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Ducasse Goes Tropical at W Vieques

By Dan Saltzstein

Yautia, guava and yuca aren’t ingredients you’d expect to see on a menu from Alain Ducasse, the Michelin-starred chef from France. But those are some of the tropical items that might appear on the menu at his latest venture, Mix on the Beach, a restaurant incorporating Caribbean and Mediterranean influences at the W Retreat and Spa, Vieques, which is scheduled to open in January.

The W Hotel, formerly a Wyndham, further raises the luxury quotient on Vieques, a once scrappy island off the coast of Puerto Rico that was used as a bombing range by the United States until 2003. In the few years since, Vieques has emerged as a fast-growing destination for Americans seeking a less-touristed Caribbean beach.

Similarly, Mr. Ducasse’s culinary empire seems to know no limits: his chain of 20 restaurants now extends from Paris to, most recently, Osaka, where he opened Le Comptoir de Benoit, a French bistro with an Asian twist, last fall.

At Vieques, Mr. Ducasse is working with the restaurant’s executive chef, Dagan Lynn, to create menus for the main restaurant, as well as a lounge, cafe and poolside tapas bar.

It is not the only W Hotel with a globetrotting celebrity chef. Todd English runs Olives at the W Union Square in Manhattan, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten recently opened the J&G; Steakhouse at the new W Washington, D.C.

By Michelle Higgins

After 2003, when the United States Navy stopped using this island off Puerto Rico's southeastern shore as a bombing range, Vieques quickly became the next “It” island — luring travelers with its newly demilitarized white sand beaches, roaming wild horses and rustic charm. As its popularity has taken off, new restaurants and boutique hotels have opened up, raising the level of luxury on the island along with its prices. But bargains still remain, especially for travelers willing to stray off the tourist map, and all the beaches are free.

Where to Stay

All seven rooms at the Casa de Amistad (27 Benitez Castaño; 787-741-3758; ), a little guesthouse in the northern town of Isabel Segunda, are under $100 a night. Though most are small, they are clean and inviting with crisp white sheets, Ikea-style furnishings and a smattering of colorful art on the walls. All have air-conditioning, ceiling fans and small refrigerators, though Rooms 5 and 6 have their bathrooms down the hall. There is a tiny pool, a common television room, Wi-Fi, an honor bar and a kitchen where free coffee is available each morning.

For a hotel closer to the ocean, Bananas, a popular bar and restaurant on the waterfront in Esperanza (Route 996; 787-741-8700;, has basic guest rooms starting at $65 for a double without air-conditioning, $80 with.

Where to Eat

For lunch, you can't beat the half-dozen roadside pincho or shish kebab stands scattered around the island that offer chicken, fish or meat kebabs for about $2 a skewer. The one on Route 200, halfway between the airport and Martineau Car Rental and just steps from a lovely beach ringed with shady trees, is a particularly nice spot to chow down. For something a bit more substantial, check out El Resuelve (787-741-1427), an open-air restaurant along Route 997 between Isabel Segunda and Esperanza run by locals. A party of five can eat well here for under $45, including beer. Try the arroz con pollo, crab empanadas, jalapeño poppers, sticky sweet plantains and — if you're brave — the boiled pigs' ears.

On Tuesday and Thursday nights, you can eat cheaply at Coqui Fire Cafe (787-435-1099; ), just off Route 200 on the Enchanted Garden Inn property where the sign still says Cafe Violeta, even though that restaurant is long gone. There, Patty and Jim Cochran, creators of the island's popular Coqui Fire hot sauce, serve up gargantuan burritos ($10), heaping nacho platters ($7.50) and chicken mole enchiladas that have quite a kick ($10). Call ahead for reservations.

Free Beaches

Jump in your Jeep — you'll need to rent one to get to the best beaches — and head to Green Beach on the western end of the island for great snorkeling. (But go in the morning. After noon, you risk getting eaten alive by little black flies). If it's surf you're seeking, drive to Navio on the south side of the island. Follow the signs along the pitted sand and dirt road until you reach a picturesque half-moon beach bordered by rocky outcroppings. Waves not your style? Just down the road from Navio is Media Luna — a favorite of families with small children — where you can wade out for yards with the placid water no higher than your waist. Among the most popular and accessible of the demilitarized beaches is Red Beach , located on the island's south side in the United States Fish and Wildlife Reserve and outfitted with gazebos and picnic tables.

Where to Party

Al's Mar Azul, just steps from the ferry dock in Isabel Segunda (787-741-3400), is a turquoise-painted dive bar decorated with international license plates, old signs from the island and other flotsam. It has Foosball, dart boards, air hockey tables, slot machines and the requisite pool table. Order a piña colada ($5), stiff margarita, or the local beer, Medalla ($1.50), and watch the sunset from its deck.

What to Do

Take a dip in the island's Bioluminescent Bay , which gives off an eerie glow at night because of microscopic organisms that inhabit the waters and light up when they are touched. Reserve a spot with Island Adventures (787-741-0720; ) for an educational chat about the luminescent phenomenon, a bumpy ride in a school bus to the bay and a boat ride out to its middle to swim. Cost: $32.10 a person. For something a little more adventurous, book a tour with Abe at Abe's Snorkeling (787-741-2134; ) and paddle a kayak into the glowing waters yourself: $30 a person.

What to Buy

Along the tourist strip of Esperanza, you'll find a couple of gift shops with T-shirts, beach gear and tchotchkes. Otherwise, there really isn't much shopping to speak of on Vieques. If you're looking for a cool keepsake, bring back a bottle of Coqui Fire hot sauce for $6. The spicy sauce comes in a range of flavors and zest, with names like Passionate Frog and Smoldering Frog. It's made with natural ingredients from the Caribbean by Patty and Jim Cochran, who met on the island about five years ago, were married at Al's Mar Azul and started making the sauce. Look for the bottles, labeled with the fire-breathing frog, at Trade Winds Gift Shop in Esperanza (787-741-8666), where you can also buy Vieques T-shirts and other souvenirs.

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