Travel is such a funny thing; Steven and I have only been home for two full days, and already our time in Vieques feels like months ago. Still, we’ve returned with fond memories of this magical island and the time we spent there.
We traveled to Vieques because my college BFF is from Puerto Rico, and her family has a home in Vieques. She chose to celebrate her wedding on the island, and we were delighted to join the fun. Steven and I arrived late on a Friday. Most of that weekend was spent exploring the island and participating in wedding festivities. The celebration itself was lovely; it had rained that morning, but the rain gave way to a clear, sunny late afternoon. There was dancing, dining, and much merry-making.
We decided to stay for the week after the wedding so that we could explore Vieques: the beaches, the natural beauty, the culture, and the food. I’d been told that the beaches were incredible, and the reports were true. They were stunningly picturesque and amazingly uncrowded, in spite of the fact that it was a busy tourist week. If you travel to Vieques, I can’t urge you strongly enough to take some time to explore a wide variety of beaches, using the island map (there seems to be one official map that’s widely available, and it marks nearly all of them).
Even over the course of a week, we didn’t manage to visit all of the beaches on our list, but we certainly didn’t lack for wonderful time by the water. During our first few days on Vieques, we discovered Playa Grande, which in some ways was our favorite, only because it was so incredibly remote. Later on we found Playa Negra (La Chiva), which was simply amazing.
But the beach we returned to most often was Caracas beach–definitely well populated, but the water was perfect and the views were awesome.
Our lodgings for the week were the lovely Hacienda Tamarindo guest house.
Hacienda Tamarindo has only 17 guest rooms, each lovingly cared for, decorated, and appointed. The staff is incredibly warm; by the time we left, we’d gotten to know many of them, and had even had a friendly chat with the owners, Linda and Burr, and their sweet dog, Zach, who was up early to greet me each day.
Hacienda Tamarindo is situated on a bluff, which means that residents can spend ample time gazing out onto the water.
We often spent our mornings by the pool, reading quietly, holding hands, and listening to the whinnying of the island’s wild horses.
The hotel served a fresh continental breakfast each day. It wasn’t exactly vegan friendly; the specials wavered between eggs or breakfast burritos and pancakes, and neither the English muffins nor bread were vegan. But there was always fresh fruit and incredible fruit juices, which I ordered pretty much every day (guava pineapple, grapefruit, mango, and so on). Steven enjoyed the pancakes and the hash browns, and he was as excited as I was about all of the fresh fruit.
On our second day in Vieques, Steven and I made a trip to the health food store in Isabel II, which is one of the island’s two main cities. The store, Yerba Buena Y Mas, is wonderful. It has a big selection of grains, pastas, coconut water, chocolate, snack bars, dried fruit and nuts, and two big fridges filled with Field Roast, frozen foods, and Ezekiel bread. Ezekiel isn’t my bread of choice anymore (the company promotes the Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, which in turn promotes the Weston Price Foundation — an organization that has disseminated a lot of misinformation about veganism). But travel is travel, and we were excited to find vegan bread, so that we could pack almond butter sandwiches for the beach, and I could make morning toast!
It took us a few days to really figure out the best vegan options for daytimes and evenings. At first, we tried some of the more casual eateries in Esperanza (the island’s other main city, which was near our guest house). Most of the menus had limited vegan options, or involved asking for a lot of modifications, which didn’t always go over well with servers. I’d hoped that rice and beans would be an option most of the time, but when we asked, we were usually told that the beans were made with pork, or that the rice was cooked in chicken stock.
There were some highlights; we both really liked the salads and hummus wrap at a restaurant called Bili (and I was nuts about the plaintain chutney). But the service was so slow that we were hesitant to go back — which I regret, because apparently they have a paella that can be veganized. In the end, we found that it was easiest to pack sandwiches and snacks and fruit for lunch, and focus on dinner for dining out. Here are some of our highlights.
The rehearsal dinner for the wedding was thrown at Noche, a newer restaurant that’s nestled into a lush setting. The restaurant has vegan summer rolls, a vegan avocado sushi roll with tempura vegetables, and salads. Unfortunately, the summer rolls we got had pork in them, even though we’d asked about whether or not they were vegan, but we learned later that the pork had only been added for the wedding party. And our server was happy to bring us rolls without pork after we let him know about the mix up. They were terrific–stuffed with veggies, rice noodles, and lots of herbs. I was crazy about all of the bright, spicy cilantro!
The restaurant also served white bean dip on patties that were (I think) made with yucca or plaintain and flour. They were great.
This photo of Tin Box is courtesy of TripAdvisor
Right next to Noche is Tin Box. It may have been our favorite restaurant on the island, and if you ever find yourself in Vieques, you should check it out, because it’s really special. Much of the produce served is grown right on the restaurant’s premises; you can virtually peek out into the back while you’re dining and see where the salad greens come from. The menu is simple, reasonably priced (a generous side dish is $3), and the staff couldn’t be nicer.
