beaches on the east end, the 1.5-mile Green Beach is accessible only through the Green Beach entrance, eight miles west of Isabel Segunda. Drive two miles along the paved road and bear right at the fork. Once it becomes dirt and bends south, all the turnoffs for the next mile will take you to Green Beach. To up the adventure ante, drag your rented sit-on-top into the swells and paddle south a quarter of a mile around a rocky spit to cruise over shallow coral-encrusted canyons swarming with yellowtail snapper. Follow the coast south until you find a two-story boulder sitting in the surf: At its base you'll see a set of sandy baths that fill up with ocean water. Pick up kayaks at Aquafrenzy, in Esperanza ($40 per day; 787-741-0913).
** Getting There
Fly from San Juan on Vieques Air Link ($69 one way; 787-741-8331). Rent a car from Steve's Car Rental in Isabel Segunda ($45 per day; 787-741-8135).

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