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The Washington Post
The Magnificent 11: Puerto Rico, Coast to Coast
By Carolyn Spencer Brown
October 14, 2001
Those who've only visited the casinos and high-rise resorts of Puerto Rico have a lot to learn about the rest of the island. On a week-long drive, we discovered retro '50s-style beaches, an award-winning spa, a Galapagos-like preserve, a romantic luxury retreat we didn't want to leave . . . and more.
1 Old San Juan
Walking along cobblestone-lined Calle Cristo, where artisans' studios and designer boutiques sit beside pizza bistros and cafes, and restored colonial-era town houses are painted rose, yellow and lavender, it's easy to forget you're in Puerto Rico. Old San Juan feels like a slice of Europe. And yet, just a few blocks away, Fortaleza Street, with its never-ending crawl of cars, no-name shoe stores and hotter-than-hot restaurants and social clubs, is distinctly Puerto Rican.
Old San Juan is in direct opposition to the bigger, much more urban main city, with its pricey high-rise condos, gambling casinos and chichi art museums. It's just seven square blocks, but what an intriguing pedigree. It was founded in the early 16th century by the Spanish and qualifies for a litany of "oldests," including oldest capital city to fly the American flag. La Fortaleza, built in 1540, is the world's oldest executive mansion in continual use; it's now home to Puerto Rico's governor.
The blend of all this history with the city's international cuisine, green public plazas, street music, fairs, bodegas and crowded streets is what makes this ancient place such an unforgettable destination. The only thing Old San Juan, which is built on a bluff, doesn't have is beaches. Perhaps that, and the lack of high rises, is why this part of the city successfully treads the fine line between museum and living, breathing place.
San Juan is Puerto Rico's biggest urban center, with hotels, museums and beaches. Old San Juan is a hearty walk from downtown and the beaches, or catch a taxi or bus. Info: 800-443-0266, www.prtourism.com.
2 Bahia Beach Plantation
It might seem a bit odd to build a golf course in the shadow of El Yunque, Puerto Rico's mammoth rain forest (because it rains a lot), but it just means that duffers who head to the public, 18-hole Bahia Beach Plantation should bring an umbrella. Carved out of a coconut grove, Bahia Beach isn't Puerto Rico's most prestigious golf course, but it's definitely the most beautiful. There's something wonderfully exotic about playing a course where you are looking at palm trees and sea birds, and watching an iguana walk across the green.
Golf was introduced in Puerto Rico in the 1930s, and today, more than half of its 16 courses are of championship caliber, enough so that some call the island "Scotland in the Sun." Most are attached to resorts, such as the Hyatt El Dorado and the Westin Rio Mar.
While no frills are connected to Bahia Beach, there is one special amenity: a private-access beach. Fortunately left alone by the course designer, it's a two-mile, crescent-shape beauty lined with palms. Facilities, including a snack bar and restrooms, are on the course.
Bahia Beach Plantation, 16 miles east of San Juan off Route 187, is open daily. Full-day golf fee with cart is $80. Info: 787-256-5600, www.golfbahia.com. Other golf courses are nearby, including the Westin Rio Mar's River Course, designed by Greg Norman. Info: 787-888-1401, www.westin.com.
3 El Yunque
El Yunque -- the only tropical rain forest managed by the U.S. Forest Service -- has been Puerto Rico's premier attraction for nearly a century. It receives a million visitors a year, consists of three types of forests (rain, montane and dwarf), has two waterfalls and harbors numerous breeds of birds, bats, frogs, orchids, green parrots and ferns. The visitor center features low- and high-tech exhibits, and there's a movie narrated by Puerto Rico native Jimmy Smits. Otherwise, hiking the trails is the main event.
El Yunque, whose mountains stretch 3,500 feet, is easy to spot from the road. Also notable are the oft-glowering clouds that surround the forest; the park receives some 100 billion gallons of rainwater annually.
El Yunque (Caribbean National Forest) is near the town of Rio Grande, about 26 miles from San Juan via Route 191. Admission is $3; open year-round except for Christmas. Info: 787-888-1880; www.fs.fed.us.
