Saturday, August 15, 2009

San Juan / Vieques, Puerto Rico 2008 Trip Report

My family of five, two adults and three teens enjoyed a San Juan, PR / Vieques vacation from June 17-25. I hope someone can benefit as much as I did from reading trip reports on Fodor’s!

Old San Juan / Travel to Vieques

On Tuesday, June 17th, we departed Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport. We live in a small town in northeast Oklahoma and found a great deal on flights from this airport. The airport is so small that we parked in long-term parking and then walked to the terminal. After uneventful Delta flights, we arrived in San Juan about 8:00 pm. During landing a great many of the passengers burst out in spontaneous applause. My family and I all looked at each other like we must have missed something. We never did figure that out. Another airport oddity was all of the people standing outside of the airport windows peering in at the arriving passengers. I guess that they are not allowed inside the arrival area? We felt as if we were on display as we made our exit in search of a cab. We certainly felt on the edge of adventure with a great many of the voices around us speaking a language we don’t understand!

Cabs were easy to locate with fixed rates. We paid $20 plus one dollar for each bag for our short trip to the Sheraton Old San Juan. The hotel was a typical Sheraton but in an excellent location right across the street from the cruise ship dock and an easy walk into Old San Juan. Amenities we enjoyed were the rooftop pool with a great view of the ships and a small casino. Our first meal in Puerto Rico was at the Chicago Burger Company located at the Sheraton. What a long trip for a Chicago burger, but we were just too tired to search out a better option (my last trip report was about Chicago!). During our meal the friendly waitperson asked us about our vacation plans. We told him that we were spending a day touring Old San Juan but then we were excited to be heading to Vieques. I guess our Oklahoma accents and pronunciation were really off because it took several tries before he could figure out where we were going!

Prepared, due to this website, we set out on Wednesday with a copy of a walking tour of Old San Juan from Puerto Rico Day Trips. It was great to not only enjoy the sites but to also know what we were looking at!! Our three teenagers were very patient with Mom wanting to read the description of each building, fountain, etc. The highlights were of course the El Morro Fort and I loved the San Juan Cathedral. We are not much for serious shopping but we enjoyed purchasing souvenirs. The walking tour is in three parts and we made it through both one and two before we were too hot and tired to continue and headed back to the hotel pool. Later that evening we walked to the Hard Rock Café for our evening meal. Old San Juan was beautiful; we enjoyed taking a lot of photos.

Thursday morning started early with a 6:00 am pick up from Professional Luxury Transportation. Our friendly driver was waiting for us and we headed out to catch the 9:30 am Fajardo ferry. The driver did speak English but after asking him three times what his name was I was embarrassed not to have understood. He pointed out a few sights on the way and we caught most of it. We found it interesting throughout the trip that even when Spanish speaking people are speaking English we had difficulty understanding. We speak a bit sloooower in Oklahoma. The cost for the service was $180.00 round trip for five people in a comfortable van. We were very pleased with the service and would highly recommend them.

I was a bit apprehensive about taking the ferry due to comments read on Fodor’s board, but really didn’t have much choice with the cost comparison to flying. We arrived at the ferry port about 7:30 am and there was already a very long line for tickets (approx 50 people maybe more). Uh oh! Within a few moments we realize that there are two ticket windows and the long line is for Culebra. The Vieques line had four people in it and now us. It was an interesting wait for the tickets. A nice festive atmosphere with many people obviously going on a day trip to the beach, but we certainly felt the odd ones out. When the ticket office opened we purchased round trip tickets for five for $20.00. The lady mentions that the Vieques ferry usually leaves from section four so we head into the building to get in a new line.

When we get inside we see that section four is labeled for “resident or special travelers” and there is another section labeled for “visitors” or something similar. Hmm…what to do? So we start asking around and are told by several different people that we should be in the “visitor” line. Eventually there are several more tourists in the line with us and we have some good conversations while waiting. We are feeling pretty good to be first in the line and are not worried at this point about being able to get on the ferry, but that whole section four thing is nagging at me and that area seems to have a lot more people in it than could possibly be just residents. Announcements are made over a speaker in Spanish but we can’t understand a word. That is a bit disconcerting and my teenagers at this point are pretty uncomfortable with the fact that we don’t know exactly where to go or what to do and are clearly the minority. Great travel lessons!!!! One tourist near us in line that speaks Spanish walks over to the section four to make sure we are in the right place and she is told we are. BUT...when it comes time to board EVERYONE hurriedly crowds into section four except for the tourists standing under that “visitor” sign. After a few minutes when they are all on board and we are standing there looking stupid a guy pushing a broom herds us over to section four to board the boat. LOL! They store our luggage in the interior of the boat and we all split up to find seats. Of course according to my kids I should have known how all this works! In hindsight, I don’t know how I could have done anything differently, but heads up to future travelers! The ferry ride itself was pretty pleasant. Those of us on the outside upper deck enjoyed the sun, breeze and occasional face full of water.

