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The Providence Journal
Puerto Rico's Paradores - Where The Price Fits Inn
By BETTY LOWRY
December 9, 2001
When we left the paved road for the salt flats, I knew we were almost there. The addresses of the country inns known collectively as "Paradors of Puerto Rico " (Paradores Puertoriquenos) often specify "at the end of the road."
The road that ends at Bahia Salinas Beach Hotel on the southwestern tip of the island cannot be paved because it crosses environmentally protected salt flats. Not all the Paradores are on dead-end roads, but all are "out on the island," as they say in metropolitan San Juan.
Puerto Rico 's scattering of country inns came together in 1973, when the Puerto Rico Tourism folks decided to follow the model of the Spanish National Paradors and combine historic and cultural preservation with an economic boost to the back country.
Unlike Spain, Puerto Rico had no castles to convert, and the last connection with royalty ended when the Americans landed in 1898. However, the Connecticut-sized island in the Greater Antilles was rich in family-owned and -run guest houses, most with dining rooms serving local cuisine. Those who knew about these little gems were more likely to be canny European travelers than mainland North Americans.
So in 1974, the "Paradores Puertoriquenos" program began. Tax incentives encouraged the enlargement of existing guest houses (paradors must have 15 to 75 rooms plus a restaurant on site or nearby), and new inns went up in scenic but under-visited locations. Owners must live on the properties.
Today, 22 paradors and 34 restaurants known as "Mesones Gastronomicos" (inns of gastronomy) operate under the umbrella of the Puerto Rico Tourist Company. They are not luxury resorts and do not compete with the likes of the Horned Dorset (in Rincon) or Coparmarina (in Guanica), both of which cost many times the parador prices of $45-$135.
The Bahia Salinas Beach Hotel is a pleasant cluster of garden cottages set back from a beach posted as "Equivalent to the Dead Sea in Israel." Tiny tree frogs sing "Co-KEE" to the rocking noise of a porch hammock, and a walk to El Faro lighthouse at sunrise is highly recommended. A double room is $90 ($79 on a weekday package; $70 if you are over 60) not bad in an area where posh resorts can run $300 a night.
Inland, at the end of the road in Coamo, Baos de Coamo has just undergone a renovation. The baths are considered the oldest known mineral springs in the New World and may well have been the "Fountain of Youth" sought by explorer and first governor Juan Ponce de Leon (1460-1521).
(The story is that Ponce told the Taino Indians what he was seeking, and they sent him to Coamo. He misunderstood and overshot to Florida, where he was killed by a poisoned arrow.)
The first inn by the Baths opened in 1847, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought relief for his polio here in 1933. ($75-80 double.)
Parador Boquemar (end of Road 100, Boqueron) has both adult and children's swimming pools and is by a working fishing port and Boqueron Nature Reserve, with its mangrove forest and bird sanctuary. The Insight Guide to Puerto Rico calls Playa Boqueron the best beach on the island. ($65-$86 double.)
The Fajardo Inn (end of road Parcelas Beltran, Fajardo) is a northeast hilltop inn with a panoramic view of both the sea and El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. Forest system. Less than an hour from San Juan, it's near the ferry terminal to the islands of Vieques and Culebra. ($85-$95 double.)
In Posada Porlamar (Lajas) in Parguera, we talked to a quartet of Australian scuba divers lounging beneath a 300-year-old tree as they contemplated their next visit to "the wall." The black coral- encrusted ledge of the offshore Puerto Rico Trench goes down 5,000 feet or so, and they said visibility is good at 40-125 feet, adding, "Best diving in the Caribbean is at Parguera and Guanica."
The inn's own boat takes guests to snorkel in Mata La Gata Cay. At night it transports them to a phosphorescent bay which a pair of Canadian honeymooners compared to "swimming in champagne." ($65-125 double incl. continental breakfast; $125 gets you a seaview suite).
The Australian divers were staying two weeks. European families are repeat and week-or-more visitors, too. In fact, the paradors were being trumpeted abroad while still appearing only briefly as alternative lodging in U.S. guidebooks.
At Villa Antonio, Rincon, you can fish outside the door to your cottage and prepare your catch in your kitchenette or a community barbecue area. Its one- and two-bedroom cottages and apartments are on or near the beach; tennis courts and swimming pool make it ideal for families. ($107-133 per unit.)
Also on the north shore but west of San Juan, in Quebradillas, is El Guajataca, the first of the Paradores Puertoriquenos and still a strong contender for favorite.
Nearby are Camuy River Cave Park (one of the largest cave systems in the western world) and Arecibo Ionospheric Observatory, a campusof Cornell University with the most sensitive radio telescope anywhere. Even as scientists are listening to emissions 13 billion light-years away, tourists can visit the facility. It was the setting for
the 1997 movie Contact, starring Jodie Foster. (Doubles from $83.)
In the high central mountains Hacienda Gripinas nestles on a 20- acre coffee plantation near Jacuya. Mornings here begin with "caf con leche" (coffee with hot milk) brewed from beans grown and roasted on the property. Riding horseback is only one of the pleasures at hand; lake fishing and boating are equally popular, and the Taino Indian Ceremonial Ball Park is nearby in Utuado. ($85-96 double.)
Paradors are open all year, and rates don't change with the seasons. However, in summer, expect even more generous packages and negotiable rates for 3 nights or more. Honeymooners are especially well treated any time; senior discounts are common; and many paradors have meeting rooms for small conferences.
As we drove south from San Juan, we stopped for a late lunch at El Paraiso, a Meson Gastronomico in the village of Caguas. From an extensive menu we chose specialties of the house: chicken with rice (arroz con pollo) served with fried green plantains (tostones), $9.75, and for dessert, coconut custard (flan de coco de la casa), $3.75. It was delicious.
Out on the island, the prices are right and a whole lot more.
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If you go
Fly nonstop from Boston. The average year-round temperature is 80 degrees (nearer 90 in August). If you stay in a parador you will need to rent a car, but not to worry: Your home drivers license, credit cards and cash are equally good in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico .
Where to stay
All paradors: (800) 443-0266 (in Puerto Rico , (800) 981-7875). Parador rates vary from $45 to $135, with senior discounts and many special packages. All have air-conditioning (and ceiling fans where AC isnt needed) and cable TV. Many have room phones and coffee makers. All are smoke-free and welcome children.
Where to dine
Dining rooms in or nearby all the paradors. In addition, these Mesones Gastronomicos (all prices inexpensive to moderate), in particular, are well worth a stop: El Paraiso, Caguas Village (787) 747-2012; Pitos Seafood, Ponce Beach, (787) 842-4955; El Buen Cafi, Hatillo, (787) 898-3495; Daniel Seafood, Humacao, (787) 852-1784; Rosas Seafood, Fajardo, (787) 863-0213; La Concha, Guanica, (787) 821- 5522.
Puerto Rico Tourism Company, (800) 877-7827, www.prtourism.com