Picture this: From 1948 to 1999, the U.S. Department of Navy bombed the hell out of its own country. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration — but here’s what happened. From the early 1940’s, the U.S. military used a good part of Vieques, Puerto Rico, a small island off the coast, as a training ground for ship-to-shore gunfire, air-to-ground bombing, and Marine amphibious landings. Up until April 1999, about 120 days a year were devoted to integrated land-sea-air live-fire exercises (i.e., exercises with explosive ammunition) by U.S. aircraft carrier and amphibious-ready groups preparing to deploy overseas. Although residents had strongly objected for decades, it was not until a Puerto Rican security guard was accidentally killed by an errant bomb in April 1999 that the opposition began in earnest, garnering support from the mainland, including political leaders and celebrities from around the world. As of May 2003 all military operations were suspended, leaving the island isolated and decimated, but ironically with much of its undeveloped natural beauty outside the military compounds intact. And therein lies the rub. Now picture this: From bomb site to beach resort — and therein lies the story. While the Navy has been busy these past 10 years cleaning up the parts of the island it destroyed, the rest of the island is gearing up — albeit slowly — to join the rest of Puerto Rico as a Caribbean tourist destination. . The massive clean-up involves getting rid of unexploded ordinances, metal and scrap debris and chemicals in the soil. As one safety notice advises: If you didn’t drop it, don’t pick it up! Not your usual anti-litter admonition.

Okay, the island still has no traffic light, no movie theater, no American fast-food restaurants (thankfully), and no nightlife. Still, there are now seven more car rental companies than during the Navy occupation (when there was one) as well as a couple of dive operations, horseback riding stables, sailing options and several tour companies. And did I mention a W Hotel? That’s got to mean something. But although the 157-room property is a tourist magnet, the next closest property in size is the 30-room Brik Hotel, which hasn’t yet opened. The rest are guesthouses. The island is not exactly leap-frogging into tourism territory.
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But Vieques is not without its unique attractions, two of which are its wild horses, descendants of those brought over by the Spaniard Conquistadors in the 1500’s, and its Bioluminescent Bay, the most glowing — literally — of the five bio-bays that exist in the world. Caveats to come.
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First, the horses. They have the run of the island and the hour’s drive from one end of the island to the other can take a lot longer depending upon how many you run into — using the term loosely… We even watched a pool boy at the upscale W chase a horse apparently to deter him from taking a dip in the resort pool. We followed close behind only to find him snacking on the property lawn, posing long enough for us to take his picture. As I turned around, I almost bumped into a sign reading, “Caution: Wild Horses Poop.” And indeed, he had.
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And, oh yes, the bio-bay. First some background. The unfortunately aptly named Mosquito Bay, considered the brightest bio-bay in the world, is home to half-plant, half-animal organisms, at a rate of 720,000 per gallon, that emit flashes of bluish/green light when agitated, preferably under a moonless night when the effect is most dramatic. And dramatic it is — as the entire bay explodes beneath you in a fireworks display you’ve never seen before. But not for us. Because of some ill-will of nature, blamed at the time on excessive rain and cool temperatures (for Puerto Rico), the bay was mostly dark.

Still, just the stars alone were worth the trip — almost. With two people to a kayak, the darkness all pervasive, the quiet almost surreal, I felt like I was floating in a private, other-worldly lagoon, hampered only by the knowledge I was experiencing only the slightest remnants of what should have been an amazing Technicolor adventure. Putting my hand in the water released a flurry of gold sparkles, reminiscent of an abundance of Fourth of July sparklers beneath my fingers, as though a vast array of shooting stars from the sky fell into the water — and this was just a fraction of what it should be when a blue-green haze dominates the water and the fish swimming around trigger a reaction that brings the entire bay alive. My disappointment at having missed such a spectacle made me feel like a little kid deprived of a toy I desperately wanted.
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I came to Vieques with a preconceived notion that because of all the destruction that occurred, the resurrection of Vieques as a tourist destination would revolve around conservation, sustainability and decreased environmental impact. Not so — or at least, not yet. Ironically, although tourism has indeed increased, there does not seem to be any island-wide plan to deal with it in any coordinated “green” fashion.

There are less than 10,000 people on Vieques — and seemingly, everyone knows everyone else. Locals have a fierce pride in their island and a universal disappointment that so much has been planned or promised and so little has been done. You can see the wistfulness in their eyes as they talk about what the island so desperately needs in terms of education, health care provisions, infrastructure, environmental protections and tourism services.

