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VIEQUES, Puerto Rico -- I knew I was on to something when even close friends were reluctant to share Vieques, a slip of an island seven miles off the east coast of Puerto Rico that lacks high-rise resorts, casinos and cruise-ship passengers.

On Vieques, a short hop by prop plane from San Juan or an hour's ferry ride from Fajardo, paso fino (fine-gait) horses run wild, cattle graze on fertile hillsides, and only a few gringos, white egrets and sandpipers populate its mile-long beaches and mangrove lagoons.

Just the place to watch a magenta sunset from a villa fragrant with jasmine and frangipani, to let a chorus of coqi (tree toads) sing me to sleep. I didn't want much; serenity would do.

Manuel Portela, my pilot on a 25-minute flight from Isla Grande Airport, briefed me on the island's history and attractions, most of which are natural.

Mosquito Bay, on the island's south shore, for example, is one of the few remaining bioluminescent bays in the world. Its narrow entrance to the sea creates a delicate balance of fresh water and sea water favored by micro-organisms called dinoflagellates. Dinoflagellates release energy in a burst of light when they are disturbed by any movement.

Hundreds of other species of flora and fauna are protected here also; the U.S. Navy owns two-thirds of Vieques and discourages commercial development. Local historian Elizabeth Langhorne notes: "The land area exposed to live ordnance, weapons testing, troop training and the storage of ammo became virtually a wildlife reserve. Turtles, birds, fish and such (seem to be) less sensitive to shelling than they (are) to the tourist development that afflicts other Caribbean islands."

The Navy stores its ammunition on the western third of Vieques and runs a training base on the eastern side. Residents who live in between protest Navy maneuvers and weapons-testing, but they also benefit from reforestation and road building. The VEDC (Vieques Economic Development Corp.) uses Defense Department money to reduce the island's 50 percent unemployment rate.

No signs of fighter planes or artillery blasts disturbed my taxi (termed a publico) climb up the lush hills between Isabel Segunda Airport and the seaside town of Esperanza. Before the Navy bought 21,000 acres in 1941, sugar plantations boomed here. Now small farms with chickens and cattle dot the landscape. On the highway, you're more likely to be run over by a herd of goats than by a tour bus.

Perhaps 40 other Americans had come to soak up sun and guava juice on Esperanza's narrow "strip" when I arrived. Janet and Harry Washburn, owners of the Trade Winds Guesthouse, were the first of many expatriates I met. New Englanders gone native, the Washburns showed me a variety of rooms before I settled on a small apartment with queen-size bed, shower, fridge and air-conditioning for $60 a night. Their rates for rooms of varying size ranged from $50 to $120 a night.

"We've never needed to advertise," said Janet Washburn. "Our publicity is word-of-mouth."

I signed up with Gil and Dave Jones' Solimar Divers for a kayak tour of the famous "bio" bay; we left that first day at 6 p.m. The night was clear with a crescent moon, providing perfect viewing conditions as we slid into our plastic kayaks and paddled into the darkness.

Tiny diamonds illuminated the water beneath our boats with a blue-green radiance. Anything that touched the water glowed. I made a fist and opened it in the water; sparks flashed from my fingertips.

Though magnificent beaches are within walking distance of the Trade Winds, a car is useful for visiting Navy-owned beaches, Mount Pirata, the bird sanctuary at Playa Grande or Isabel Segunda, the island's largest town. With characteristic imagination, the Navy named its beaches Red, Blue and Green. All are accessible with a day pass. They are gorgeous and virtually empty.

Since I was without a car, I walked about two miles to Sun Bay, where municipal authorities maintain picnic tables, a bath house, campground and parking lot. Even at midday just four swimmers occupied the crescent-shaped beach shaded by coconut palms and almond trees.

At the eastern end of Sun Bay is a trail through mangrove forest to Media Luna (Half Moon) and Navio beaches; the latter had more surf, making for more exciting swimming.

An island landmark is the Casa del Frances Inn, a turn-of-the-century plantation house owned by Vieques' most colorful expatriate, Irving Greenblatt. Greenblatt was about to sell his Boston-based business and retire in 1979 when, as he put it, "a friend called and solved my mid-life crisis. "You've got to buy this seedy hotel I'm staying at,' she insisted. I couldn't even find Vieques on a map."

The Casa is still seedy -- tiles are cracked, birds nest in light fixtures, sheets don't match -- but deliberately so. And anyone who has ever eaten fresh grouper on the veranda while listening to Irvingisms ("It has been my experience that guests who have no vices are quite boring.") rarely complains.

If they do complain, they run the risk of being blackballed. "Currently, the list of people who can't come back totals about 180," cracked Greenblatt.

Aside from his wisecracks, the most striking thing about his domain is its atmosphere, half Somerset Maugham, half Tennessee Williams. A barely tamed jungle crawls up a two-story lobby atrium. Dinner is served on a white-columned veranda that overlooks a large pool, and beyond it -- in a thicket of mango, coconut and banana trees -- is a thatched bar.

Manager Frank Celeste told me that the Taino Indians, who first settled the island, called it Bieques, or "small island"; Columbus, who sighted it on his second voyage, named it Graciosa for its beauty; and the Spanish called Vieques and its sister Culebra "the Useless Islands" because they yielded no gold.

But the conquistadors were wrong; Vieques is a rare gem for those of us looking to escape life in the fast lane. If you go

Trade Winds, Bo Esperanza, Vieques, Puerto Rico 00765; (809) 741-8666. Rooms cost $50-$120; air-conditioning; excellent restaurant.

Villa Esperanza, P.O. Box 1269, Vieques, Puerto Rico 00765; (787) 741-8675. Rooms with one double and two single beds cost $76 or $96; air-conditioning, tennis, beach and restaurant.

Casa del Frances, P.O. Box 458, Vieques, Puerto Rico 00765; (787) 741-3751. Single, $140; couple, $170.83, includes breakfast, dinner, tax and 15-percent service charge. No air-conditioning.

New Dawn Retreat, P.O. Box 1512, Vieques, Puerto Rico 00765; (787) 741-0495. Singles, $35; couples $45; women's bunkhouse, $15; tent site, $10 per person. Restaurant, bike and horse rental.

Posada Vista Mar, P.O. Box 495, Vieques, Puerto Rico 00765; (787) 741-8716. Olga rents a half-dozen spartan rooms for $30. Her restaurant is one of the best for native dishes like asopao, conch fritters, rice and beans, arepas and pastelillos.

Crow's Nest, P.O. Box 1521, Vieques, Puerto Rico 00765; (787) 741-0033. Efficiency apartments cost $60 a night or $385 weekly. Popular restaurant, pool and bar.

Water's Edge, P.O. Box 1374, Vieques, Puerto Rico 00765; (787) 741-1128. Air-conditioned rooms with color TV cost $65-$105. Restaurant, pool. Tours of Mosquito Bay : Kayak: Solimar Divers, (787) 741-2164.

Electric boat: La Luminosa, (787) 741-3751.

Motor boat: Blue Caribe Dive Center, (787) 741-2522; Clark, 741-8600.

How to get there: Air: Vieques Air Link from Isla Grande Airport, (787) 741-3266, charges $55.

Ferry: Leaves Fajardo, on the east end of Puerto Rico, and arrives Isabel Segunda twice daily; $2 one way. Lisa Mullenneaux is a freelance writer living in Rensselaerville,

Originally published February 26, 1997

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