4 Vieques and Culebra
"Tropics time moves at a different pace, when it moves at all" is a slogan of the Vieques Times newspaper. That about sums up life on these two out-islands.
Culebra, about 17 miles east of the city of Fajardo, is just seven miles long and three wide. It's known for its beaches, all pretty well off a sandlubbers' tourist track. The other major attraction is the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge, a 1,500-acre preserve developed under President Teddy Roosevelt. Otherwise, travelers to Culebra should pack a big ol' book.
Culebra is 90minutes by ferry from Fajardo or a 20-minute flight from San Juan. Lodging options include Tamarindo Estates (787-742-3343, from $140 in low season, $170 high season), with one- and two-bedroom cottages. Info: www.enchanted-isle.com.
Vieques is "a flip-flip kind of place," says Erin Benitez, a San Juan resident. Just eight miles from the mainland, Vieques "is old-fashioned, peaceful, casual, and has lovely beaches with no construction -- just the way God made them." The island's star attraction is the bioluminescent Mosquito Bay, where the nighttime show (on moonless evenings, anyway) is performed by microscopic organisms that, reacting to disturbances in the water, glow. Says Benitez: "You jump in and your body is covered in molten light and splatters around you, and you are glowing from head to toe for a few seconds and they twitter out."
Vieques is also the site of increasingly vociferous protests against the U.S. Navy, which uses the island as a base for bombing exercises. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, demonstrations have died down -- and naval exercises have picked up, according to locals. Still, Vieques manages to work as a peaceful vacation destination despite its conflicting identities -- primarily because the base is well away from the main town and beaches.
Vieques is a 20-minute flight from San Juan and is accessible by ferry from Fajardo. Lodging includes the Inn at the Blue Horizon (787-741-3318, rates from $156 through Dec. 14, from $270 afterward), on a former plantation. Other options: Hacienda Tamarindo (787-741-8525, from $125 in low season, $155 high season) and Crow's Nest (787-741-0033, from $80 low season, $89 high season). Info: www.enchanted-isle.com.
5 Golden Door at Las Casitas
The Golden Door, the tony, San Diego-based spa-to-the-stars, now has a resort version. Part of Las Casitas, a resort on the southeastern coast, the award-winning spa is much more casual than the original. The facilities are top-notch. You can work out in the health club, take classes in Pilates or sip a smoothie at the juice bar. Spa treatments include LaStone Therapy, where massage therapists use hot, smooth lava stones to knead your muscles; the Ayurvedic treatment of Bindi balancing, said to cleanse and detoxify skin; and an antioxidant pineapple polish -- a great body scrub.
Spa management prefers that customers be guests at either of the two connecting resorts. (Las Casitas is part of the gargantuan Wyndham El Conquistador Resort and Country Club.) Having stayed at the latter, which felt more like a convention center than a resort, I'd recommend splurging on the all-suite Las Casitas, or bunking elsewhere.
Spa services are a la carte, including use of the facility, which is $20 per day whether you're staying on-site or not. Non-hotel guests must book at least one spa treatment or package (from $99 for a 50-minute massage to packages such as the $280 "Day of Beauty"). Details: 800-468-8365. Rates at Las Casitas start at $300 per night year-round, plus 22 percent tax; rates at El Conquistador start at $155. Details on either property: 800-996-3426, www.wyndham.com.
Ponce's Plaza de las Delicias, a town square with gardens, fountains and the historic Cathedral of Our Lady Guadalupe, is the hub of Puerto Rico's second-largest city. The architecture of Ponce, whose prosperous heyday ran from the late 19th century to the 1930s, is a mix of classical, art deco and Creole, resulting in a downtown area that is vaguely reminiscent of New Orleans. But the real reasons to make the trip have more to do with dining than history.
That may sound surprising, since Ponce's dearth of restaurants is legendary. But Mark's at the Melia has at last put the city on the culinary map. The eatery features cuisine that blends fresh, seasonal Caribbean flavors into hearty, almost Provencal-style dishes.
Save room for dessert at King's Cream, Puerto Rico's most famous ice cream stand. The 40-year-old institution features ice cream made from native flavors, including tamarind and passion fruit. At dusk, locals can be seen waiting in a line that stretches half a block.