And in truth, they are also in conflict over how much development they want. More and more foreigners — which is how they allude to Americans, despite their shared U.S. citizenship — are invading their quiet, undeveloped, pristine locale with its sparkling, isolated beaches opening restaurants and other tourist establishments, and they are unsure what the future will bring –- and whether it will be positive. Vieques may or may not be on the verge of a tourist boom, and it’s questionable exactly whom all this new development will actually benefit.
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Everyone on Vieques has a story and everyone who comes there knows someone else who either had their own story or knows someone else who did. You don’t come to Vieques by accident. With Caribbean island tourism not yet a reality, the question most often asked by one visitor to the next? “What brought YOU to Vieques?” And the answer is almost always a friend, a relative, a colleague; it is never advertising or travel agent. And while tour companies, diving operations and sailing options have doubled in the last five years, infrastructure has lagged. Although many of the main roads are easily traversable, there are some leading to recommended beaches that boast car-eating potholes ahead and jeep-attacking tree branches on all sides, and are so bumpy that none of my limbs and internal organs ended up in the same place they started out in. At some point this will change.

Vieques is a visual delight, a portrait in green and blue — and many shades of brown if you count the horses — and you have to — they’re everywhere. It is undisturbed by development — but that will not always be so. Go now while it is still unspoiled (by anything other than the Navy…) and before it becomes just another over-developed Caribbean island, possibly losing the unique character that is so very much Viequesian. For information about visiting Vieques, call (800) 866-7827 or log onto seepuertorico.com/en/destinations/culebra-and-vieques.

Puerto Rico claims to be the culinary capitol of the Caribbean, and after a short visit there I concur. I started my culinary investigation at their SABOREA food festival, where a tented carnival atmosphere is the setting for sampling a number of gourmet treats, and beverages. The festival location next to the ocean offered cooking demonstration as well as small tented venues with a variety of offerings. The alcoholic beverage area was a popular venue where samplings of various brands could be consumed. For more detailed information check out the SABOREA web site for next year’s tickets and dates.

I had a Chefs private tasting dinner at the Pikayo Restaurant at the Condado Plaza Hotel, prepared by Chef Willo Bennet. The elegant small plate preparations provided a plethora of taste explosions. My favorite was the Corned Beef Brisket Stew and Coconut Milk Polenta.
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The Condado Plaza where I stayed provides two towers of rooms; one facing the ocean and one a lagoon. While I thought I wanted the ocean view – I found my sunrise side lagoon quite enjoyable were I could view the water sport activities from my balcony and the skyline of San Juan. The hotel’s location away from Old San Juan was enjoyable, but if you want a more intimate lodging you might try the Bed and Breakfast, Casa Sole. A newly renovated home, where each room is its own character and the food offered is freshly prepared upon ordering. The atmosphere is charming, adding to the appeal of its location in Old San Juan proper.
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The recommended eating venues are so numerous, space here does not do them justice, but I must list them for your San Juan culinary explorations. Café Cialitors is a gourmet coffee lovers delight – where Joaquin Pastor takes great pride in his carefully hand selected beans which he brews. He might take you in the back room for a more in depth explanation of the coffee process.

Lunch at the Hotel El Convento, again offers gourmet meals in an old world renovated convent. There I got a very special Mojito Recipe from Bar Expert, Luis Flores, who also created a most delectable Pina Colada. They also offer Mango, Guava or Passion Fruit Rum Mojitos. Their lunch of Red Snapper and a Lime Beurre Blanc along with a beverage is a must respite while touring Old Town.

Quesos Casa Lila Rose, upon appointment, can help you make your own artisan cheese, with flavors you choose. And while wine always goes well with cheese, you should not miss a tour of the Barcardi Distillery, where I learned in a VIP tasting the process of various Barcardi Rums. The regular tour includes two rum drinks before your tour of the visitor center to learn the history of the Barcardi family business.