Vieques has been on my list of places to visit for quite some time so it felt great after an hour or so to see the green island and be arriving at the dock!

Getting OFF the ferry was easy. We gathered up the luggage and headed on our way.

“Casa des Los Frutales” was to be our home in Vieques. I located the house on Enchanted Isle on the internet which was a very helpful website for planning this trip. The house manager met us at the dock in the Jeep that we also rented from the homeowner, which made things very simple! We squeezed in with one teenager on my lap, for the thankfully short ride, as we took our first look at Vieques.

When renting over the internet there is always an element of risk that the accommodations will live up to expectations, but we continued to have good luck in this area with Los Frutales! The house, which is located basically in the middle of the island, is a wonderfully maintained, comfortable vacation home. We enjoyed the many fruit trees, privacy, pool, and beautifully decorated interior. If anyone would like more details just let me know, I could go on and on about the house! We had one issue during our stay concerning a problem with the electricity and the house manager was immediately helpful and we even received a follow up phone call a day later from the owners just to make sure everything was taken care of. Great house and wonderful service!

After quick sibling fight on who gets what bedroom we geared up with swimsuits and snorkeling equipment to hit the first of many beaches! On our short drive to Esperanza, which we determined would be an easy first snorkel site; we continued to form our first impressions with the island. Our teenagers only other trip to the Caribbean was to Grand Cayman and although I tried to describe to them the differences in the two islands they were not quite prepared for the more modest homes, what we would call “run down” buildings and the more charming aspect of livestock in the street. Although I was prepared for the modest living and didn’t expect a “tourist” town, the roadside trash was a surprise to me and I will be honest, continued to be an irritant to me during our stay. Unfortunately, when we walked from the car to the beach by the old pier in Esperanza we walked through a lot of trash on the ground. I can completely understand the cost and logistical dilemma of discarding large items like refrigerators, but just common roadside garbage is especially disheartening. We snorkeled around the pier and did see a large school of fish but not much else. It had been a long day by now so we made a quick trip to the grocery store before heading back to the house. I was very surprised to find grocery prices not much higher than home. I really didn’t need to lug that extra suitcase full of food all the way from Oklahoma! We finished the first of five great evenings relaxing at the house and pool.

The next four days we explored the whole island!

Snorkeling: We knew not to expect the snorkeling to be as good as Grand Cayman, or St. John, but even so we were very disappointed. When we would spot a fish or a sea fan, etc. it would be exciting because it was so RARE. My husband did get a glimpse of a departing turtle while snorkeling on Blue Beach and we did see a lot of starfish at Mosquito Pier, along with a lot of underwater garbage, but never found a snorkeling area from the shore that we considered even “fair” or felt comfortable at as novice snorkelers. For example, at Mosquito Pier (which is really a mile long rock seawall that extends into the water) we were seeing starfish and a few fish, but the water got very deep very quickly, like dark deep where you couldn’t see well, and we were the only people there which sounds great but in reality made us uncomfortable. More experienced snorkelers may have a different perspective but for us snorkeling was disappointing. Thankfully the only disappointment of the week!!

Beaches: The beaches though were a different story. We went to beautiful beach after beautiful beach after beautiful beach. Many times we were the ONLY people there. All of the beaches were very clean; many had picnic areas and shade. Two highlights were Navio Beach where we enjoyed the waves and the Black Sand Beach where we picked up many shells. We walked approximately a mile down the Black Sand Beach and never saw another soul!! WOW! Vieques is ALL about the beaches!

