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JANUARY 19-23, 2004:

When we told people we were going to Vieques, their reaction was either "where?" or "isn't that a Navy bombing range?" After years of protests, the Navy left in Spring 2003 and this small island seven miles east of Puerto Rico is bound to become popular with folks who love the beach and don't require a lot of amenities.

We flew nonstop to the San Juan airport and then took a tiny Vieques Air Link plane to Vieques. We took a publico to Island Rental Car, which had a Chevy Tracker waiting for us, and drove to Hacienda Tamarindo for our four-night stay. The Hacienda is an attractive 16-room inn on a hill overlooking the Caribbean, and graciously provides beach chairs, towels, coolers and ice for its guests. It's a five-minute drive from the seaside town of Esperanza. The rooms at Hacienda Tamarindo are comfortable and immaculate. They serve a nice breakfast and the parrot Shaboo often comes to beg fruit.

The beaches in Vieques are pristine and empty, with soft, white sand, tropical vistas and, at least when we were there, calm blue seas that were warm and clear--perfect for snorkeling. There was plenty to see right off the beach--lots of small fish, live conch and starfish, and a huge variety of coral, all just a few feet beneath us.

Each day we drove to one or two different locations. Some beaches offer remote, private coves, and others are long stretches dotted with wooden cabanas for shade. The Navy named many beaches after colors that bear no relation to the vista. Red Beach, our favorite, is a crescent of soft white sand around a placid blue bay. If you snorkel past the rocks on the left and around the bend, you come to a profusion of sea fans.

The main town on Vieques, Isabel Segundo, is somewhat shabby, but the rest of the island is attractive.

Our main impetus for visiting Vieques was to see its bioluminescent bay, so we experienced it twice at night--with Island Adventures (www.biobay.com) and with Golden Heron Kayaks (www.golden-heron.com).

• •Listen to David's radio report (MP3) on the bioluminescent bay aired Feb. 12, 2004 on the Voice of America's program "Coast to Coast" •

Island Adventures transported the evening's group in a schoolbus to the Biobay, where we boarded a boat. The crew was very knowledgable and did a good job explaining both the bioluminescence and the night sky.

There's an exceptionally dense concentration of bioluminescent organisms in this particular bay, which has the unfortunate name of Mosquito Bay, and each one gives off a bright burst of light when disturbed. So as the boat motored to the middle of the bay we'd see glowing areas caused by fish flying out of the water and stingrays racing away. But the best part was swimming in the bay. Almost everyone went in the water to enjoy the phenomenon up close. A GLOW would surround the swimmers, who looked like they were lit from below. Our favorite experience was just wriggling fingers in the water--we could see the individual bursts of light splash off our hands, like diamonds flashing.

The following day we took Golden Heron's afternoon and evening kayak trip. About a dozen people met in Esperanza and carpooled to the Biobay, where plastic kayaks were waiting. With three guides we set off to a nearby area of dense mangrove channels, through which we didn't so much kayak as pull ourselves along. Then we had to kayak across the bay and through the channel into the sea to get to Novillo Beach.

From the beach we snorkeled over a sea fan garden and returned to enjoy the sunset. The guides distributed our dinner, made a bonfire and sang. At dusk we paddled back into the Biobay, reaching the middle by dark. It was magical to see the GLOW [photo from www.golden-heron.com] caused by each stroke of our oars--and later as we eased out of the kayaks into the water under a canopy of stars.

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