My lunch at La Casita Blanca in Santurce offered authentic Puerto Rican food in an intimate home-like atmosphere where fresh tortillas are made before your table. My dinner was at Santaella in La Placita de Santurce which is an upscale, popular restaurant offering flavors with global influences. I had an acceptable Filet Mignon, with exquisite Fried Plantains, Chocolate Sponge Cake and a Citrus Martini that needed assistance. With one wall encasing a green jungle garden, it’s a dining venue you should include.
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Breakfast came with a sweet tooth at the Casa Cortes Choco Bar where chocolate pervades most all of its offerings, from pastries, to hot chocolate varieties. Casa Cortes is another example of a family owned tradition. The famed chocolate is now being offered in gourmet tins (Forteza), and accompanies the art gallery on the upper floors promotion of indigenous artists, in a space for community events. I am impressed with Casa Cortes’ many entrepreneurial ventures.
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My favorite dinner venue was the Olive Restaurant in the Olive boutique Hotel, where the private roof top lounge offers surprising elegance with an old world Mediterranean ambience. Out of five courses my favorite was Oliva’s Signature Crème Brule. Another outdoor balcony dining can be enjoyed at Chef Trevino’s Budatai restaurant a short distance from the Condado Hotel. The unprepossessing entrance disguises the elegant upscale décor with an efficient kitchen team, and their unison good natured chant of “Working!”

You can alleviate your guilt of over eating by touring the El Yunque Rainforest, via the Rico Sun Tour Company, which was my expert host for many of my epicurean excursions all over San Juan proper and its suburbs. I’ve offered my recommendations here and so now it’s your turn to explore in person or via cyberspace, Puerto Rico’s culinary delights.

Explore: www.thecondadoplaza.hilton.com, www.fincacialitos.com, www.loizadark.com, www.casacortespr.com, www.wilobenet.com, www.elconvento.com , www.ootwrestaurants.com , www.santaellapr.com, http://saboreapuertorico.com/, http://rstpuertorico.com/tourspuertorico/home.php, www.casabacardi.org/

Day 1: We’re off!

Our family of six has left home for our final vacation before our oldest graduates and heads off on his own. Tomorrow, we will embark on a seven night Carnival cruise through the southern Caribbean. We’re especially excited for this particular cruise because, instead of just the standard five stops, this week-long cruise ports at six different islands. As enjoyable as a cruise ship can be, the real fun for us comes from exploring islands and getting a bit more “cultured”.

So on day one, we’re visiting the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. We flew into San Juan a night early, to be sure we wouldn’t miss the ship. The cruise port and the international airport are only 15 kilometers apart, so we split the difference and stayed in Isla Verde, almost exactly halfway between the two. From the airport, we jumped in a taxi which comfortably fit all of us, and headed to a condominium we had rented through vrbo.com. The trip was quick (6 kilometers), the conversation fleeting (the driver knew little English, and I know less Spanish), and the fare reasonable (being regulated and standard across the city.)

Since it was still early afternoon, we ventured out on a walk, looking for a place to eat lunch. Isla Verde is close to the water, so the area attracts both tourists and seasonal residents alike and so in turn hosts many restaurants, hotels, stores, and a vibrant nightlife. After enjoying just a few blocks of leg stretching and sunshine, we stumbled upon a treasure. Gorda’s Baja Taco, located right on Avenida Isla Verde, beckoned us with its brightly colored storefront and invitation to try its fish tacos. Ivan, the restaurant’s sole proprietor (and cook, and cleaner, and accountant), told me he had eaten at a similar establishment while visiting Arizona and fell in love with it. So he came back home to his native Puerto Rico and opened up Gorda’s, with the same flavors and dishes he experienced, but with his own Puerto Rican flair.

According to my oldest daughter McKell, it was “like a food truck in a building!” ‘Cause we love food trucks. Even her sister Kaylee proclaimed, “I don’t even like tacos, but I love these!” After looking through the menu of burritos, quesadillas, nachos and tacos, we took up the invitation to try the fish tacos and ordered those and a few other kinds.

“This is the best taco I have ever had!” When my wife compliments the food that profoundly, it means something. Truthfully, the tacos really were good. My favorite was the chicken, which meant it had to be absolutely delicious, as good as the fish taco was, as promised. After lunch, we found the nearby beach and dipped our toes in the water for a few minutes, and then hailed a taxi and spent the rest of the afternoon in Viejo San Juan, the historic center and oldest settlement of the island. We spent some time enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of the old city, but it’s always the old architecture and history that calls to me.

So I dragged the family (who were thankfully willing to go) to Castillo de San Cristobal, the largest fort built by the Spanish to guard the old settlement of San Juan. About a third of it has been torn down to make room for the growing city, but it still looms over the coastline. We didn’t pay the six dollars to wander its quarters and tunnels, since the old walls and guerites, or sentry boxes, that looked out into the ocean were free and open to the public. The stone walls and towers offered a fun place to climb, but I have to admit, since they tower high above the shoreline, and there are many spots with no barriers, I got nervous watching my kids peek over the edges. But I did it too. It’s hard to resist! But we had to be careful.
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Day 2

We’re on the island of St. Thomas. The ship has been fun, and we like all the eating, but we were excited to disembark in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas’s capital. We had signed up for a scheduled excursion with Castaway Girl for a half-day catamaran and snorkeling adventure, so we immediately found the tour guide and made our way to the boat, harbored just a short distance from the cruise ship.

