Revisiting Vieques, Puerto Rico

Hi there! Things are chugging along at a very busy pace here at Poe Communications and Cat Box Management Engineers. New clients, new projects, new contracts…all very exciting stuff.

It’s been almost a year since I picked up my lemons and struck out on my own and the transition has been surprisingly smooth. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, the work to dry up or some other scary situation to arise, but so far…so good. My good fortune continues to freak me out on a daily basis.

To keep all the balls in the air, I’ve neglected my little blog here, which makes me very sad. BUT, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. I have been and quite a bit, actually. Just not necessarily here.

One of the projects nearest and dearest to my heart has been the Project: Time Off blog. I get to work with my friend Katie and the rest of her fantastic team AND I get to write about travel, which is a dream come true.

I recently wrote about our trip to Vieques over there. Well, sort of. I wrote a “Splurge v. Steal” post about Vieques, but I’ll admit, I’m more of a “splurge” girl.

We did enter “steals” territory when it came to spending time beach hopping. Still, hands down our favorite thing to do in Vieques. We even got in a bit of snorkeling, which was surprisingly good. And they’re opening up new parts of the island every year, so we got to explore a few new places this time.

Vieques beach life

And then, there’s our second favorite, budget-friendly activity: chasing down food trucks. We made sure to stop by Sol again for the the best empanadas and we discovered the most amazing mofongo at a new-to-us food truck that, unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we were only able to track down once while we were there. I didn’t even get a picture of it!

Another new-to-us, “steal”-type activity was bunker hunting. As a former, U.S. military stronghold, Vieques is littered with hundreds of bunkers that were used for all sorts of storage. These concrete warehouses are nestled in the hills and jungles of the island and are covered with grass on top, so they can’t be seen from the air. It can also make for some fun off-roading. A lot of them are locked up, but a few are open, probably to dissuade people from busting the locks on all of them. They’re full of trash from the 1980s and 1990s, things like busted up old computers and educational manuals. Very spooky stuff.

Vieques bunkers

We also upped our “splurge” game by staying (and eating and drinking) a couple of night’s at Vieques’ newest hotel, El Blok. Review in summation: Gorgeous hotel, excellent service, great location, miniscule bathrooms and the hardest bed I’ve ever attempted to sleep on. We were definitely ready to move over to the W and their Dream Beds after a couple of nights. Also, the restaurant at El Blok is amazing and definitely worth a visit (you can read a full review from this blog here). We definitely felt that El Blok was a great restaurant that just happened to have a cool hotel attached to it, as opposed to a great hotel that has an above-par restaurant.

El Blok Vieques

Go over to PTO’s Upside of Downtime blog to read more about things to see and do in Vieques. It was a great trip and just reconfirmed how much we really love the laid back vibe of the place. By the last day, we were sitting on one of our deserted beaches talking about buying property on this tiny little jewel of an island.

Recovered wreckage in Vieques.
Recovered wreckage in Vieques.

Back to Vieques

Photo: DesignBoom

We’re off again to Vieques, Puerto Rico. So, I thought it might be fun to revisit our last trip there in December 2011.

Hotel Crashing: W Retreat and Spa, Vieques

The W Retreat and Spa in Vieques is like the hipster, musician boyfriend you dated way back in the day: uber-cool, way too sexy and smart for a nerd like you. Your street cred is instantly bumped up just by telling people that you are staying at such a cool, unique, and awesome “retreat.” But just like that no-good boyfriend, the W will let you down in a million different ways.

The W Vieques isn’t a bad hotel: there are a lot of great things about it. Like I said, it’s pretty hot to look at. The rooms, the grounds, the lobby, the restaurants and communal spaces are stunning.

The rooms and public areas were designed by Spanish-born Patricia Urquiola of Milan-based Studio Urquiola, and they incorporate a lot of Spanish touches like macramé lamp shades and large colorful murals. They also used a lot of reclaimed wood and local artwork, which is a nice touch. And they had some interesting unique touches like a pool table, acoustic guitars on stands, and a huge outdoor firepit that folks could sit around every night and listen to the ocean.

