As someone who typically shys away from staying in big brand hotels, I was pleasantly surprised during a recent stay at the W Retreat & Spa – Vieques Island in Puerto Rico. In fact, if I hadn’t known the name of the hotel before walking into the lobby I would have assumed it was a boutique art and design hotel run by a local family, which, in essence, as 64% of the staff are Viquense and 85% in total from Puerto Rico. Along with having an eclectic vibe with colorful patterns, textures, and colors as well as a rustic elegance designed by Spanish-born Patricia Urquiola, I am impressed with the hotel’s passion for local culture and ingredients.
Opened on March 25, 2010, as the first W Retreat & Spa in North America, the property — which in my opinion is one of the best hotels in Puerto Rico — is located eight miles off the Southeast coast of mainland Puerto Rico on the tranquil, eco-conscious island of Vieques. What’s interesting about the island is that despite being so close to the mainland, it still has a very raw, untouched feel, with tourism weaving itself into the landscape instead of taking it over. Guests of the hotel can explore eco-tourism on the island through kayaking tours of the bioluminescent bay, beach trips, scuba diving, mountain biking, fishing, horseback riding, outdoor yoga, farm-to-bar social hours at sunset and visits to the their local farm to see where the restaurant’s ingredients are sourced from and even creating a meal for themselves (beginning Fall 2013).
Sampling On The Farm
After disclosing my affinity for learning about where food comes from, the hotel’s Executive Chef Fernando Coppola arranges for me to tour their nearby farm. The W has employed local farmer Geigel Rosa Cruz to produce a large amount of produce for them, creating an organic farm just for the hotel. The farm is unlike any I’ve ever seen, with a mix of naturally growing tropical plants, a greenhouse, rows of crops and untamed areas of bush that add an adventurous element to the experience. Once there, the visit quickly escalates into a tasting experience, as Geigel picks and cuts fresh watermelon, okra, broccoli, mustard seed and a variety of microgreens to sample.
“I don’t use poison on my plants,” he explains, talking about man-made fertilizers and pesticides. Instead, he uses natural methods like eucalyptus to keep the pests away and coconut shells to fertilize the soil.
Suddenly, he begins pulling an odd-shaped fruit from a tree and hands me one. The skin is thick and light green and feels almost rubbery.
“Eat this,” he instructs. “It’s starfruit or as we say, carambola.”
I stare back at him curiously. “How do I eat it?”
Now it’s his turn to be confused. He grabs a starfruit from the tree and takes a giant bite, no peeling involved. “Like this.”
I laugh. I guess that’s common sense around here. The fruit tastes like a cross between an apple and a pear, although the more orange starfruits have a sweet peach taste. I help Geigel pick some microgreens for tonight’s meal at the hotel, allowing me to see exactly where my dinner is coming from and helping me be a part of its creation.
Spa Treatments So Natural You Can Eat Them
Back at the W Retreat & Spa – Vieques Island, I decide to explore the “spa” part of the hotel at the Away Spa. Inspired by the holistic nature of its surroundings, the spa seems to blend into the landscape, with rivulets and canals flowing throughout the space, front-row views of the Atlantic Ocean, vine-covered treatment rooms, a reflection pool and a spa pavilion surrounded by lush gardens.
Away Spa’s philosophy is that if you can’t eat it it shouldn’t be going on your skin, and all their signature treatments are made in-house using natural ingredients you can eat, like green tea, ginger, coco, coconut, noni fruit and white wine, as well as a few outsourced organic products like OSEA all-natural Patagonian seaweed. For example, while a “Noni Fruit Facial” uses one of the world’s most powerful super foods to calm and tighten skin, a “Cafe con Coco Scrub” features shredded coconut, fresh Encantos Puerto Rican coffee grinds and kukui coconut oil to exfoliate and hydrate skin while increasing circulation. The “Sea of Life Facial” is also an all-natural treatment that allows you to explore Vieques through pampering, as it contains antioxidants, organic seaweed extracts, and Vitamin C blended with white algae, white wine, white tea, and copper peptides to improve cellular function, refine pores and heal sun damage.
For my treatment I enjoy a neck and shoulder massage with natural coconut oil before immersing myself in nature and the bubbles of a secluded outdoor jacuzzi, watching as small lizards scale ivy-covered walls and listening to the soft ocean breeze. It’s ethical pampering at its finest.
By the time I’m finished the sun will soon be going down, so I rinse off and head over to the Living Room — the hotel’s main common lounge — for the nightly Sunset Sip. This takes place each evening at sunset and is when the property invites both guests and anyone on the island to come to the hotel for a complimentary cocktail, most crafted using local ingredients for a farm-to-bar experience. The signature drink rotates each day, with some possibilities being the “Vieques Fresh” crafted with gin or vodka, Martini Bianco, ginger ale, lime juice, mint, cucumber and simple syrup, as well as the “El Boriqua” featuring local Don Q Silver rum, Passoa, passion fruit juice, lime juice and simple syrup. Today it is a “Metropolitan” made with rye, grapefruit, raspberry and basil. It’s tart, refreshing and the perfect pairing to a colorful Caribbean sunset.
