Vieques, Puerto Rico
Credit: Courtesy W Hotel

Vieques, Puerto Rico

Natural beauty of the white-sand-azure-water variety abounds in the Caribbean – but it loses a little something when obscured by beach towels, umbrellas, and reddish, sunscreen-slathered backs. The crowds in Puerto Rico – attractive as they may be – necessitate the ferry ride to Vieques, a riot of green hills rising out of the Caribbean eight miles east of the protectorate’s mainland. More local getaway than international destination, the island has numbers that work out in travelers' favor: 10,000 residents, 42 beaches, 1 resort.

Opened in 2010, the W Retreat & Spa-Vieques Island is filled with upscale comforts – a two-tiered infinity pool, two glittering beaches – one of which is European style, "whatever you take that to mean," as the hotel's general manager says, and an enthusiastically used fire pit overlooking the ocean. Wild horses (said to be descended from those brought by long-ago conquistadors) wander between guest houses. But the big draw here is the hotel’s inconvenient location. The on-site rental car agency offers visitors SUVs because visitors need SUVs if they want to navigate Vieques’s intermittently paved roads.

Vieques remains relatively sleepy largely because over half of its land is protected natural preserve. The U.S. Navy conducted bombing training exercises on the island beginning in the 1940s and eventually took over 70 percent of the land. When the navy left in 2003, it turned much of the land over to the Fish and Wildlife Service, creating the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge.

Before retreating, the navy unintentionally created some unusual attractions: A runway for bringing in munitions and other supplies has become an all-purpose recreation area. Jutting out into the ocean, Mosquito Pier hosts joggers and bikers as well as snorkelers and scuba divers, who flock here to catch a glimpse of the marine animals that live among the pilings. It's an especially good place to spot sea turtles. At nearby Mosquito Beach, tourists scoop up the starfish that proliferate in the reeds.

The biggest draw in Vieques is its many pristine and uncrowded beaches. One single, nameless access road on the southern part of the island leads to eight beaches, including famed Red Beach, a picturesque sweep of palm trees and sand ideal for swimming and paddleboarding. But even on a relatively crowded day, with the main islanders squeezing in one last summer picnic, the beach has plenty of room.

Vieques is also home to one of the handful of bioluminescent bays on Earth. Mosquito Bay is full of tiny microorganisms that glow blue when disrupted, which means nighttime kayakers can navigate with just the light swirling around their paddles. Deeper down, fish darting through the depths leave gleaming trails behind them.

More information: The ferry to Vieques costs $4 and leaves from Fajardo, on the main island's northeast corner, several times a day. You can also take an 18-minute hopper flight from San Juan International Airport to Vieques. JetBlue, American, United, and other major carriers providing transfer service. If you're looking to eat and drink with the locals, visit the bars and restaurants along the main drag in Esperanza, on the southern part of the island.