Our catamaran, despite its size that could easily fit fifty, was fast. Simply under the power of the wind, we were still faster than many of the other boats leaving the harbor. The smooth ride over the water was thrilling, the brisk wind cool, and the sight of the St. Thomas coast speeding by constantly reminded me I wasn’t in Utah anymore! The captain sailed us over to Buck Island, a small uninhabited piece of land just off the coast. Buck Island claims the second-oldest lighthouse in the Caribbean, but the real draw was the potential of seeing turtles in its small bay and the pieces of shipwreck lying under the water just off its protected beach. We stopped a few meters from the island, dropped anchor, and proceeded to jump off the catamaran’s deck, which sat about 6 feet above the water. Even though there is a ladder we could have climbed, the jump was much more fun.
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We followed the snorkeling guide to a spot where we could see the turtles, fish, and other wildlife in the ocean. The water was clear enough to see the bottom and get a good view of the vegetation and rock formations. My family loves to experience new things, so when the tour guide dived down, brought up a Brittle Sea Star, and asked, “Who wants to put this in your mouth?”, McKell was the first one to yell out, “I do!” This turned out to be one of the greatest pictures of the vacation. The starfish crawled out of her mouth on the first attempt, but she got it to stay for the picture on the second try. The starfish wasn’t harmed, and the guide eventually put it back on the ocean floor, but what a great experience I’m not sure we would have had anywhere else. This journey just keeps getting better.

Day 3

It’s our day at sea. We enjoy the all-inclusive food and drinks, the professional shows, the games and fun on board, and not having to unpack more than once this whole trip. Enough said.

Day 4

We’re in Barbados. I had read the island is known for its luscious pink and white sand beaches. That reputation is well deserved. This island easily had the best beach on our trip. We had looked at a few maps and done some research, and thought we could just walk off the ship and over to a beach. It would have been a 25 minute walk, which didn’t seem too far away. We spurned all the taxi drivers offering us rides, until we finally gave in just outside the port entrance. A driver offered to take us to a much better beach for only $3 a person, rather than the double and triple amounts that others were charging. We climbed in his van and rode off through Bridgetown, ending up at a beach in Carlisle Bay you wouldn’t realize was there from the street unless you knew where to go. We rented a beach lounge chair and umbrella from the local vendors, but I ended up not using it much. The beach was a gorgeous white, cool to the touch, and the softest sand I have ever stepped in. Even throughout the day, with the sun beating down on the beach, the sand stayed cool. I didn’t want to stop standing in it! Just running my toes through the soft sand is an experience I still haven’t forgotten. No other beach, even the ones with nicer boardwalks and stores, could stand up to this one. Ah, that sand!
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Day 5

Another island, another beach, another glorious day in the sun. We are here on the absolutely gorgeous St. Lucia. Out of the all the islands, this one is the most beautiful. There is so much green covering rolling hills and high mountains. Based on what we thought was good research, we walked out of the ship, by the small stores, and past the drivers asking for $40 or more a person to take us to one of the many beaches on the island. We finally stopped and asked one to take us to the much closer Choc Beach. At only $5 a person, we thought it was a great deal.

Once again, just as in Barbados, listening to the experience and guidance of the locals turned out to be our best choice. The taxi driver, willing to take us wherever we wanted to go, strongly expressed how unappealing Choc Beach is. No security, no services. Frankly, it was the no security that sold me, wanting to watch out for my family, but it wasn’t until he drove us past the beach, a small stretch of dark sand and broken trees with no one on it, that we decided to take his advice. Of course, the fact that he only raised his fare by $10 for our entire family helped sway us, so off we scuttled to Reduit Beach in Rodney Bay, a beautiful area built up for tourism and with a good view of Pigeon Island and its small ruin. The beach was nice and renting another chair and umbrella made it comfortable, but unfortunately the constant hawking of wares by the locals got to be a bit annoying. Every one of them was kind and gracious, but when you can’t rest for 5 minutes without being offered aloe vera straight from the plant, bowls and hats made of banana leaves, an assortment of jewelry and shells and scarves, or what admittedly looked like a very tasty assortment of chickpeas, potato, and meats wrapped in flatbread, it was difficult to relax. We still enjoyed our time and purchased a couple items (the banana leaf bowl still sits on our counter at home), rented a kayak for a ride out in the bay, and took a stroll down the beach, before our time was up and we were heading back to the ship.