Continue reading Hotel Crashing: W Retreat and Spa, Vieques

Dive Instructor Arnaud: The Most Interesting Man in the World

At approximately six feet tall, with his sunbleached hair pulled back into a ponytail, our dive instructor Arnaud looks like a pirate or Viking. Not a French sommelier who lived in New York for 22 years working at the city’s finest restaurants.

With all apologies to Dos Equis and Jonathan Goldsmith: Arnaud of Black Beard Sports in Vieques, Puerto Rico is actually the Most Interesting Man in the World.

"Screw you, Arnaud. I demand a duel. To the death. Or to the honor. Whatever."

We didn’t go to Vieques with the intention of meeting the Most Interesting Man in the World. But over the course of four days, XFE and I were continuously amazed and delighted by our gentle diving giant. With each new modestly offered detail of Arnaud’s incredible life story, we would look at each other and mouth “the Most Interesting Man in the World.”

Here are a few reasons our dive instructor Arnaud is the Most Interesting Man in the World:

1) As I mentioned, Arnaud was in New York for 22 years, working in or managing places like Balthazar, Orsay and La Goulue. Subsequently, he knows EVERYONE in the restaurant business, including Thomas Keller. When we told him of our difficulty in getting a reservation at French Laundry in Napa a couple of years ago, Arnaud just offers up, all casually, “I know Thomas. I can get you a reservation. Just let me know.”

2) Arnaud was a minority owner of a large, well-financed restaurant that shut down after 9-11. The Wall Street backers bailed after September 11, leaving Arnaud without a job and broke. A few months later, he struck a deal with a real estate friend of his who had a tiny, vacant property (zoned for mixed use, not a restaurant) in what was then, the fairly dodgy neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn. Arnaud maxed out all his credit cards to build his ideal restaurant, called in favors from suppliers, carpenters, plumbers and anyone else he knew with a skill, and a year later, opened up his own restaurant, 360. He sold it after seven successful years because he was burned out on the restaurant business. Now Red Hook is all trendy and cool. Probably because the Most Interesting Man in the World slept there.

3) Here’s a description of Arnaud, the restaurantuer, from one of his reviews:

“As we toasted to more dinners in Red Hook, Arnaud was working the room, welcoming guests, pouring wine, chatting up locals families sitting at the sidewalk tables with their new babies. As I watched him stroll from table to table, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Gerard Depardieu. (If a movie ever gets made, Depardieu must play Arnaud.) Like Depardieu, Arnaud is sweet and sort of big and burly, with long hair that he keeps tied back in a ponytail, and a rich gravely voice with a sexy French accent. He is quite the consummate French host—warm and welcoming and devilishly charming.

Dizam! Girlfriend was smitten! I guess being in the presence of the Most Interesting Man in the World will do that to a reviewer. (And, she needs to learn how to spell “gravelly.”)

4) Steve Wynn once offered Arnaud what he called an “insane amount of money” to open a restaurant in Vegas, but Arnaud didn’t want to live in Vegas. He sounded almost a bit regretful of that decision. But then he looked out at his “office” in Vieques and seems to have gotten over it.

5) Now onto the diving: Arnaud has been diving since he was 11 years old. You read that right. He had an uncle who was a search and rescue diver (we’re talking jumping from helicopters in full dive gear) and he used to take him diving, all clandestine-like.  He finally got his diver certification at around 16, which is still too young, so he lied about his age.

6) His most recent personal diving trip? Egypt. Because that’s a stable and safe place to dive. (Actually, he says the Sinai is quite nice and removed from the turmoil. I’m just going to take his word on that one.)

7) Arnaud, like everyone in Vieques, has about three jobs. One of his other jobs is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He does, among other things, turtle surveys (he knows an amazing amount of info on turtles), and lionfish eradication.

8. Oh, and EVERYONE in Vieques knows and loves Arnaud. Just mentioning his name got you instant cred. And he hooked us up with some of the best food in Vieques. Every place he recommended was amazing and we ate like kings. And everywhere we mentioned him, folks would be like, “Oh Arnaud? He’s a major foodie. Did you know he’s like the best sommelier?” And we’d be like, “yeah, we know. We’ve heard.”

