About 7 miles (11km) east of the big island of Puerto Rico, Vieques (Bee-ay-kase) is an island about twice as large as New York's Manhattan, with about 10,000 inhabitants and some 40 palm-lined white-sand beaches.
From World War II until 2004, about two-thirds of the 21-mile-long (34km) island was controlled by U.S. military forces, both its western and eastern ends. In the west, there was a base and munitions storage facility. In the east, vast swaths of the wilderness and pasture land were leased for grazing to local cattle farmers, which created a buffer zone between the civilian population and the war games and bombing range farther out to the east.
Unlike the U.S. military, the Spanish conquistadores didn't think much of Vieques. They came here in the 16th century but didn't stay long, reporting that the island and neighboring bits of land held no gold and were, therefore, las islas inútiles (the useless islands). The name Vieques comes from the native Amerindian word bieques meaning "small island."
The Spaniards later changed their minds and founded the main town, Isabel Segunda, on the northern shore. Construction on the last Spanish fort built in the New World began here around 1843, during the reign of Queen Isabella II, for whom the town was named. The fort, never completed, is not of any special interest. The island's fishermen and farmers conduct much of their business here. The Punta Mula lighthouse, north of Isabel Segunda, provides panoramic views of the land and sea.
On the south coast, Esperanza, once a center for the island's sugar-cane industry and now a pretty little fishing village, lies near Sun Bay (Sombe) public beach. Sun Bay, a government-run, panoramic crescent of sand, is the beach to visit if you have only 1 day to spend on the island. It's a beautiful beach that tumbles endlessly along a graceful arc, blessed by palm trees and patches of scrub forest. The ruins of the Playa Grande sugar plantation, once the center of life in Vieques, lie on former Navy lands near the southwest coast. Playa Grande's former boulevard, once lined with stylish wooden mansions, continued to cut a swath through the dense dry tropical forest as a kind of civilized stronghold during the 6 decades of Navy occupation. Today you can visit the ruins, which have undergone some restoration work since the Navy left. Nearby Playa Grande beach is a long, palm lined, white sand beach, but the sea here can be rough and unpredictable, with killer rip tides.
With 40 beaches, all sorts of watersports adventures are possible. The island's varied terrain also offers plenty of land adventures. Kicking back continues to be the number-one pastime in Vieques, however.
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