Puerto Rican Food Fare With A Vieques Island Twist
In terms of dining philosophy, the culinary experience provided by the W Retreat & Spa – Vieques Island is deeply rooted in Vieques culture, with Sorce being their signature restaurant. Dishes are Puerto Rican inspired, with much of the menu based on traditional recipes from the grandmothers of the kitchen staff. From there, the menus are tailored to fit the palate of the guest using locally-sourced in-season ingredients. Some of their signature dishes include fresh fish caught by local fisherman marinated in a local mojo sauce; Puerto Rican mofongo, a fried plantain-based meal mashed together with broth, garlic, olive oil, crispy pork and often filled with beef, chicken, shellfish or vegetables; stuffed Caribbean lobster; whole coli rubia; a Viequense seafood soup; and a churrasco steak with garlic and brujo oregano herb.
While the inside decor of the indoor-outdoor restaurant is beautiful — adorned with Vieques-reminiscent artwork, natural wood tones, rustic textures and a lattice wood and rope installation inspired by the island’s many beehives helping fruit trees to flourish — the beautiful evening calls for drinks and dinner outside. Tonight we’ll be enjoying a special tasting menu and wine pairing at the Fire Pit of some of Executive Chef Fernando Coppola’s creations. The outdoor space is illuminated by tiki torches and candle light, with a delicate white muslin cloth covering the table and wine glasses set out ready to be filled. The only sounds are the lapping of the waves and light chatter of guests enjoying drinks by the fire.
After the waiter comes around with fluffy bread rolls, a Laforêt Bourgogne Chardonnay white wine from France and a Briego, Tempranillo, Ribera del Duero red wine from Spain, I’m brought a salad containing the very microgreens I helped pick that day. The dish also contains homemade granola, tomato, manchego and a housemade mango and passion fruit vinaigrette. Well-rounded flavors of sweet, spicy and tangy massage my palate, and I begin to feel a connection to the dish as the familiar taste of spicy mustard greens comes alive, the same ones I had sampled and picked that afternoon. The experience epitomizes exactly what W Retreat & Spa – Vieques Island is trying to do with their farm-to-table food and beverage program.
After an amuse-bouche of Caribbean mahi mahi ceviche — cured with lime and passion fruit for a Vieques twist — Chef presents a lobster salad featuring a spicy lime vinaigrette, mushrooms, local sprouts and garlic chips. The presentation is beautiful, with the salad formed to look like a small cylinder cake dressed in greens. Again, the contrasting flavors flow over every area of my tongue, with the highlight being the lobster, cooked slowly to give it a sweet flavor.
Along with the flavors and presentation of the dishes, I’m impressed by the way the Chef himself comes out to the table to talk about each dish. When I ask the hotel’s General Manager, Greg White, if this is typical, he explains, “Our Executive Chef and Executive Sous Chefs are encouraged and enjoy interacting with their guests on a regular basis. The Tasting Menu especially is always lead by our Chefs, who approach the table and describe each culinary creation and the connection to the island.”
As the resort is on a tropical island, seafood makes up a large portion of the menu. Our next dish is a gambas– or shrimp-based dish made even more local with a sauce of local rum and sambuca.
“There is a traditional drink here in Puerto Rico called Chichaito,” explains Chef Coppola. “This drink is a concoction made with local white rum and anise liqueur. It’s drank as a chupito, in an shot glass. This drink is usually served when families or group of friends gather together to celebrate a special occasion or simply to be together. This was my inspiration to create this dish, which I call ‘Jumbo gambas al chichaito.'”
The rum balances out the licorice essence of the sambuca, giving it a sweeter quality that goes well with the shrimp and delivers true Puerto Rican flavor. Interestingly, while the Caribbean as a whole is known for their rum Puerto Rico is known as the Rum Capital. By law all their rums must be aged in oak barrels for at least one year, giving the liquors a high quality taste. Additionally, Puerto Rico is home to numerous distilleries, including two very notable ones, the local Don Q Rum as well as the world’s largest rum distillery, Bacardi.
The Tasting Menu’s seafood medley continues with a fresh local salmon — cooked only from the skin so the outside is crispy while the fish is tender — and served with roasted potatoes, mustard greens, a green apple sauce and fennel salad. Next we move onto land fare, as Chef presents a tender chicken breast stuffed with yuca mofongo, garlic and olive oil and served with fresh Brussels sprouts, mushrooms and mushroom jus. A side of homemade tapenade gives a salty flavor to the savory white meat.
Just when I think dinner is complete, a strip steak is brought out, served with a puréed sweet potato and a boiled and baked sweet potato for a bit of textual contrasts. This is topped with fresh spinach and a garlic peppercorn sauce.
The meal has introduced me to local culture in my favorite way: Through the palate; however, the evening isn’t complete as dessert is on the way. Chocolate mousse topped with a star-shaped piece of dried starfruit and served with a side of starfruit sorbet is set in front of me, reminding me of my farm faux pas and making me smile.
That night, wrapped in my soft waffle robe and enveloped in 100% Egyptian Cotton sheets, listening to the lapping of waves and chirping of tree frogs, I think about how truly possible it is to blend together luxury, culture and sustainability. It’s a combination the W Retreat & Spa – Vieques Island presents seamlessly.
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