9) He moved his entire wine cellar to Vieques from New York. Like, 3,000 bottles. That’s insane.

10) Arnaud was wearing a Sea Shepherd’s shirt one day, which I didn’t even notice, but XFE did. While we were standing near the dive boat on our last day, I mentioned that Zodiacs (which is what the dive boat was) were used by the Sea Shepherd’s, those crazy environmentalists in Antarctica. Cool as a cucumber, Arnaud is like, “yeah, I’ve worked with those guys.” Totally incredulous, I’m like, “The hell you say. Where?”  Arnaud: “On their Mediterranean campaign stopping bluefin tuna poachers. Wish I could join them down in Antarctica sometime,” and then he got called into the dive shop. My jaw? On the ground. My head? Exploding. SO MANY QUESTIONS.

11) And finally, Arnaud has a reef named after him. Honestly, I don’t know if anything gets more pimp than that. And he didn’t just pick a spot and name it after himself. Oh no. Not our Arnaud. A local fisherman named it Arnaud’s Reef. As he humbly said, “When someone offers to name a reef after you, you don’t say no.” Oh, and by the way, that reef is straight up, tha shit. Some of the best diving and most awesome fish we saw during the four days. Including a nurse shark that XFE and Arnaud saw as we were getting back in the boat after the final dive. It was as if the shark was all, “hey Arnaud, what’s up. Saw you hanging around, thought I’d say hi.”

Not our video (obviously. Seriously, who the hell can dive and film??) but a taste of Arnaud’s Reef.

The Most Interesting Man in the World was the same guy who patiently went over the same beginner diving stuff with us day after day (sample dialogue, “Guys, you’ve got to learn to maintain your buoyancy. Check where you are in the water column and then slowly adjust” – yeah, I know, riveting right?).

This was the same guy who carried all our crap, made sure we drank enough water and wore sunscreen, the same man who rinsed our dive suits and cleaned our equipment every day, and filled out our little dive logs.

Yes, the man who got excited showing us different types of sea worms (seriously, he was waaay enthusiastic about this field of garden worms that poked up out of the ocean bottom), has lived and done some of the most amazing things. And that’s why Arnaud IS the Most Interesting Man in the World.

Stay Thirsty, Arnaud.

Totally Pretentious Food Truck Review: Sol Food in Vieques

Let’s go international for this Totally Pretentious Food Truck Review! Actually, Puerto Rico isn’t international, but whatever. It was tropical, and so was the food at Sol Food in Vieques.

Sol Food is on the corner of a busy intersection on the road to the National Wildlife Refuge. Now in its third season, Sol Food is open Thursday through Sunday, from 11 am to 4 pm. Nice hours if you can get them. We went on a Thursday at around 1 pm.

For this food truck meal, I had a very special guest, fellow food critic and lover of all things pork, XFE humored me by ordering a few things for scientific and journalistic purposes.

The menu was quite varied and reflected the aesthetic of the island. There were sandwiches, wraps, vegetarian dishes, empanadas, as well as baked goods in the form of brownies and gingerbread.

XFE, of course, ordered the pork carnitas ($6), which came two to an order and included tomato, lettuce and a sour cream sauce. I ordered the Bob Marley ($9), a jerk chicken sandwich with pineapple chutney. We also ordered a ham and cheese empanada ($3) to share. I ordered a guava sun tea ($1.50). They also had a huge selection of exotic sounding and colorfully labeled island sodas, including a coconut soda, but despite my pleas, XFE ordered only water.

Unlike previous TPFTRs, I did not rush back to my cubicle to partake of this island feast. Instead, XFE and I retired to the area behind the truck, which was replete with white plastic patio furniture. While we waited for our feast, we were regaled by the sound of barking dogs and crowing roosters. Finally, after about a five minute wait, our food arrived.

The empanada was gorgeous, fried to a dark golden crust, with huge chunks of ham and gooey cheese inside. A few dashes of Wiley’s Essence of Chernobyl hot sauce (named after the proprietors’  Siberian Husky) was the perfect vinegary complement.  It was a great start.

