We got up at 7:15, which wasn’t that pleasant, but we had to be out of the room by 8am. Technically we were supposed to get off the ship at 8am (they send people off in groups depending on where they’re going afterward), but since our plans involved a cab to the airport for a 12:30 flight, we had plenty of time.
We went up to the buffet for one last gruel and Maxwell’s Foreclosure, and the place was absolutely packed, to the point we had trouble finding a table. I’ve never seen anything on a cruise ship so crowded, so I was amazed. After eating, we took our carryons down to the 4th deck, where we were supposed to exit. There was a line of people standing there, so we joined it, not really knowing what was going on. (I mean, they were pointed toward the exit.) After standing there a long time without moving, we decided to go to the spot we were originally supposed to meet before debarkation.
We got to the theater and I asked one of the staff about whether we should wait, or if we could get off. She said they were having trouble with the gangway, so we should join everyone in the theatre. We went in and got seats, and ended up waiting there for a very long time. I was glad we’d decided to leave the line, so we could at least sit down.
They finally announced that we could leave, so we headed off the ship and down to the building with all the luggage. The gangway had obviously worked at one point, because ours were the only suitcases left in our disembarkation group. We then took them over to the customs line, and proceeded to stand there FOREVER, because it was run by the most distractable lady on earth. At least it was fun watching the cute drug-sniffing dog running up and down the line.
Finally we were free of the cruise terminal. We got a cab to the airport and went to check in at Cape Air. They told us how to find the gates, took our bags, and sent us on our way with a couple hours to kill. We got coffee at Starbucks, and had a surprisingly decent lunch at Mango’s, which had the only vegetarian food in the terminal. We then went to hang out at Air Margaritaville for a bit, enjoying the airport’s free wifi and a Medalla.
Then it was time to catch our flight, so we headed back to the small-plane terminal. They called our flight time, and directed us down an escalator to the lower level. There we met up with two other couples, and then an agent led us out onto the tarmac. I love any day I get to walk on the tarmac!!
As expected, the plane was tiny. It had 4 rows of seats, but they only let us use three of them. Matt’s seat folded down, so that the front row could exit more easily. They took our carry-ons and stowed them in the nose and over the wings, and of course I forgot to grab my phone or camera. We strapped in, and our pilot (Captain Jim!) just turned around in his seat to tell us about the exits in case of emergency. It was awesome.
And then we were off to Vieques! We took off over the ocean, and hugged the coast of Puerto Rico all the way around the east end of the island. We could see El Yunque National Forest, and Fajardo, the port where the ferries to the islands depart. (We had considered the ferry, but it’s apparently unreliable, slow, and you have to get to Fajardo. Flying was much easier.) Within a few minutes, we could see Vieques, and then the airstrip we were landing on. Seeing the approach and landing out the front window of an airplane feels a lot like a video game. (While I’ve flown an airplane before, I’ve never landed one. I don’t even remember what it’s like.)
We climbed out onto the tarmac at VQS, which could not be more different from the airport in San Juan. It was tiny, with a single building and four circles for airplanes to park. (We were parked in the spot reserved for the W’s private jet – it’s the only resort on the island.) They handed us our carry-ons, and the pilot told us to grab our suitcases off the world’s smallest conveyor belt.
We went inside, and the conveyor belt was no joke – it was maybe 10′ across, with half outside and half inside. Awesome.
We had a Jeep reserved from Maritza’s Car Rental, which I’d chosen because they were the only one advertising airport pickup. The booth was there, but nobody was in attendance. (It had a sign saying it was closed 12-1, and it was after one.) I called them, and they said they were on their way over. In the meantime, a guy sitting there at the airport saw us looking at the tourist map, and came over to talk. It turns out he and his girlfriend were leaving after three days in Vieques, and he wanted to give us some advice. We appreciated that like crazy, because there is hardly anything about Vieques on the internet beyond the usual TripAdvisor stuff. No good maps, no restaurant menus, no great advice beyond which beaches to go to and “you need a Jeep to get anywhere”.
