Vieques Eats and Drinks
My recent nuptial trip marked my second visit to Vieques, Puerto Rico; last year, Mister Groom and I discovered this little gem and really connected with its laid-back vibe and natural beauty. Even though the rest of our wedding guests were new to the island, they had no problem getting acquainted and making their own discoveries for food, drink and frivolity.
Below, a decidedly subjective guide to the island, based on my two visits and the experiences of our fellow Vieques sojourners. A few notes: There are two main towns to the island -- Isabel Segunda, which is located on the north (same side as the airport and ferry dock) and Esperanza on the south. Located about 10 minutes from each other by car (and you do need a car while on the island), the two towns are different in look, feel and function.
Esperanza is geared more for tourists, with a main drag of bars, restaurants, guesthouses, kayak rentals and dive shops, while Isabel is a working town, with local businesses, the post office, government buildings, mixed in with restaurants and the occasional souvenir shop.
By no means is this list comprehensive, and if you've previously been to Vieques, please share your faves in the comments area. As with any island, businesses come and go like the wind; while there, I learned that Coconuts, a popular bar/eatery had closed, as had Tropical Baby. CafÃ© Mama Songa, a diner-esque breakfast and lunch place has been sold and turned into a lunch and dinner place by Key West conches (by way of New Jersey). And Martineau Bay Resort, the hotel/spa property that's been rumored to close for renovations and turn into a W hotel property, is still open for business as Martineau. A worker there told me that renovations are indefinitely held up, and it's anyone's guess if the chic W will ever make its "Isla Nena" debut.
Try the local hot sauce.
Coqui Fire is its name, and Jim Cochran is the brains behind the hot stuff. Last year, I fell in love with the "papaya lime sauce" and was keen to spread the love in gift bags for our guests. In the course of shopping at the local Supermercado Morales, I discovered five additions to the Coqui line, including a bourbon-flavored "Lighthouse BBQ," a passion fruit-based "Passionate Frog, " "Komodo Dragon," which is listed with a "sweat factor of 10+" on its label and a mango garlic sauce.
A few days before we left the island, Cochran opened a little restaurant, CafÃ© Violeta, which is serving up an all-Mexican menu. Mister Groom raved about his huevos rancheros and noted a lot of communal swooning over the breakfast burrito.
There are many places where you can start your day, depending on the size of your appetite. In Esperanza, consider Trade Winds and Belly Buttons, both with views of the Caribbean sea and open-air dining areas. Breakfast is hearty, with eggs and all the trimmings, pancakes, and I believe at Trade Winds, you can find yourself a steak. Mister Groom and his pals got into a morning meal routine that put them in Esperanza on several occasions.
For breakfast on the run, hit the Panaderia La Viequense, a charming little bakery in addition to a line of pastellitos, makes addictive pan agua, the bread used for its latino-flavored sandwiches. My brother Tim was pleased with his egg and cheese combo, but one day, we ordered a slew of cubanos and other savory choices for a lazy afternoon hanging out with a pitcher of some rum concoction. Also available: Puerto Rican-style cafÃ© served in little cups.
If coffee is your idea of breakfast, consider Roy's Coffee Lounge, the noticeably pink house in Isabel. On the inside, you'll find a bustling coffee bar as well as a garden/courtyard with a handful of tables. This is probably the only place on the island where you'll find a bagel; for lunch there's a limited menu of sandwiches and empanadas worth trying. There's also free Wi-Fi if you can't bear unplugging from reality.
For Sunday brunch, you must try bbh, the restaurant at Bravo Beach Hotel. It's a prix-fixe deal, with a tropical bellini, fresh fruit and yummy coffee cake, followed by a choice of five or six entrees. It was a great sendoff for four friends headed to the airport.
Monday night, do the Chez Shack.
No, that's not a James Brown dance move, but a treehouse in the middle of the woods called Duffy's Chez Shack.
Monday is Grill Night at this funky joint, with a chalkboard menu of ribs, chicken, pork and maybe fish, served up with beans and rice and a so-so salad bar. The charm is just being there in the middle of nowhere, listening to the steel band and thinking, damn, this is fun.
Eat your fruits and vegetables.
The fruit stand at the intersection of routes 200 and 997 (Everyone knows where it is) is really the best place to get fresh produce. In addition to a covered stand, there is a refrigerated truck for walk-thru browsing. I am drawn to the local avocados and pineapples, which are some of the best I've ever had, and on this last trip, I had an outrageous mango, but didn't ask where it came from. You'll also find bananas, plantains, yucca, cassava, sweet potatoes, mango, coconuts and home-spun chile vinegar sold in bottles.
If you're vegetarian...head to Bili, the restaurant owned by Eva Bolivar, who also catered our wedding. Located on the strip in Esperanza, Bili is one of the few places on the island offering veggie-friendly fare; Celebritologist Liz Kelly, who loved Eva's yucca salad with bay leaves, ate there a handful of times during her one-week stay. The seafood options are splendid as well; one night, Eva was whipping up sea scallops with a passion fruit beurre blanc, and on a second visit, I devoured a whole crispy local snapper. Local spiny lobster was on tap as well. Good stuff.
If you like pina coladas... (er...and getting caught in the rain), Duffy's 2 in Esperanza comes highly recommended by several colada lovers who attended the wedding. The view of the Caribbean sea from the porch is all part of the experience. One guest raved about Duffy's "parcharita," a take on a margarita made with parcha (aka passion fruit) juice.
The Vieques version of "Cheers" is Al's Mar Azul, located on the water right by the ferry in Isabel. It is truly a neighborhood joint, where mainland expats gather and shoot the breeze. If you get hungry, ask the bartender to have a pizza delivered from William's, a pizzeria right around the corner.
For more of a South Beach or San Juan experience, hit the very glam Bravo Beach Hotel. A very dear friend of Mister Groom hosted a cocktail party in our honor at the hotel's Palms Lounge, which serves up tapas Friday and Saturday nights. What a sexy setting!
Tomorrow: Old San Juan.
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