XFE’s carnitas were delicious and generous. The hearty flour tortillas strained under the juices of the smoky meat, but held impressively strong.

The chicken in my Bob Marley was tender and juicy, but my bread had a bit harder time holding up to the juices. And, there wasn’t enough jerk spice to stand up to the sweetness of the pineapple chutney. I liked it, but I would willingly try something else next time.

It was a solid lunch. $20 is not bad for two people, including drinks. They had friendly service, good flavors and selection, and a convenient location with plenty of parking and seating. I’d give Sol Food a strong two out of four wheels.

At Least Petunia’s Happy We’re Home

After a week of not wearing makeup, or proper pants, or even deoderant, we’re home from Vieques.

That's a panda. On a plane. Flying first class. Not on any of my flights, mind you. But I think it's hilarious.

It is a balmy 36 degrees in Alexandria this morning and overcast. This time yesterday, we were sweating by the pool, awaiting the delivery of 2 pounds of lechon (roasted whole pig).

I’m mildly sunburned, covered in mosquito bites, have a rash on the back of my right knee from swimming in my wet suit, and have totally and completely lost my manicure and pedicure (salt water and sand is quite corrosive, even on Shellac.)

But I’ll never forget the white sandy beaches, the twinkling bioluminscent bay, the variety of sea life we saw, and the delicious food that we ate.

Still, it’s good to be home. Planning and plotting our next trip.

Five (or so) Fascinating Facts About Vieques

This is our last full day on the island. Yesterday we rented a Jeep and drove all over the island, stopping at one gorgeous, white sand beach after another to snorkel or just sit and read. Today’s plan is some pool time and then a trip to the W’s spa, then dinner at Mix here at the resort.

It was one gorgeous beach after another, all to ourselves.

It’s been a great trip, and me and my travel buddy XFE are thoroughly enamored with Vieques. It’s beautiful, interesting, and a bit undiscovered. Since most of the island is a nature preserve and not open to the public, there’s a limited amount of development. Here are some other interesting things we learned in our week here in Vieques:

Vieques was used by the U.S. Navy as a bombing and testing range until 2003. And there are apparently lots of undetonated explosives on parts of the island, which leads to interesting signs such as this one.

I think this might be a bad place to snorkel.

The oldest tree on the island is more than 300 years old. It’s a ceiba tree, which is the state (? territorial?) tree of Puerto Rico.

Only slightly older than me.

The leatherback turtle, which can be seen in these waters, is gigantic and has to eat its weight in jellyfish every two days. Too bad we never saw one, especially on the day that XFE got stung by a jellyfish while we were diving.

There are 20,000 horses and 8,000 human inhabitants. These horses are everywhere. They’re like the Puerto Rican version of Irish sheep. If you know what I mean. What I’m saying is, they’re everywhere. Along with chickens. There are chickens running wild in the streets.

Vieques traffic jam.

There are no stop lights on the whole island. People just pay attention and stop at intersections to give way to oncoming traffic. It’s madness! Madness, I tell you!

Also: mofongo is the most delectable and delicious thing ever. I’ve eaten it everytime I’ve seen it on the menu, and might eat it again before I leave Vieques.

 

I Have Not Died From Scuba Yet, But The Week is Still Young

We’ve been in Puerto Rico about three days now (four if you count the travel day) and there’s one thing that’s become evident: waterboarding is a truly excellent form of torture, as those things go.

I can say that because we had our third day of scuba diving today. I probably drank less of the ocean today than I did the first two days, but only moderately less.

Right now, as I sit on my patio at the W, watching (er, actually listening, since my eyes are on the screen here) the ocean come in and out on the beach, I can feel the salt water fighting with the post-dive beer in my stomach.  And my nostrils burn from all the salt water that has made its way forcefully up my nose. But I couldn’t be more content or pleased with myself.

I’m amazed that I am actually attempting something involving large and heavy equipment, and unknown spaces. At my advanced age, no less.

