Zagat just named Vieques one of the world’s top food destinations. Situated 10 miles southeast of the Puerto Rican mainland, Vieques is Puerto Rico’s little sister – a largely undeveloped place with no traffic lights, a complex and fascinating history, some of the Caribbean’s most spectacular beaches, and a food scene that would make Anthony Bourdain wet his pants. (See Big Papa’s roast pig with Creole spices below.)
We’ve been guests of the island three times over the past 5 years, and were amazed during a recent visit to see how the local food scene is blossoming in response to the steady increase in tourism. (The W opened a hotel here two years ago, on coastal property next to what the locals call Gringo Beach.) There are only ten thousand people living here, and most of them are employed by the island itself, through a conservation project headed by the US Navy.
Claimed by Spain shortly after Columbus’ 1492 voyage, the island was also an object of conquest for the French, English, Danish, and Scots. During WWII, the US designated Vieques a naval reserve, with plans to harbour the British fleet there had England fallen to the Third Reich. But for three centuries the island was also a lawless outpost, and somehow Vieques retains the indomitable spirit of the swaggering pirate. The people of Vieques pushed the US Navy out for good in 2003, and the island is returning once again to its naturally rugged state.
There is fierce pride in the island’s idiosyncrasies: its feral horses and weekly cockfights, a bio-luminescent bay, and enough archaeology to qualify the entire island as a museum. (The ruins of the 19th century sugar refinery and the abandoned military bunkers will throw you into a dramatically ‘LOST’ frame of mind.)
Cooking on the island, it follows, is also flavoured by a delicious sense of discovery and adventure. Our favourite place to forage is ‘The Vegetable Truck’ – an enormous refrigerated roadside trailer full of some of the things you came for, and lots more that you didn’t. We found limes the size of grapefruits one evening. They also sell tires and car batteries, and I think lottery tickets. Shopping for dinner is huge fun, because so you always arrive home with a real wild card. There’s also a little vegetable market that goes up a couple of times a week. Here there are things imported for the island’s expats – shitakes, baby greens, basil, along with local things we just couldn’t put our finger on – dried gooseberries? Baby jicama?
Thursday mornings, Big Papa roasts a pig in the island’s northern town, on a main road that’s also dotted with lunch counters and bakeries that seem glamorously stranded in the 1950s. On the South shore, there’s a strip of low-key, bar-and-grill-type shacks that serve barefoot food with tropical hospitality. On your way to the beach, you’ll find someone, in some beatific little truck, that’s got your lunch fixed right. There are also a small handful of fine restaurants on the island whose sophistication and creativity suggest that Vieques may soon produce a celebrity chef, or constellate 3 Michelin stars.
We hear the W on Vieques makes a terrific gin and tonic (for $15 USD), and that the locals all took gleeful advantage of the hotel’s Thanksgiving misprint: $80 for a 12-person turkey dinner, delivered anywhere. (It was supposed to read $180.) We prefer to mix fresh piña coladas and pick limes off the tree at Cacimar House, where there’s also a kitchen equipped to turn the day’s discoveries into dinner, and a pool for midnight dips to soothe our sunburns.
As the sun sets over a nearby hill, Venus and Jupiter appear on cue for cocktails. The cicadas and frogs provide perfect dinner music, and every morning is greeted by a symphonic competition of roosters and dogs. A luxuriously wild place, Vieques. Just the way we like it.