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The Vieques secret is out - book this laid-back beach bolthole

W hotel, Vieques in Puerto Rico.


State Road 200; Vieques Island; Puerto Rico; 787-741-4100;; 157 guestrooms and suites. Rooms from $261. No eco-rating.

Vieques, a small island 12 kilometres off mainland Puerto Rico, is known for its spectacular beaches and relaxed vibe. For years, though, its notoriety was as a testing ground for the US Navy. The military left in 2004 but, because of their 70-year presence, there hasn't been any unsightly development on the island. Vieques enjoyed a brief period as a well-kept secret among discreet travellers. But it was only a matter of time before it would become a hot spot. The arrival of a W hotel on the island sealed it.

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On past stays at a W in Montreal and Times Square, I was annoyed by the constant W-speak, an integral part of the chain's super branding. The concierge provides Whatever/Whenever service. The kitchen provides "Wiknik" baskets. The pool is called "Wet." Although the consonant is heard often, here the company has noted the Vieques ethos. The overall feel is cool, not corn dog.


Much lauded Milan-based, Spanish designer-Patricia Uriquoila was hired to outfit the property (a W retrofit of the former Wyndham Martineau Bay). She has stamped the property throughout with her signature stylish eclecticism and pops of colour. The look is organic, with a local, even ethnic feel, mercifully, rather then overly sleek or urban. Some walls are made of patchwork wood reclaimed from the original Wyndham. Others are covered in geometric-patterned, laser-cut screens. B and B Italia and Moroso sofas mix it up with black leather chairs and woven plastic stools that look like Chinese lanterns. The Living Room, a lobby/bar area that sits both inside and outside, is scattered with hanging chairs and day bed cocoons.


A focal point in each room is a round chaise longue called "Potato/Patata" strewn with inviting pillows. Other Milan-furniture-fair-gone-loco pieces are bathtubs covered in corrugated steel and a scattering of mismatched doorknobs on a wall near the entrance for hanging clothes. The mesh curtain "wall" separating bed and bathroom was for me another example of the tiresome boutique hotel trend of blurring bathroom bedroom frontiers. (Am I the only one who prefers the mystique of private ablutions?) My room, a second floor Seaside Escape, overlooked the pool and put me in the auditory line of relentless Euro dance music from the pool-area bar, though the tunes were so good I wasn't bothered. At night the soundtrack gave way to the rhythmic chirping of native coqui frogs. Other genuine island pleasures were also close at hand: Vieques (pronounced bee-a-kay) is known for its wild horses, often found eating mangos off trees.


There's a 24-hour gym, though who'd use it when you can swim in a sea that looks as if it has never seen man or machine? There are also twice daily outdoor yoga classes and an enormous spa with locally inspired treatments, such as the café-con-coco that uses Puerto Rican coffee grounds. When I went for a dip I discovered music is piped into the pool via submerged speakers. The white sand beaches fronting the property (including an adult only topless beach) are beyond lovely; the whole place is so inviting you're tempted to never venture off the property. But then you'd miss the deserted coves, stellar snorkelling, and an eerie bioluminescent bay where dinoflagellate micro-organisms glow when disturbed, making a late-night kayak trip feel like you're moving through aurora borealis. Guests should note that the W "taxes" you with a $60 a day resort fee that includes Wi-Fi access, towels, airport shuttle and, oddly, use of pool.

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Once I got over reception answering the phone, with the I Dream of Jeannie-like greeting "What is your wish?", I found staff professional and amiable. Everyone knows everyone in Vieques which is helpful when staff call for dinner reservations at a crowded restaurant in the fishing village Esperanza, or for a cab (which never showed up; the hotel kindly transported us).


Top Michelin man, Alain Ducasse, is the star chef behind the main restaurant Mix on the Beach, marrying Caribbean and Rivieria flavours and ideas to delightful effect. During our stay Ducasse was on-site, showcasing a menu he and executive chef Sebastian Rondier created inspired by Vieques's best road-side shacks. Dinner here might be the most reasonably priced Ducasse meal you'll ever have.


I, like quite a few early adopters of Vieques, feared that a resort like this would feel intrusive on the peaceful, uncultivated island. But the hotel finds the right balance between the luxurious and the natural.

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