They gave us loads of advice on getting around, on beaches to visit (he verified the Jeep thing), about the BioBay, and even which restaurants had good vegetarian food, as they were also vegetarian. He showed us everything on the map, too, and we lamented that that awesome tourist map wasn’t online anywhere. (Vieques is small enough that they can draw almost every single business on the island on the map. Really.) He also told us what he’d been told: Vieques has 9,000 people and 3,000 horses, so watch out for them on the road. Our car showed up a few minutes later, so we thanked them profusely and headed out.
I was expecting a crappy beat-up Jeep, but what we got was fantastic. It was basically brand new! I was super-excited to drive a Jeep, too, because I never had before. We named it Captain Ron, following our longstanding ‘Captain’ tradition.
We’d decided to do a VRBO rental in Vieques, based on advice from other people and the fact that they really don’t have much in the way of hotels beyond the W (which was $600 a night, and really not our style). It was about 1:45 and we couldn’t check in at the house til 3, so we decided to drive into town to the grocery store before calling the owner to get directions.
Vieques has two towns – Isabel Segundo, where the ferry lands on the north side of the island – and Esperanza on the south side. They’re barely even towns, really… Isabel is larger and is maybe 10 square blocks. There’s one main road that runs across the top of the island, from the airport and the W, just past Isabel II. From there, there are three main roads that go north-south, all ending up in Esperanza. The entire eastern half of the island is protected nature preserve / former bombing range, and a lot of it is still closed due to the very real possibility of land mines. (The US military rented out Vieques and Culebra as bombing grounds up through the 1960s, which is why they’re still so undeveloped.)
We took the main road into Esperanza (passing a cockfighting facility along the way), looking for the grocery store the couple had recommended. He said that it looked sketchy, so we decided it was the bodega on the corner. We parked the Jeep, locked everything (we’d been warned), and went to the store. We ended up with an overfull basket, a bottle of rum, and some $3/bottle Kona beers, and a huge backup of people in line behind us while they run us up.
They didn’t have everything we wanted at the store, so we went down a couple blocks to the other grocery store we’d seen. That was the actual grocery store, we realized as we entered. We stocked up on more supplies for tacos, plenty of drink mixers, coffee, plantain chips, and other things we needed to stock up at the hacienda (our name for the rental house, based on the awesome photos). We grabbed a 6-pack of Medalla, too.
Once we were fully outfitted, I called the owner. My signal kept going in and out, and I barely had an internet connection, despite T-Mobile’s assurances of 4G LTE in all of Puerto Rico. I got his voicemail, so I left a message and we decided to drive on and see things until he called back. A little ways down the road, my phone rang, so I pulled over and grabbed it. It wouldn’t connect, of course. Finally, we found a spot where my phone worked, and I got the owner on the line. It turned out he was in Maryland at the time.
His directions to the house were something like this: “Go down the road until you see mom&pop store, and then there’s a two-story wooden building that looks like it’s falling down, but it’s actually a store. Turn there. Go by some mailboxes and turn there. Look for a house called ____ and it’s right past there. There’s a really steep driveway.” Then he told me where to find the key. We went over the directions again since that stuff was not on my tourist map (as far as I could tell), and then Matt and I set off to find it. Since I’m godawful at landmark-based directions (I like cardinal, thank you very much), I told Matt twice what he had told me, so we wouldn’t forget it.
We found the first grocery store, and then the falling-down building was unmistakeable (it would later become known as “the ramshackle”). We found the mailboxes, and the house he’d named, so we knew we were in the right place. It was at the top of a very tall hill, and the road up there was gorgeous.
We turned the only direction we could go from the house, and looked for a steep driveway. Down the road a little bit, we came to the top of a cliff. It wasn’t a road, it was what you see when you get to the top of the biggest hill on a rollercoaster, and can’t actually see the track below you. I flipped out. There was no way in hell I was taking a vehicle, or anything, down that gigantic steep hill. That kind of road would not even be legal on the mainland.
(This was only the top, and doesn’t do it justice. But hey, you can see the ocean and the bioluminescent bays from there!)
We sat there parked at the top of the hill, and decided we had no choice. He’d said it was a really steep driveway, after all. This was more of a road than a driveway, but it was also the steepest thing I’d ever seen. So we started off.
I rode the brake the whole way down, unsure whether to let up and tear down the hill to get it over with, or whether I’d hold on too long and we’d tumble onto the roof. I’ve never been so terrified driving before. We were leaning back as far as we could, because I was sure we were going to flip right over.
