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Hot, Hip and Oh-So-Vibrant Vieques

March 30, 2011 By:
Sharon McDonnell
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The stunning design elements of W Retreat & Spa in Vieques are evident everywhere you turn.

I'm in Vieques, Puerto Rico, in the lobby of the new W Retreat & Spa -- where Alain Ducasse, the three-Michelin-star French chef, opened his first restaurant in the Caribbean.

I'm talking to Patricia Urquiola, the Spanish lead designer behind the blend of the whimsical and recycled at the resort.

But only for a minute; the designer of everything from furniture, architectural installations and concepts has leapt up, and is taking me on a tour.

"I'm an outsider, I don't usually do hotels. I like to mix art and craft, take a technique from handicraft, and turn it into industrial design," the pony-tailed dynamo, one of the world's hottest designers -- whose Milan-based Studio Urquiola has won Designer of the Year awards from Wallpaper and Architectural Digest's Spanish edition -- said in the staccato-like speech that earned her the nickname of "Hurricane."

Above the reception desk, the elongated textile -- a pastiche of textures, colors and geometric shapes from knit mesh hats, stretchy fibers made by Brazilian women's co-operatives, lace from Serbia, a yellow wooden frog and many circles -- turned out to be her idea of a map of Vieques.

Our constant locomotion presented challenges in note-taking. But I soon learned the patchwork pattern of the doors in the lobby -- or, in W-speak, Living Room -- and wood on the walls and ceiling were reclaimed from a previous hotel on the site. Plush sofas and chairs were topped with colorful pillows whose dangling elastic fibers reminded me of shaggy dogs.

Outside Living Room, couples balanced drinks and snacks, facing a beautiful view of the Caribbean, in hanging cocoons of woven vinyl in rainbow-like colors, or in small vinyl chairs in hot pink, purple, lime green and aqua.

Sands of Time 
Two secluded beaches beyond, lined with palms and tangled mangroves, offered limitless sea views, facing not one thing created by the hand of man.

"We're in the Caribbean! I'd be bored if l just did black and white," said Urquiola, who strove to make the W a "playful place to live."

A quiet island seven miles from Puerto Rico's main island --where San Juan and its high-rises and vibrant nightlife are located -- Vieques is at first blush an unlikely setting for the notoriety that once came with serving as a practice site for U.S. Navy target maneuvers.

It is now an unlikely setting for W, a brand famous for trendy hotels in big cities.

Peaceful, pretty beaches, pristine nature -- beneath the starriest sky I'd ever seen, lodgings with no more than 15 rooms, and wild horses fond of eating mangos -- Vieques gained its biggest employer overnight when the 157-room W opened in April 2010.

But that was the lure, explained Carlos Becil, a Starwood Hotels and Resorts vice president, noting Vieques now has the second W resort in a non-urban location in the world. The first W Retreat was in the Maldives.

Many visitors to Vieques, and vacation homeowners, hail from the Northeast United States, and praise its laid-back, nature-oriented lifestyle. Andy Plesser, a Great Neck, N.Y., Internet executive and member of that town's Temple Emanuel, spends two months a year in Vieques, where he and his wife have owned a vacation home since 2004.

Raves Plesser: "Celebrating Passover in the Caribbean is quite special for my wife and me. What city folks don't see or realize is that it's timed to the full moon.

"So, we celebrate with a seder on our rooftop deck, where we set our table with ingredients brought from New York. Soon after the sun sets behind us, a dramatic full moon rises on the horizon to the east, over the island of St. Croix."

The biggest challenge to spending Passover here? "Bringing matzah as carry-on baggage and keeping them from being broken," he jokes.

Sheila Levin, another New Yorker, has lived on Vieques for 23 years.

A former associate director of the American Jewish Congress, ex-vice president of Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, and ex-political consultant to Elizabeth Holtzman, noted, "I've been on almost every Caribbean island, and Vieques combines an innocence, together with a sophistication -- like the quality of some restaurants here -- you find nowhere else."

Added Levin, now a real estate broker who owns Vieques Fine Properties, "If you told me 20 years ago there would be a W on Vieques, I would have laughed myself silly."

American management, Italian design, French-style food, and Spanish money -- the owner, a Spanish company, also owns the Mandarin Oriental in Barcelona and Azzaro, the French couture house -- is the formula behind the W.

Vieques is a 20-minute flight from San Juan. A W Lounge in the small Vieques airport offers guests cool drinks before they are transported to the resort, a five-minute drive away.

For more information, see: www.enchanted-isle.com and www.wvieques.com.

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