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Making do, and merrily, with a full house

The Blue Beach on the south side of Vieques was the favored spot for the extended family of 11 on its 10-day idyll. The Blue Beach on the south side of Vieques was the favored spot for the extended family of 11 on its 10-day idyll. (Gregory Mone for The Boston Globe)
By Gregory Mone
Globe Correspondent / May 31, 2009
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VIEQUES, Puerto Rico - We arrived back at our white stucco rental sunburned and starving after an afternoon at the beach. We were the lead car, the baby-mobile, with two sets of parents and three young children among us. The kids were shifting from overtired to delirium, and although we didn't know it, the other car had taken a detour on the way home. The rest of our crew was just settling in to sample sunset rum punches in the seaside town of Esperanza - and they had the house keys.

Luckily, my daughter Clare, 3, was able to slip through the house's doggie door, lift the two-by-four that served as a lock, and let us in.

This was the closest we came to disaster during our 10-day family vacation. Despite the beauty of this island just east of the Puerto Rican mainland, which was freed of more than a half-century of US Navy occupation in 2003 and is loaded with gorgeous, clean, deserted beaches, the trip should have been a wreck. Eleven of us were crammed into a four-bedroom house and the family as a whole - my in-laws, my wife, Nika, and our two kids, her brother, his wife and daughter, plus her other brother and his girlfriend - has a fanatic devotion to doing things together that often leaves us doing nothing fast. I figured we would never get out of the house on time.

And yet it worked. We resorted to a kind of socialism, subverting individual desires for the good of the collective. A division of labor took hold. We took turns with duties - chef, diaper-changer, butler, laundress, DJ, child-feeder, among others - and there were some superlative individual performances. Rob, a bartender, concocted pineapple- and guava-soaked rum drinks each night. Nika was a masterful child-distracter and Nina a great group motivator. When the kids grew tired of the hot sun on Playa Navio, a fine-sand beach backed by green foliage, their grandfather Nick built them a tepee out of fallen palm fronds. When the kids were done, I crawled in and enjoyed a half-hour nap.

Vieques is stunning; its people are hospitable; and the beaches on its southern shore justly renowned. The center of the island is green and just hilly enough to provide a view of the coast as you drive south. You reach the best beaches via dusty, pot-holed dirt roads, and each bumpy jaunt proved worthwhile: The beaches boast sand with a fine, nearly flour-like consistency, and the water was perfectly warm and clear.

The so-called wild horses of Vieques, which are really more like vagrants, given their mangy coats and malnourished look, magically appeared whenever one of the kids grew restless in the car. There was something postapocalyptic about watching boys and young men trot them through the streets at night, but these riders were often friendly. One of them let Clare have a seat on his horse, and I've never seen her smile so wide. Restaurants with happy hour crowds welcomed our hungry toddlers. Street vendors, lined up along the water and across from the bars in Esperanza, were only too happy to entertain as well; they gave Clare a free bauble nearly every night.

Not everything was perfect. The food in all but the priciest restaurants was almost all fried. A virus made its way through the house, accelerated by the close quarters and a shortage of glassware. The pool, a brilliant, clear blue when we arrived, steadily turned a darker shade of pond. Roosters woke the kids before dawn, a strangely swollen toe sparked an emergency room trip, we were involved in a minor car accident, and ants infested the living room more than once.

Yes, there were headaches, but none spoiled the trip. In fact, the crowd proved to be the highlight. When half the group left, it felt like the party was over.

Gregory Mone can be reached at gmmone@hotmail.com.

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