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Day 6

St. Kitts was our day off from the beaches and water. The ship docked right at the capital city of Basseterre, so we spent our day wandering the town. It is small, only about four blocks square, but has well-restored buildings and local flair that drew us in. We headed first for St. George’s Anglican Church and were rewarded with a wide open and welcoming structure. We climbed the restored bell tower, up some very steep stairs. Above the large cast iron bell, the hatch was open to the roof, so we promptly climbed up and out. I am sure it isn’t the safest place on the island because of its height and has no barriers to stop us from tumbling over the side, but it was refreshing to be in the cool wind and take a panoramic view of the city, the harbor, and the surrounding island.
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After the steep descent, we wandered the church grounds and cemetery, and then made our way a couple blocks further to the Basseterre Co-Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. This Catholic church seemed much newer, and still provided a calm, peaceful visit, but it didn’t quite hold the history and feel as the other church. However, it gave us an opportunity to see the everyday life of St. Kitts a little bit closer. Situated directly behind the church is a school. The students were out for lunch, and we said hello to some, who were dressed very nicely in matching school uniforms and rushing off to buy local fare from either the street vendors or the grocery store, or just spending time in the neighboring Independence Square, a one-block park that historically was the site of the slave market.

We followed the students, Trina and I laughing at our kids (and my) reaction to the large fish heads being sold on the street, and found ourselves in front of the grocery store. We were a bit tired and thirsty from our walk, so we jumped at the chance to buy some “local cuisine” in the shape of juice boxes. We chose the most unique we could find, sampling currant berry juice and peanut butter drinks. It wasn’t the cuisine we’d been eating on the cruise ship, but it was just as refreshing. Day 7 It’s our final port, St. Maarten (for the Dutch side) or St. Martin (for the French side). We wanted to get to Maho Beach on the Dutch side of the island, the place made infamous by so many youtube videos and travel shows we’d seen, showing off how close to the beach the planes have to land on the short 7500 foot runway.

We found our way to the beach by way of a bus. It takes a little longer than a taxi, but at $2 a person, it was much less expensive. The taxis and busses look the same, but we figured out which one to take by looking at the license plates, which prominently say either Bus or Taxi on them. We made it to Maho Beach after a 20-30 minute ride, and promptly put down our bags and set up our towels. Even with all the warning signs of possible jet blasts, we didn’t think too much of finding a spot right in the path of the landing planes, since we wanted to get the best pictures and videos possible. Planes frequently came in to land, some small, some larger, and we enjoyed every one, feeling so close to each plane it seemed like we could reach up and touch it. None gave us any trouble, although the noise of the larger ones required us to cover our ears. Once in a while, a smaller departing plane would back itself up close to the fence bordering the beach before taking off, but they didn’t cause much alarm. A couple who had arrived earlier in the day said they experienced one “that was interesting”, but gave no reason to move from the beach.

And then it happened. We were so excited to see the largest plane yet back up closer to the fence than any other we’d seen. We jumped up, with our phones and cameras at the ready, standing on the beach close to the fence, excited to see what this one was going to do. Then it revved up its engines.

I haven’t ever stood in front of a sandblaster, but now I know exactly how it would feel. The propulsion from the jet engines was so strong, and lasted for so long before the plane actually took off, that I couldn’t think of anything but finding a way to block myself from the torture. I couldn’t even come to enough presence of mind to think of walking sideways out of the blast zone. There I stood, trying to wrap a towel around me to block the barrage of tiny bullets in the form of blowing sand. People were running and screaming, and I suddenly realized towels and bags and hat and glasses were flying by us into the ocean. We all jumped into the water to save what we could, all while sand kept blasting into our skin, our ears, our hair. Finally, it ended. The few seconds it lasted seemed to have gone on for minutes, but I was finally able to lift my eyes and look around. I don’t think anyone, at least anyone dumb enough to sit in a blast zone, realized what it was going to be like. Least of all me and my dear family. We were covered in sand, but with only the loss of my sunglasses, we fared well. It was an experience I would never, ever recommend, but it was one we will remember the rest of our lives. Day 8

Then it was all over. Cruising is a fantastic way to visit so many different locations on one trip, while enjoying the ease of prepared meals and the same room every night. It’s been one of our kids favorite vacations so far, but I think and hope we’ll create many more memories for them. But we’d all do it again tomorrow if we could.