But we made it!! At the bottom was a whole big crowd of peacocks waiting for us. I was so upset about the hill that I didn’t even bother taking their picture. (Mostly it was the prospect of having to drive down that same hill every single day, even at night, while we were there. We’d never leave the house.)
What was not at the bottom of the hill was the house we were looking for. There was a dead end, so we turned around (which was a challenge). We looked around, and the house was definitely not there – I’d seen pictures online, and these were not it. We’d have to drive BACK UP the same damn hill.
Part of the way up, we saw a guy hanging out in his garage, so we stopped and asked if he had any idea where the place might be. He wasn’t sure, but thought maybe it was back up at the top by the ____ house. We hadn’t seen anything else up there, but we had to go back up there anyway. Unbelievably, we made it back up the hill. At that point, I absolutely knew for sure why people drove 4WD in Vieques.
We ended up back by the ____ house, our last known waypoint, and I found a spot where I could get a signal again. We called and talked to the owner, and he said we’d gone too far; the driveway was immediately past the ___ house. When he said that, we recalled the gap in the fence at the end of the wall, and I knew that had to be it. I thanked him, and we turned back around.
By the time we turned, there was a horse walking out of the driveway to our hacienda. He was showing us the way, obviously. I nosed the Jeep into the fence-gap, and then we could see the house at the bottom of what was indeed a very steep driveway. But that driveway was nothing like the road we’d just driven down, so that made it seem easy. We parked the Jeep, dragged out our bags and groceries, and I went to retrieve the key.
Our hacienda was AMAZING.
There was a patio that wrapped around two sides of the house, and the one with the grill and coconut palms had a view of the nature preserve and the ocean. It was perfect.
There were geckos all over the place, too.
The place was gigantic, and decorated with African masks and furniture that had obviously been acquired over many years. There was a full kitchen (we were looking forward to cooking after a week), and a washer and dryer so we could do the laundry. I got on that right away, of course.
After so many days of constant motion, always having to make transportation plans and stick to schedules and cut short our time in places, I was really excited at the idea of just staying at the house for the rest of the day. It was exactly 3pm, we had all the groceries we needed, and we were alone on top of a hill overlooking the ocean. It was perfect. We opened some beers and sat in deck chairs on the patio, watching birds in the trees. (I was on the lookout for more horses in the yard, too.)
The palm tree over our heads had a couple really big coconuts on it, but they were well out of our reach. Since the VRBO listing had mentioned picking your own coconuts, I was determined to make it happen. I knew we wouldn’t be able to open them without a machete, so I went poking around the laundry closet where things seemed to be stored. I found two machetes in there, so I brought one out and we started swinging at the coconut. It was still too far away to reach the branch holding it, though, so I went back to the utility closet and found an extendable painting pole.
We had to stand on a planter, and it took a good half-hour or so to make it happen, but we got that damn coconut off the tree. Then we took turns hacking at it til we got it open, and drained the juice out. (We managed to open it the rest of the way after that.)
Then Matt made cocktails with the coconut juice and Barrilito, and it was the greatest thing ever. (He named it the Caribella: Barrilito, lime, soursoup juice, simple syrup, and coconut water.) We sat on the patio for a very long time, just staring at the forest and the ocean beyond it. We had some plantain chips, and watched a huge team of ants carry a tiny piece of chip away at an alarming pace.
Round about dinnertime, we headed to the kitchen and made tostones and tacos with sofrito rice, beans, cheese, and huitlacoche. Matt made flank steak churrasco on the grill. We ate on the patio with a mosquito coil burning, but didn’t really see much evidence of bugs at all, which surprised me. There were super-loud frogs (particularly the Puerto Rican mascot, who yells COQUI!) and geckos running everywhere, and the weather was absolutely perfect.
While we were playing dominoes outside, I started to feel like I was getting a cold. OF COURSE. We decided to go inside and turn on the bedroom A/C and hang out. Matt turned on the TV to see if we could find the Gophers hockey game, since it was on one of the ESPN channels that night, and the place had satellite. Well, apparently they turn off the service when they’re not there, because all we got were a ton of free channels (which were mostly home shopping). Thankfully, DirecIV was doing a free preview promo, and one of the included channels was the NHL Network. So we got to watch some hockey after all.