Unique Vieques. Casa del Frances: Bad guests get Miss Piggy sheets

FOR all you folks who want to add something new to your fried-dough repertoire - has Puerto Rico got a place for you! It's Vieques, a tiny island of about 8,000 people in the appropriate shape of a loaf of French bread, just off Puerto Rico's east coast. Here, during three days last November, in the sleepy, seedy, capital city of Isabel Segunda, everyone flocked to the central plaza for singing, dancing, cockfights, and throwing lighted matches across crowded sidewalks. It was all part of the first Festival Arepas (a celebration to be held this year on December 9-11). It was clear from the start that it would become an annual affair. Small stalls and kitchenettes-on-wheels sold arepas, a hot, rather tasteless and greasy, local fried dough that is a staple in every kitchen here. During the festival, tons of the coaster-size pieces of bread were eagerly consumed by skateboarders, strollers, grandmothers, American Navy servicemen, and tots alike. Local soft drinks work as well as dishwashing detergent to help dissolve the fat and wash these sinkers down. Be warned about one drink canned under the catchy non sequitur ``Kola Champagne India.'' The pink, bubble-gum-flavored carbonated beverage does not help a mouthful of fried dough go down.

Between the many spirited festivals and holidays held here, things don't just quiet down; they virtually come to a screeching halt. There's little in the way of entertainment in the capital city, apart from a bit of shopping at the local video store, wig shop, supermarket, or at Central Comercial, where you may find everything in the way of bicycle, scuba gear, and hamster-care needs.

If you do find yourself in Isabel Segunda around lunch time, stop in at the Green Palace Pizza, or, better yet, stop in for a bowl of chili or a fish dish at La Cueva. The latter is a small restaurant off the city square run by an expatriate New York policeman named Bob. ``I used to run a bar in the States,'' he says. ``But I got sick of breaking up fights.'' There's little to worry Bob here. Even in the controlled frenzy of an arepa festival, the locals are pleasant and well behaved.

With the exception of Fort Isabel Segunda - a 19th-century brick structure that crowns the city, and a sprinkling of pretty villas, Vieques's true beauty lies outside the city limits - mostly along its 40 uncrowded, palm-trimmed beaches.

A 20-minute drive from Isabel Segunda on a paved road lined with hedges of red hibiscus is Esperanza Beach Club and Marina. Once the center of the sugar industry, this area is now given over to fishers of snapper, conch, grouper, crab, lobster, and octopus.

The tiny island off shore is a perfect stop for snorkeling or reef diving. You'll find nine-foot-long leopard rays out there, and a few puffer fish among the striped butterfly fish and colorful wrasse. ``Just don't touch the tail of the ray,'' we were warned as one ``flew'' off 20 feet below us.

Certainly the most interesting lodging on the island is a half-mile from Esperanza at La Casa del Frances. The Great House of this former plantation was built around the turn of the century. The formal, white two-story building, with its central atrium, is filled with Haitian art and Terry Price sculptures. A certain Tennessee Williams kind of steamy elegance prevails. It's now run by a colorful, delightfully eccentric ex-Bostonian, Irving Greenblatt. (Eccentric Bostonian, I was told by one of our group, was redundant. An obvious dig at my hometown - and a remark I did my best to grin and ignore!)

``This is the only hotel in the world where people don't steal the towels,'' Dr. Greenblatt said as he gave an informal tour of the place. ``They're too thin and scratchy. In fact, people send us towels. The bed linens don't match, either. And if anyone complains, they get the Miss Piggy sheets,'' he added, milking the twinkle in his eye. Everything is laid back and informal. ``We put people to work, too,'' says cook Jim Arnett. ``If guests come into the kitchen looking bored, we'll have them prepare and serve the hors d'oeuvres. And if anyone wants a peanut butter sandwich during the day, they just come in and help themselves.''

No matter how you fill your days on Vieques - fishing, swimming, tracking wild horses, or chasing mongooses - don't leave without a swim in glowing Mosquito Bay on a dark and preferably moonless night. (Actually the name Mosquito bugged the local government, hence its new, more appropriate name - Phosphorescent Bay.)

A dive into this inky water agitates microscopic dinoflagellates organisms, which give off a cold, luminescent light. The whole effect has been variously described as like swimming in champagne or nuclear waste! However you see it, the experience is great fun and exhilarating: a bit like playing Tinkerbell underwater, or the swimming pool scene in the movie ``Cocoon.''

The night life here is pretty much confined to the cockroach population; so if you prefer a more active after-dark scene, it's best to stay in San Juan, on the main island. There are no high-rise hotels or casinos, and, if there is a disco in town, I missed it.

But if you want to get away from traffic, noise, and city life, and stop - or at least slow down - Vieques may be just the place you're looking for.

If you go

There's little more you'll need in Vieques than a bathing suit, towel, an appetite for arepas, and a can of industrial-strength mosquito repellent.

If you wish to stay at La Casa del Frances, you must book well in advance. Dr. Greenblatt may accept you, and then, again, he may not. Write him a nice letter at Box 458, Vieques Island, PR 00765. There's a 10-day minimum in season; rates start at about $60.

It's not quite as much fun but certainly easier to get a room at Esperanza Beach Club & Marina, PO Box 1569, Vieques Island, PR 00765.

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