Steven and I went to Tin Box twice, and we got pretty much the same meal each time. We started with the Box Salad (pears, caramelized onions, pine nuts, mango vinaigrette). It was super flavorful and we were swooning over the freshly picked greens. It’s also a sizeable salad, which I always appreciate.
There’s only one vegan entree, but it’s a winner: tofu skewers with sweet potato fries.
The tofu was perfectly grilled and super firm. And the sweet potato fries were, I kid you not, the best I’ve ever tasted (Steven agreed). We also explored some of the side dishes, including the corn (which they veganized for us), and the roasted batata–a type of local sweet potato that is white, and tastes a lot like Japanese yam. I was pretty obsessed, and even ordered a double side of it on our last night there.
Added bonus? Freshly squeezed watermelon juice.
We relished both of our meals at Tin Box, and we were so impressed with the restaurant’s effort to grow and show off local produce.
On New Year’s Eve, Steven and I had dinner at Next Course, a restaurant whose tagline reads “food inspired by travel.” It is, not surprisingly, an eclectic menu, featuring all sorts of global flavors and a wide variety of dishes and appetizers. The setting is also beautiful; the restaurant is at the top of a hill, and it features indoor and outdoor seating. We were outside, which meant that we could just peek out from where we were and see ocean and trees.
The food at next course was totally memorable. It’s also worth saying that the service was great; our server, also named Steven, was incredibly friendly and quick to point out vegan dishes on the menu, and the hostess also took a moment to walk us through options. We both started with a roasted beet and turnip salad:
I think there were also some leeks in there. Everything was flavorful and well seasoned, and the soft turnips were a nice surprise.
For my entree, I got a grilled cauliflower steak over quinoa. The cauliflower had clearly been prepared over a grill, and I loved the smoky flavor. The quinoa was super flavorful and perfectly cooked; I probably could have eaten a few bowls of it! Bonus points for really pretty presentation
As happy as I was with the dish, I will admit that Steven’s pasta may have stolen the show. It sounded simple enough–spaghetti with lemon, artichokes, olives, sundried tomatoes, and greens–but it was so flavorful and delicious that we were both raving about it. I’ve never seen Steven enjoy artichokes so much! Somehow my pasta dishes at home never turn out like this, but now I’m inspired to brush up my spaghetti skills.
The surroundings, food, and service made Next Course a really wonderful experience. We were torn between returning there or going back to Tin Box on our last night, and it was a tough call; hopefully we’ll make it back someday.
On our second-to-last evening in Vieques, we dined at Sorce restaurant, which is in the W hotel and spa. It’s an upscale eatery with beautiful, beachside views and a seasonal, ever-changing menu. We’d called ahead to ask what could be veganized, and we were once again impressed and surprised when the restaurant’s chef got on the phone and walked us through options. He was clearly really knowledgable about vegan food, and happy to tweak a few of his signature dishes for us.
I started with the spicy mushroom and kale salad. I’d say that “salad” was a misnomer–it was really a sauteed spinach and kale dish. But it was delicious, full of umami from the mushrooms and tamari, and super spicy (but not quite overpoweringly so). Steven got an arugula salad with balsamic reduction, which was also really nice.
For my main dish, I got a vegan mofongo. Mofongo is a traditional Puerto Rican dish, prepared by mashing fried green plaintains together in a mortar and pestle. Pork cracklings or bacon are often added, but in this case I think the chef used coconut oil, because I got a rich, buttery taste of coconut with each bite. The topping for the dish on the menu was a seafood and vegetable medley, but mine just featured sauteed vegetables. I was crazy about it–every bite was so flavorful. I never really buy plantains, mostly because I’m not familiar with using them, but I’m very inspired to try incorporating them into a few of my home recipes now.
Steven got the mac n’ cheese, which is actually vegan as listed–it’s made with cashew cheese! It was delicious, and they served it with extra sauteed veggies for him. We also split a side of warm quinoa salad, which was very flavorful.
Sorce couldn’t have been more accommodating, and the food was stellar. Definitely worth a visit if you find yourself in Vieques. It’s also worth noting that the W hotel also has a casual cafe, where you can find fresh fruit cups, coconut water, and an awesome green smoothie (almond milk, banana, mango, ginger, spinach). We ordered it a bunch of times during our stay!
This photo of El Quenepo is courtesy of New York Magazine
El Quenepo was our first meal in Vieques, and I’d say it was a mixed success. They were willing to accommodate vegans, which was great, but when the hostess came over to tell us that, she seemed a little exasperated. She went on to say that the chef could make us a dish with one of three flavor profiles–Italian, Middle Eastern, or Thai–but said that she couldn’t tell us what the dish would be or what ingredients would be in it. I pressed her on it, pointing out that every other menu item had an incredibly detailed description, but she insisted that she couldn’t tell us what would be in the dishes. We both took a gamble on Middle Eastern, and we got platters of rice, lentils, greens, and falafel. Neither of us loved the falafel (it was overly fried, and had dried out), but we agreed that the jasmine rice (which had notes of coconut in it) was outstanding.
