Friday, October 2, 2009



VIEQUES is less than 10 miles off the east coast of Puerto Rico and is an easy flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Pristine, secluded white-sand beaches and proclaiming the island to be the season's "undiscovered jewel." Vieques derives its name from the Taíno Indian word 'bieke' - for small island.

The timing of the attention is no real surprise. Vieques officially entered the tourist spotlight on May 1, 2003, when the Navy, the island's largest landowner, withdrew from its holdings and turned over control to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. This sudden power shift transformed nearly 80 percent of Vieques from a limited-access military enclave to the Caribbean's largest wildlife refuge.

"It used to be that if tourists found Vieques, they were actively pursuing it," says Sharon Grasso, a biologist and owner of Island Adventures, a local tour company. "With the departure of the Navy, we're an everyday word. It's pretty hard to keep it secret now."

Unlike its nearest Caribbean neighbors - the main island of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands of St. John and St. Croix - Vieques isn't packed with the high-rise hotels, chain restaurants or duty-free malls that often accompany large-scale tourist development. Instead, the local economy is dominated by small, locally owned businesses, including a handful of small hotels, a few guest houses and scattered restaurants, jeep rental companies and tour operations that serve the island's trickle of tourist traffic.

Under the watchful eye of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the beaches officially close at sunset, leaving the evenings free for beachcombers to explore the more civilized areas of Vieques.

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