Does this wetsuit make me look thin?

Scuba diving is very interesting. On day three, I can’t say I love it, but there are many reasons for this, my inherent laziness being a very large part of that. Nevertheless, I’m willing to keep going to see if some sort of love develops. I’m hoping at the least that scuba and I can be friends.

It’s true that you see things you probably could not see with snorkeling. Today we saw not one but two lion fish, which are apparently the assholes of the sea. They destroy reefs, but they are so pretty and ethereal and I was beyond thrilled to see them.

The thing holding me back into a full-blown love affair with diving is that you are so busy thinking about a billion other things (Am I neutrally buoyant? Where’s my dive buddy? How much air do I have left? Are my ears plugged? I feel like I just equalized, but my ears don’t feel QUITE clear? Is that water coming into my mask? Is it a tolerable amount of should I clear it? Oh dear, I really, REALLY hate clearing my mask). Basically, I don’t really get to enjoy the fish so much at this point.

Red Beach, Day 1. Our "confined" water dive locale.

And, it seems that, like with soooo many other things,  I’m not really a natural at this. Just like running, I feel like my body isn’t totally made for this and I’m not instinctive. In fact, almost everything we’re doing feels incredibly unnatural to me. But I guess it’s hard for anything to feel natural when you’re encased in 3 millimeters of neoprene and have a 40 pound tank strapped to you.

For example, every time we come up to the surface (which I apparently do far too quickly), our very patient and super awesome dive instructor Arnaud reminds me of a ton of stuff I keep forgetting to do, like, breathe. And, oh yeah, kick. You know, so you can actually propel your body forward in a swimming motion. Apparently just sitting at the bottom of the ocean trying to equalize your ears isn’t called “scuba diving.” I think it’s called being a paper weight. Which, I might add, I’d be very, very good at.

Pirate's Cove. Day 2 locale.

There are many reasons for my uselessness and ineptitude. For one thing, I’ve had it drilled in my head that everything out there in the ocean could possibly, and probably will, hurt you. It’s hard to relish in the beauty of the sea when you’re scared of every single thing in it. I might add, with good cause. XFE got stung by a jelly fish today. He’s fine, but honestly, if that had been me, you would have heard my hissy fit all the way back to DC and probably beyond. The tears, they woulda flowed. And, I probably would have gotten a new pair of heels out of the whole thing.

And this isn’t just the fish, mind you. I’m afraid of the plants too. I’m afraid (a) I’m going to destroy the whole entire ecosystem with one kick of my fin, thereby wiping out an entire strata of endangered plankton, and/or (b) I’m going to brush the .34 square inches of exposed skin on my body against some deeply poisonous fibroid that will paralyze me before I can swim another foot.

 

Mosquito Pier. Day 3 locale. Full of jelly fish. And lion fish.

 

Plus, for some reason, without the gift of vocalization, I’m a bit docile and timid, I’ve discovered. For example, yesterday, we were told we had 3,000 psi of air in our tanks at the start of the dive. Ever Patient Arnaud explained that when we got to 1,500, we should say something. I thought we would all be on the same psi page, so when I saw I was at or near 1,500, I didn’t say anything. When I got to 1,000, I knew I should probably say something. So, I turned to my Jacques Cousteau Wannabe Boyfriend (seriously, he is great at this scuba stuff) XFE and gave him the “WTF??” sign, having expected him to say something to Arnaud. Once we established what my psi was, XFE swam ahead and notified Arnaud. Ladies and gentlemen, I got scolded underwater! Apparently, I’m an air hog, and everybody else was still at a nice normal psi, well above 1,500. So, we had to cut the dive short, because Poe was breathing like a dying whale and draining her tank.

Speaking of XFE, he is, of course, freaking awesome at everything. He completes every single skill on the first try, without frantically clawing through the water and clinging to poor Arnaud with silent, questioning (and bulging) eyes.

But, apparently, we’re doing quite well, according to Arnaud. I think he’s grading on a curve. Plus, he’s French, so I don’t know how trustworthy he is, although he has given us some pretty great dinner recommendations, so there’s that.