Ponce, like New Orleans, is known for elaborate pre-Lenten celebrations, and handmade papier-mâché masks are a specialty. A souvenir shop called Coqui keeps the best stuff in the back: Look for the work by the late Miguel Carballo. Outside the historic district is the Ponce Museum of Art, which emphasizes European works and is known for its pre-Raphaelite and Italian baroque paintings.
Ponce is on the southern coast, a 90-minute drive from San Juan via the Luis Ferre Expressway and an hour from the west coast. Mark's at the Melia (75 Calle Cristina) is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Saturday, and lunch only on Sunday. Entrees: $16 to $25. King's Cream is on 9223 Calle Marina; Coqui is at 9227 Calle Marina.The Ponce Museum of Art (25 Las Americas Ave., 787-848-0511) is open daily; admission $3.
7 Gold Coast
Puerto Rico's Gold Coast -- and we don't mean San Juan's beachfront stretches of highrises along Condado and Isla Verde -- lies on the west side. The villages and towns fronting the Caribbean are a major destination for locals -- a Puerto Rican version of Ocean City, with a little Bethany Beach thrown in. Head to this region for all things sea-oriented.
You can drive the entire west coast of Puerto Rico in an afternoon, so you can have a central base and shuttle among the villages. Among them:
La Parguera's bioluminescent bay isn't as famous as Vieques's, but it's no slouch. Millions of microscopic organisms shimmer and shake, creating underwater lights. Boats line La Parguera's pedestrian mall every night.
Cabo Rojo, a resort town with a 1950s feel on Route 102, has a great beach, a bird sanctuary and a lighthouse. A few miles north, in the town of Joyuda, some 30 shacklike restaurants extend out on stilts into the Caribbean. The views are fantastic, and the seafood couldn't be fresher. But the big draw is the white-sand Boqueron public beach, one of Puerto Rico's loveliest.
Mona Island, 40 miles off the coast of Mayaguez, is billed as the Caribbean's Galapagos. A "natural reserve," the uninhabited island -- reachable by charter or motorboat -- is a scuba-diving haven: Its 11 shipwrecks include a Spanish galleon, and coral reefs circle the island. Spelunkers are also drawn here, because it has one of the world's largest marine-originated cave systems. Residents include endangered sea turtles and numerous bird species. Charter operators organizing full-day diving trips can be found in west coast towns like Rincon and Cabo Rojo. Best weather conditions generally occur from July to October.
Rincon's odd location -- on a peninsula on Puerto Rico's northwest corner, where the rough-and-tumble Atlantic meets the more serene Caribbean -- is what makes it a premier surfing destination. There are seven beaches to choose from; serious surfers recommend Tres-Palmas, known for its giant waves. Prime season runs October through April.
8 Rio Camuy Cave Park
Rio Camuy is one of the world's largest network of caves. After a tram ride down a mountain road, you're let off at the mouth of the 180-foot-high Cueva Clara de Empalme, where you can explore the underground river (one of the world's largest), stalactites, waterfalls, big Flintstone-like boulders and batcave.
Adventurers can also tour Cueva Catedral, another cave, where you must rappel down a rock wall. The reward: petroglyphs left by Puerto Rico's pre-Columbian natives.
Rio Camuy Cave Park, on Route 129, is open Wednesday through Sunday from 8:30 a.m., with the last tour departing at 4:15 p.m. Admission is $10. Info: 787-898-3100.
9 Arecibo Observatory
At Arecibo Observatory, which houses the world's largest radio telescope, a sign asks, "Are we alone in the universe?" Here, in the island's less-frequented interior, it would seem so. Driving along country roads amid a topography dominated by karst toog -- conically shaped mounds that are not quite hilltops -- is a pleasant diversion from coastal views.
The most impressive site at Arecibo, part of Cornell University's National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, is a 20-acre satellite dish that lies in a vast sinkhole (familiar from the Jodie Foster film "Contact"). You can ogle the otherworldly dish from a platform, then explore the visitor center. At the museum, exhibits highlight the work of center scientists who search for extraterrestrial life. "So far no clearly extraterrestrial transmissions have been found," a sign says. "But the faint whine that would betray an alien civilization might be heard tomorrow."