El Quenepo has a beautiful atmosphere and an impressive wine list, but, given the restaurant’s prices, I was bummed out that they wouldn’t even give us a sense of what would be in the three “flavors” offered. I’d certainly have understood if it were a farm-to-table establishment and I called a week in advance–in that case, how would the chef know what would be fresh that night?–but it couldn’t have been too difficult for the staff to communicate to us what was available for vegans that same evening (beyond the flavors involved) prior to our placing an order.
Still, the food is fresh and elegant, and the restaurant is worth checking out–if you’re game for a surprise.
This photo of Trade Winds is courtesy of TripAdvisor
We didn’t have the best meal at Trade Winds, but it’s worth mentioning because it has one really outstanding vegan dish–if you order correctly. The restaurant has a standard seaside menu (lots of sea food and surf n’ turf), but it also has a couple of vegetarian-friendly pasta dishes. It also has a coconut curry quinoa dish, which is what brought us there. We were clear with the server that I’m vegan, and that I didn’t eat any dairy, but I knew she might not have registered it when she asked us if we wanted any of the garlic bread. When the quinoa dish came, it had a side of broccoli that I dug into, only to find that it was coated in butter. The waitress got a bit irritated and defensive when we mentioned it, which made things uncomfortable.
That said, the coconut curry dish, minus the broccoli side, is fabulous. Super flavorful, and it’s a really generous portion, too. Steven was also very happy with his spaghetti dish. So, the restaurant is worth a visit for sure; if you’re vegan, just be sure to order carefully and avoid the vegetable sides (or say explicitly that you’d like them with no butter).
The Sol Food truck is usually parked near the beaches. We seemed to always hit the beach exactly when it was closed, but I’m sorry we missed it, as I’ve heard that it has some cool vegan options. Next time!
We didn’t have dinner here, but the restaurant did the wedding food, so we did get to sample some of its vegan tastes. The highlight was some sort of fried cake (cornmeal, maybe?) with black bean dip; Steven and I inhaled them! The restaurant also made a coconut rice with chickpeas and had some plantain fritters. I’m sure that it has additional vegetable-oriented options to check out.
An awesome specialty food store in the middle of Isabel II. We went a couple of times; Steven found a loaf of raisin/walnut/flax bread that was delicious (we scarfed it down by the ocean, slathering it with berry jam), and I picked up avocados and bananas. The store also has baked goods, a sandwich bar, wine, coffee, and some produce (asparagus, sprouts, fresh greens). The staff is super friendly, too.
The aforementioned health food store. We were so charmed by this place and impressed by its extensive selection; the store is small, but the walls are packed with pantry, grocery, and personal care items. The owner is vegan, and was excited to chat; she also greeted us with a big smile on the two occasions we stopped in.
This farmers’ market features a nice array of fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s located on the corner of Road 200 and Road 201 at the entrance to Barrio Florida, next to the GE Plant. I’m not sure how accurate the online listing info I found was, but supposedly it’s only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Alas, I’m sure that there are lots of great eateries that we missed. There’s a fancy new restaurant called El Blok, which is spearheaded by a chef who’s famous in San Juan, and I’m sure it’s worth checking out; there are also countless smaller restaurants and food trucks that I wish we’d had a chance to try. Still, we felt grateful for our delicious meals, and I’m happy that we got to try some local flavors and ingredients, too. There were some vegan hiccups (lots of accidental bites into cheese or pork or butter on the first few days there), but that’s the nature of travel, and it certainly didn’t stop us from finding tons of vibrant, flavorful, and memorable dishes.
Before I wrap this up, I want to give a special mention to the Vieques Humane Society. This organization is helping to provide a clinic for stray and rescued animals on the island, as well as a veterinary center for local companion animals. It spays and neuters to help prevent overcrowding, and it actively places animals in adoption homes. We were sorry that we didn’t have a chance to visit (we went on New Year’s day, and of course it was closed), but we did pass the organizations’ thrift store and take note of the work that it was doing, and we made a donation when we got home. Vieques is home to hundreds of wild horses and thousands of feral cats and dogs. These animals fend for themselves, and I’m glad that there is a local organization dedicated to helping protect and speak up for them.
It’s worth saying that, when I posted a wild horse photo on Instagram, one commenter said that most of the horses are actually owned by residents. This didn’t seem to be what we observed (most were roaming freely), but we did notice that many were branded, and we weren’t sure what that was about. We also did see some of the horses tied up in backyards, and sometimes it was the case that those horses appeared quite thin. I’d be curious to know more about the horses on the island, if anyone local has more information.
If you visit Vieques soon, my best recommendation is simply for you to wander and explore. It is an idiosyncratic place; it seems to march to its own rhythms, and time slows down while you’re there. Thanks to the island’s small size, though, you can do a lot of exploring in a short period of time. Visit new beaches, keep trying new restaurants, and take time to drive through the beautiful, sloping hills whenever you can (car rental, by the way, is pretty necessary; it’s hard to get around without it). Some of my happiest memories of the trip involve our short drives from one place to another, which were always punctuated by tons of lush greenery and gorgeous views.
We miss Vieques already–hopefully we’ll return someday!