A bit about us...

We are a modern family of three, living on less than two acres with a 3,000 square foot garden that meets our produce needs and allows us to share with friends and neighbors. Our laying flock of chickens seems to expand each year as we raise chicks each Spring to replace older hens. This blog is more of a journal, if you will, for us to chronicle and share our experiences in the yard, garden and kitchen. It is our hope that along the way a few folks might learn something, be entertained, or simply enjoy sharing in our stories and the lessons we learn on a daily basis. I named the blog after the times when I am the happiest, when I am elbow deep in earth.

Monday, February 16, 2015

A Week in Paradise: Vieques, Puerto Rico - Day 1

While waking up without an alarm was magical, we did end up rising considerably earlier than we expected, largely because of the time change.  Vieques is on Atlantic Time and does not observe daylight savings time.  During our visit, that meant the time was an hour ahead of home.  The timing was good since we knew we needed showers and breakfast before we called for our rental car, which was to be ready for us at 9. As we stepped out onto our patio, the view was breathtaking. A little sliver of rainbow danced on the horizon, adding some joy to the beginning of our trip.  

Since Shane's dad passed away, we have repeatedly seen small sections of rainbow in the sky, at various levels, and each time it reminds us of him.  The "why" is a story for another time, but the point is, this little bright spot felt like a smile of love and approval from him, and that warmed our hearts.  

After a satisfying continental breakfast outside our room, I took a walk on the short section of beach in front of the hotel.  Coconuts decorated the beach, alongside pretty little rocks, bits of coral, shells, seaglass and seaweed.  

I went to the hotel office to see if they would call the rental car company to arrange for our pick-up. The nice lady in the office indicated that "Betty" had already called but they didn't want to wake us if we were still sleeping since she knew we arrived later the day before.  

She called Betty back and, in just minutes, a shiny new (2015 - with about 1100 miles on it) black jeep pulled in to pick us up.  She took us back to the rental office for paperwork and gave us a map and some pretty clear instructions.  We were warned that some jungle roads would be too narrow and would undoubtedly scratch the paint (and told that light scratches were expected - dents and scratches to the metal were chargeable offenses).  

She told us about a few "must see" things and also warned of places she preferred we not drive her brand new jeep, writing a very clear "NO" on the map in those locations.  We hadn't taken anything with us (beach gear, nice camera, swimsuits, etc.), but decided to do a little exploring anyway....  We headed West on the main road to see where it led.  

Our first stop was to see this incredible Ceiba Tree (pronounced say-bah), which is said to be over 300 years old.  Before the modern airport was built, planes used the tree as a marker for landing on the dirt strip that once was there.

It is a remarkable and huge old tree, covered in thorns that range in size up to the diameter of a fat highlighter. It's needless to say, this tree is not friendly for climbing, hanging from or touching, really - not that you should, it is a historic icon on the island, after all.

If I remember correctly, it is a drought deciduous tree, losing its leaves in dry spells, which explains why it had so few leaves while we were there - in the dry season. It also doesn't bloom every year, so it is very special when it does. We weren't sure if these were blossoms forming, or seed pods, but they were very interesting!

Most signs on the island are hand painted art works, as this sign for the park was.  There was also a small building (likely used at one time by the NAVY) and informational signs as well, teaching us about this old iconic tree.

We could see the water through some nearby trees, so we drove over to see what little beach might be there. When we passed the small trees, we found a narrow, but beautiful little beach with a great view of the big island. We were surprised to find this little boat beached and falling apart. The colors were so striking, I had to get a photo of it. The water was really stirred up and not as clear as we might have expected.

We continued on westward to see what else there was to see. It was hard to believe that this is the dry season considering how lush and green everything seemed.

It didn't seem that any roads had lines or were even wide enough, in most places, for two cars. Some were paved with asphalt, many were dirt. In the case of the latter, they were often riddled with enormous pot holes. Getting to many locations in less than a four wheel drive vehicle is just not possible, and certainly not advisable.

An adventure down a random road found us at this abandoned military bunker. We weren't really sure where we were in relation to other things on the island, only that the road had gotten too narrow to continue and we were grateful to find a wider spot near this bunker to turn around.  Even though Betty said to expect scratches, it really was nerve-wracking to hear the thorns and vines scraping their way down the sides of a brand new vehicle. Sccccccrreeeeeeeeee-eeeee-eeee-eech. Yikes, it still makes me shiver to think about that sound!

Here's a shot that really shows how the roads are truly single lane routes.  Keep in mind, they aren't one way roads, either. If you meet another car, you either find a spot wide enough to scoot past one another on the shoulder, or one car must back up to a place where it is possible.

As we started to get hungry and contemplate finding our way into town for lunch, we happened upon this sign, which we later learned is where the tour groups park to take tours of the abandoned sugar mill ruins.  The tour happens once every two weeks and was actually occurring while we were out exploring, and so we missed our shot to go.

There was one small building near the parking area and it was remarkable.  We will have to make sure we visit next during a week the tour is being held.

Since we had gone about as far west as we could go on the regular road, we decided to head out to Playa Punta Arenas, formerly known by the NAVY as Green Beach.  Betty was clear that we could explore that area as long as we stopped going in her jeep when we came to pot holes full of water, as there is no way to tell how deep they might be and  they could be very damaging.  So, when we came to this water across the road, we were worried. I got out to see how deep it was and found it was barely ankle deep and that it was concrete... apparently meant to connect habitat on both sides of the road.  I assessed and walked through the water, waving to Shane when I reached the other side.  I am sure I was entertaining to Shane as I squealed and danced my way across, watching little figure 8 puffer fish swim around my feet and off the road area to safety.