Arecibo Observatory is a two-hour drive west of San Juan, on Route 625 off Highway 22 near the town of Arecibo. Admission: $4 for adults, $2 for kids. Info: 787-878-2612, www.naic.edu.
10 Hacienda Gripinias
At Hacienda Gripinias, a restored 19th-century coffee plantation perched on a mountainside deep in Puerto Rico's lush interior, I commandeered a battered rocking chair and listened to the choral performance of tree frogs, also known as coquis. After a harried day, I was flooded with a sense of peace.
And I didn't bust the piggy bank to get here. My one-night stay, with dinner and breakfast included, cost about $100. That's because Hacienda Gripinias is one of more than 20 paradores, like those in Spain, sprinkled across Puerto Rico. The concept was launched on this island in 1973, and now paradores are in most of the prime getaway spots here, save its cities (see Details, Page E6).
The Hacienda Gripinias is loaded with character. Public rooms are spare and part funky, partelegant; my room boasted a television with cable and private bath.
Hacienda Gripinias is in the foothills of the Cordillera Mountains, outside the town of Jayuya; its restaurant, Don Pedro, serves breakfast and dinner. The paradore is offering a $49-per-person (based on double occupancy) deal, including breakfast and dinner, through November. Info: 787-828- 1717, www.haciendagripinas.com.
11 Horned Dorset Primavera
Standing waist-deep in the placid Caribbean, a man was reading a Wall Street Journal that he'd folded into precise angles to keep his newspaper dry. What I couldn't figure out was why he wanted to make such an effort to stay in touch with the real world. The Horned Dorset Primavera is Puerto Rico's most intimate and romantic, not to mention utterly luxurious, country inn. It's a Caribbean version of the Inn at Little Washington -- elegant yet whimsical, from the trompe l'oeil orange and yellow circus tent painted on the ceiling above my four-poster bed to Pompidou, the squawking 6-year-old macaw who lives in the library.
The Horned Dorset Primavera is a rambling collection of 30 villa-rooms that spill down a bougainvillea- splashed hillside. It's possible -- no, probable -- that you'll find it difficult to roust yourself from your sanctuary. Luxe details include footed porcelain bathtubs, canopied four-poster beds, antique throw rugs, wall murals, ceiling fans and air conditioning. Some rooms have their own plunge pools. Also notable is what rooms don't have: TV, phones, Web access.
Ultimately, one has to emerge. There are two swimming pools -- my favorite, behind the Main House, is beautifully landscaped and set among palms and avocado trees, tamarind and oleander. Meals are served in the Main House -- breakfast on the veranda, dinner in an elegant dining room. And naturally there's a private beach.
The charms of Rincon, a seaside resort town, are nearby. But why leave paradise?
The Horned Dorset Primavera (800-633-1857, www.horneddorset.com/primavera) is a 2 1/2-hour drive from San Juan, or a 30-minute flight from San Juan to Mayaguez -- the hotel is 20 minutes to the north. Rooms start at $280 per night (low season), $380 (high season); packages are available.
DETAILS: Puerto Rico
GETTING THERE: American Airlines is offering daily nonstop flights from Baltimore Washington International and Dulles to San Juan; at press time, fares started at $473 round trip. Other airlines that fly from the Washington area to San Juan, via one-stop service, include Continental (through Newark), US Airways (through Philadelphia) and Delta (through Atlanta). Flying time is about 3 1/2 hours.
WHERE TO STAY: Because it's hurricane season through October, and because of the travel slowdown from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some Puerto Rico hotels are offering discounted off-season rates and packages -- and some are better than others. For instance, the Ritz-Carlton San Juan Hotel Spa and Casino (800-241-3333) has a $199-per-night deal for fall travel but is quoting a $209 high-season rate (high-season rates typically are in effect from mid-December through mid-April). On the other hand, the Hyatt Cerromar (800-233-1234) has a "Fall Back" promotion of $150 per night (its regular low-season rates are $275, high season $460).