Sail / Snorkel Trip with Captain Bill (741-1037): In our attempt to experience better snorkeling we booked a half-day snorkel trip with Captain Bill. Captain Bill has sailed his boat from Boston to Venezuela and many places in between. While talking to him on the phone I was assured that he knows what he is doing, is licensed and that he will take us to a great snorkeling spot. He also mentions that he doesn’t do “sissy” trips, but when I share with him that I AM a sissy and one with motion sickness issues he promises to take it easy on me. We met him at the dock in Isabella and due to my concerns about the possibility of getting sick he takes us straight to the reef that can be seen when you are arriving by ferry. I am having a bit of anxiety when he ties up the boat, but really, really want to see what is under that water, so we all gear up and hop in. My husband takes the lead and I bring up the rear as we swim out into what feels like open ocean with huge waves (novice snorkeler perception here). We spent under an hour in the water and did see some huge coral, lots of sea fans, and a few fish, and then head back to the boat. I think we disappointed Captain Bill that we didn’t snorkel longer, but it was just all we could handle. The waves were a bit much for us and the open ocean feeling with no other people made us uncomfortable. I never could really relax and enjoy it due to trying to keep track of my kids. We could have spent the rest of the time sailing, but unfortunately we found out that we are not sailors. It was a quiet trip back to the dock with four out of five of us seasick! I am proud to say that I managed not to embarrass the family by heaving over the boat, but it was a very close call. Even though the snorkel trip wasn’t exactly smooth, we were happy to have had the opportunity to see a bit more of underwater Vieques and to have had what will probably be the “once in a lifetime” sailing experience! If you would like to sail out of Vieques I can’t recommend Captain Bill highly enough! He is a great captain and was VERY patient with a boat full of sick Okie landlubbers!!!!!

Bio Bay: We did the Bio Bay trip with Island Adventures. Excellent guides and the pontoon boat was more our speed (sorry Capt. Bill!) The Bio Bay is as great as everyone says and definitely the favorite activity for all of us!!!!!!

Fort: The fort was closed for the day when we arrived, but as we were walking around the grounds taking some photos, an employee stepped out and told us to come on in and have a look. We took advantage of his offer and enjoyed the historical displays. The fort also has a wide selection of books for purchase. We purchased a book called “Vieques: A Photographically Illustrated Guide to the Island, It’s History and It’s Culture” by Gerald Singer. The book is published by Sombrero Publishing Company, PO Box 1031, St. John 00831. My best tip for future travelers is to purchase and enjoy this book before visiting Vieques or to find a copy as soon as you arrive! It is an easy read with beautiful photos. Without the book we never would have found the Black Sand Beach, which was one of our favorites! Learning about the relationship between the US Navy and the island was especially enlightening and for me as an American, embarrassing.

Gas: One tip I would pass along is to fill up the gas tank ASAP! On about our third day we went to get gas and none was to be had. Boy, that was a shock to all of us, and another great travel lesson. It put a bit of a damper on that day because we had no idea when more gas would arrive and with only a 1/8 of a tank felt forced to conserve. Thankfully more gas did arrive and we were VERY lucky to be one of the first cars in line. I have no idea what the usual situation is with gas availability, but we saw some very, very long lines of cars. One other tip that I hope someone will benefit from…wear your seatbelts! When we were informed that gas was once again available, in our excited rush to get to the station, my husband and I did not buckle up. We ALWAYS buckle up but for some reason didn’t this time! We had the pleasure of donating $50.00 each to officials of Vieques. It made us feel a bit better that they seemed to be stopping everyone, residents and tourist alike. Oh well, our fault, so we paid with good humor. What is one more hundred right?

After four great beach days and relaxing family fun nights at our lovely house we headed back to San Juan, this time on an almost empty ferry. I told my kids to mark my words when they visit Vieques again in twenty years or so it will be a very different island. I feel very blessed to have made a visit in these early tourism years.

Our driver was waiting at the ferry port with a smile and was kind enough to make a quick stop at Wal-Mart before dropping us off at the Embassy Suites in San Juan. The Embassy Suites was a good choice for us. The location is minutes from the airport and we enjoyed the two block walk to the beach. The rates also included a free breakfast, a good value for our last night. The next day was a long one with uneventful flights home.

I am always a bit sad to have vacations come to an end but this time a bit less due to the fact that my husband and I couldn’t agree on the answer to the age old question “the mountains or the beach??” so next week we are heading to Colorado. We will see how the Okie landlubbers do with river rafting!!

Thanks for reading! Happy Travels!

Travel Links:

Delta Airlines
Vieques Island
Professional Luxury Transport, 1-787-640-6900
Culebra Island

Grand Cayman
St.John (US Virgin Islands)
Captain Bill, 741-1037

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