Along the road, there were little pull-off areas large enough for one car to park, providing semi-private access to small sections of beach.  We drove for quite a while and decided to stop here. We stepped out of the trees once again to a beautiful view and crystal clear water.  A fallen palm tree laid at the water's edge.

We noticed that here, too, there was very little sandy beach.  Just as it had been near the Ceiba tree, the water laps right up to the tree lines in many places.  We spent a short time looking for shells (I found a pretty little green sea urchin test while we were there!) and taking in the sight before we decided it was definitely time to get some lunch.

We made our way out toward the "main road" and saw this little community along the way.  It appeared to be a commune of some form, with very small, seemingly well kept, residences that very obviously do not have electricity or running water. Some had water tanks on top of or next to the homes, and many had signs with family names on them.  A little research has shown us this land (500 acres) was set aside for 300 families who were landless to settle on in 2008.

Our drive was slowed by some other residents, of the four-hooved variety.

Shane drove us down to Esperanza (the only other city on the island) for lunch, where we parked in a community lot and walked into town to eat. About half way down the street, we liked the look of Duffy's and found seats at the bar. We were more than pleased to find some craft brews to cool off with while we waited for our food to arrive.

After filling our bellies, we walked the main street in Esperanza toward a store Shane had spotted as we drove into town with beautiful dresses for sale.  On the way, we stopped at a small museum and learned a bit about all the different sands at the beaches and the sugar mill tour (that we had missed).  The dress shop was fruitful, resulting in two new dresses for me and one for Lexi as well.

There were vendors on the Malecon, a bit like a farmer's market, with fresh coconuts and crafts for sale.  Shane picked up a great leather bracelet, we grabbed a bracelet of another kind for Lexi to match her dress and took a few pictures of the coastline in Esperanza.  If you look closely, you can see another beached and abandoned boat pressed against the shore.

Having already had a pretty full day of exploration, we decided to head back to Bravo Beach Hotel (BBH) to clean up and get ready for our evening out.  We had reservations after dinner for a memorable excursion and wanted to make sure we were on time.

On our way back to the jeep, we passed these great planters outside a bar only open on the weekends with a sign offering "Husband daycare" while the wife shops and entertains herself.  I loved the clever planter tables that proudly display the Puerto Rican flag as well.

The view from the parking area was equally lovely with boats moored waiting, presumably, for their owners to return from a day on Vieques to head back to the big island.

After a lie down and outfit change at BBH, I couldn't help but go back out for a walk on the little beach.  The tide was out, so I was able to walk further down the beach and explore a bit more.  Additionally, there were some things exposed that had not been on my previous walk.

These pretty snails were clinging to what appeared to be concrete just off the shoreline.  It almost looked as if the concrete was drawn in a wide line all along that particular beach.  My best guess is that it was done to help break big waves that come in before they get to the not so sturdy walls lining the properties there.

One of the common architectural features used in the area are formed concrete pillars that make up many a fence line and railing on the island.  This one had either come loose from its home in a storm or had been discarded at some point, and had found its way on to the beach, just steps from our room.

We had only been on the island one day and I was already falling in love with it and all the treasures to be found on the beaches. This beautiful green rock reminded me of malachite as it sat bathed in sea water. I picked it up and set it near the steps to the pool deck to give me time to decide if I really wanted to find a way to take a fairly large rock home with me.

It was soon time to make our way to dinner, and since we were supposed to meet the tour group at the parking lot for Sun Bay Beach, it made sense to return to Esperanza.  Since we really weren't dressed for anything formal, we walked right on past a couple of nicer looking restaurants with more formally dressed folks already seated.  As we approached Bili, it looked more our speed and had outdoor seating (as most places do, some have only outdoor).

The meal, the drinks and the view were exceptional.  The company... second to none!

The floor at Bili was hard packed sand for the outside seating area and the colors of the chairs and tables popped against the neutral earthy tone.

The sun set over the ocean while we enjoyed our meal and we finally relaxed into the idea of being able to do what we wanted, when we felt like it. We had to relearn habits like eating when we were hungry, not because the time dictated it was a particular meal time.

That was such a good feeling.  It allowed us to begin reconnecting as husband and wife as well.  We get so wound up in our work and home routines that we sometimes forget to look at and talk directly to one another.

It was soon time to meet the tour group, so we made our way to Sun Bay.  The van with its glowing green beacon was exactly where the confirmation email had detailed it would be. We waited for the other guests to arrive and received our first orientation describing what were about to experience.  We were headed for a place called Mosquito Bay to take a clear bottom kayak tour.  It is necessary to take the tour at night, since the highlight of the trip is that Mosquito Bay is one of, if not the, brightest bioluminescent bays in the world.  The short story is this... there are these tiny one celled organisms called dinoflagellates that emit a brief burst of blue green light when the water around them is disturbed.  It is unbelievably beyond words, cool.

Imagine being able to reach to the sky and drag the stars around with your fingertips, leaving light trails everywhere your hand passes.  It's something like that.  It takes special equipment to photograph the phenomenon, and we certainly didn't have that in our kayak.  There are some things in life that are worth experiencing over taking pictures or video. This is one.  The glow is brightest in the darkest phases of the moon and we planned our honeymoon dates around the moon phases to make sure we would be on the island during prime viewing time.  My heavens, was that ever worth it!  After a good paddle around the bay, one guide (there were three with our group of 16 in 8 kayaks) tied us all together and spent time teaching us about the bay, the creatures in it and then about constellations and the movement of the stars through the night sky.

After nearly two hours on the water, we VERY reluctantly paddled back to shore to take the shuttle van back to our cars.  The bay was an absolutely magical end to an amazing day of exploration and settling into our island vibe for the week.

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