Otherwise, the prices listed here are for low season (mid-April to mid-December) and include fall promotions. (As a rule of thumb, if you're planning to visit during high season, add at least $100 per night to the rates below.) No hotel we contacted had introduced any kind of last-minute rate geared to spurring travel in the short term.
San Juan: The big-name hotels, such as the Inter-Continental (888-567-8725; rooms from $149), Embassy Suites (800-362-2779, from $230) and San Juan Marriott (800-228-9290, from $179) are in the Condado and Isla Verde areas. Among the island's numerous small hotels offering promotional rates for fall travel are Hotel El Portal in Condado (787-721-9010, from $75), the Water Club in Isla Verde (787-728-3666, from $75) and the Comfort Inn Tanam Princess Hotel in Condado (787-724-4160, from $69). A consortium of more intimate hotels in San Juan and throughout the island also have gathered under the Small Inns of Puerto Rico banner (787-725-2901, www.prhtasmallhotels.com).
Old San Juan: The only chain hotel within the city walls is the Wyndham Old San Juan Hotel and Casino (800-996-3426, from $145). The El Convento Hotel (800-468-2779, from $150), housed in a 350-year-old restored Carmelite convent, is Old San Juan's most deluxe property. The Gallery Inn (787-722-1808, from $145) is an eccentric, delightful small hotel. The Old Town's newest hostelry is Hotel Milano (787-729-9050, from $85), which has a great location in the heart of the commercial district and a pensione feel. Just outside the town walls is the recently refurbished Caribe Hilton San Juan (800-445-8667, from $265).
Paradores: The island's 24 paradores (moderately priced, independently owned establishments) are excellent bargains and can be found throughout Puerto Rico, from beachfront to mountainous locales. None is in urban locations, such as San Juan and Ponce. The paradores are offering a good off-season promotion that starts at $29 per person, per night, based on double occupancy (rates in high season range from $80 to $140 per person, double). Info: Puerto Rico Tourism Co. (see below).
GETTING AROUND: All but the deepest interior parts of Puerto Rico are easily accessible by a highway/roadway infrastructure that is constantly being upgraded. There are three main highways: Highway 3 runs from San Juan to the island's southeastern areas; Highway 2 goes from San Juan to the west coast and around to Ponce; and for quick trips to Ponce, take Highway 52 from San Juan.
You can almost -- but not quite -- travel completely around the coast. (There's only one point on the coastal route where the highway system doesn't connect, in the south, roughly between Guayama and Ponce.) But otherwise, roads offer numerous scenic vistas and are well-marked, even in the interior. MapEasy's Guidemap to Puerto Rico ($5.95, www.mapeasy.com) is an excellent resource. Free maps are available at rental car agencies and via the Puerto Rico Tourism Co.
If you're traveling along the coast, no town is more than three hours away, barring traffic tie-ups. In the interior, however, the roads are winding and can be a slow go. Note: Many highway signs are in Spanish only, so have a Spanish-English phrasebook on hand.
Car rental agencies at the San Juan International Airport include the usual suspects, such as Alamo, Avis, National and Dollar. Weekly rates start at about $154, depending on availability. Daily rates start at $35.
BEING THERE: For the weekend or long weekend traveler, San Juan is a great choice, especially around the coastal areas of Isla Verde and Condado, where most of the big-name hotels have beachfront locations, or in Old San Juan. Another quick getaway spot is the island of Vieques; you can catch a prop plane from the international airport, or rent a car and drive to Fajardo (about an hour away) and hop a ferry.
Spending a week or more? After a couple of days in the San Juan area, head west to the coastal resort towns of Boqueron or Rincon, then venture into the mountainous interior and stay at a parador. Try to leave a day or two to visit one of Puerto Rico's out islands, Vieques or Culebra.
INFORMATION: Puerto Rico Tourism Co., 800-443-0266, www.prtourism.com. On the Web, excellent resources for hotel sales and packages include Smarter Living (www.smarterliving.com) and Independent Traveler (www.independenttraveler.com).
-- Carolyn Spencer Brown