With long waits, unexplained delays and increasingly strict travel restrictions, most people avoid airports at all costs when they’re not flying. But on the tiny Caribbean paradise of Vieques, Puerto Rico, the airport is home to one of the most popular gathering spots on the island.
Isla Nena Café is an open-air bar and restaurant located in the commuter airport's parking lot. It’s the kind of place where locals meet at the end of the day for a cold beer and friendly conversation.
Where the owner has his regulars’ orders waiting for them when they reach the bar. Where residents are quick to offer insiders’ recommendations to visitors fresh off the plane. And where cans of Medalla beer are served in mismatched koozies that patrons can take home as souvenirs.
At the heart of Isla Nena Café is Lyman Tarkowski. Originally from Green Bay, WI, Lyman has lived on Vieques for twenty years. He first arrived as a tourist in and fell in love with the sleepy pace, breathtaking scenery and relaxed island vibes. He soon relocated and, having owned a series of bars and cafes in Wisconsin, he drew upon his expertise and opened The Crabwalk Café on the Malecon, a main drag of bars and eateries across the street from the Caribbean Sea. He sold the business in 2002.
Isla Nena Café went through four owners before Lyman bought it in 2012. “Everyone said ‘you’re not going to make it’,” he recalls, but he was determined to build a viable business.
He had tons of friends on the island and he knew food — two elements essential to success. Lyman added a bar and a TV, spruced up the menu, and a new iteration of Isla Nena Café was born.
Lyman credits the café’s success in part to a combination of consistent food and consistent hours. The thatched-roof spot is open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., seven days a week.
In addition to burgers, sandwiches, wraps and salads, customers can order breakfast all day, an alluring option on an island packed with late-night service industry workers who wake at lunchtime ready to enjoy some greasy goodness.
One of the most popular items on the menu is not what one would expect at a remote bar in the Caribbean: authentic Chinese dumplings. Lyman’s wife, Shulian, moved from China to Vieques in 2013. As Asian flavors are a rarity on the island, locals flock to Isla Nena Café to enjoy her food. When there’s nothing good to watch on the bar’s big-screen TV, the repartee between Lyman and Shulian provides endless entertainment. Sometimes their cockatoo, Bobbin, chimes in as well.
Much more than just a place to eat and drink, Isla Nena Café offers the comfort and familiarity that the island’s transplants, many of whom come from the mainland United States, crave. Most Americans are at least two plane rides away from their families, and being greeted by name and welcomed with a warm smile is invaluable. If you find yourself nearby, be sure to stop in for a beer, a bite and some island-style banter. And don’t forget to grab your souvenir koozie.