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The Washington Post

Tourism Office Package: Five Nights In Puerto Rico

By John Briley

February 24, 2002
Copyright © 2002
The Washington Post Company. All Rights Reserved.

"No diving today," said the woman in the scuba shop at the Copamarina resort, a lush 20-acre spread on Puerto Rico's southwest coast. "Problem with the license. I don't think we dive tomorrow, either."

My friend Cathleen and I turned back to the manicured grounds of the resort, where a crew-cut lawn spread out before a clean, quiet beach ringed by two pools and hot tubs, palm trees, bougainvillea and bars.

The two-story Copamarina is nestled among luxuriant tropical plants, and each of the 106 rooms -- ample, but not huge, with thick wood Venetian shutters, tile floor, spacious bathroom, AC and television -- offers a soothing view of the ocean, the gardens or both. We later learned that the dive boat had been idle for a month, but at the moment we didn't care.

We were spent after a midnight drive from Washington to the Newark airport, a 7 a.m. flight to San Juan and a two-hour drive to the Copamarina. Not diving suited us fine, although the reefs here are quietly gaining fame on par with Cozumel and the Cayman Islands. Our other options included tennis (the resort has two nice courts), swimming, renting the resort's sailing, kayaking or snorkeling gear, and hiking in the adjacent Guanica State Forest, a rare dry forest of cactus and semi-deciduous flora designated as a U.N. International Biospheric Reserve.

Just reciting the list exhausted us, so we sat down to lunch and quickly learned Copamarina lesson No. 1: Eating frequently at the resort can crush the wallet. Lunch for two was $43.

But it was hard to complain, lounging on the breezy patio and gazing across a winter-blue Caribbean Sea speckled with whitecaps. The resort is tucked just east of the town of Guanica, and about 25 miles west of Ponce, off of a narrow winding road beneath the rolling hills of the 1,640-acre Dry Forest Reserve. The forest and the entire southern coast are kept arid by the rain shadow of the 4,400-foot Cordillera Central Mountains that bisect the commonwealth.

North of the Cordillera, abundant rain feeds scandent vines and sweaty vegetation. The south stays brittle (the oft-watered Copamarina notwithstanding) but still diverse: The Dry Forest, with 25 miles of hiking trails, harbors more than 100 bird species and 700 plant species, including innumerable cactus.

Unschooled as we were on eating cactus, we continued to fret about the Copamarina's overpriced menu until we met Sam and Paige Fessenden, a mid-twenties couple from Bloomington, Ind., in the oceanfront hot tub. "The other restaurants around here are average. Buy a cooler," Sam said as he added rum from his own bottle to the drinks we had ordered. Resort rules forbid coolers in rooms, so we kept ours -- packed with beer, fruit and munchies -- on the veranda.

The Fessendens, between humorous jabs about each other's parents, shared two other axioms: There is no worthwhile shopping in the area, and "visit this guy Paul," who rents oceanfront apartments and outdoor gear about a quarter-mile from the Copamarina.

Paul Julien, a former member of the U.S. rowing team and the first person ever to windsurf in the Columbia River Gorge along the Oregon-Washington border, owns enough windsurfing, sea-kayaking, snorkeling, diving and mountain-biking gear to keep an adventure travel club busy for weeks.

Staying at his place (doubles from $135) allows free access to the toys, or you can pay $35 per day to help yourself, as we did on three of our six days in Puerto Rico.

Julien affably coached us on sea-kayaking technique (use your torso), improved my windsurfing jibe on the waters off of Punta Jacinto and even taught us to snorkel more efficiently (kick from the hip). He drew us a map to an off-trail cave in the Dry Forest, guided us (via kayak) to a reef teeming with fish and healthy coral, and provided directions for paddling the mangrove islands a half-mile offshore.

Two cautions: Julien is a raconteur capable of talking your vacation away, and he avoids wearing clothes whenever possible (his girlfriend, he says, hates tan lines).

We could have gotten ample watersports kicks from the Copamarina, but, as moderately active vacationers, we also could have gone broke: $40 an hour for the catamaran, $30 an hour for Sunfish sailboats, $20 an hour for sea kayaks and $15 per half day for snorkel gear.

For vacationers more passive (or wealthier) than us, the resort -- with its spa and country clubby service -- appeared almost utopian. For us, it was a cushy base for our off-site thrills.

Wheeling over the Cordillera toward San Juan for our flight home, we realized that we had never explored Ponce or, actually, strayed too far from the coast around the Copamarina. We also realized that we never had the urge -- a testament to the bounteous pleasures of Puerto Rico's southwest coast.

Inside the Package

Packager: Puerto Rico Tourism Board

Type of Package: A free-airfare-if-you-stay-in-a- participating-hotel-for-five- nights offer. Surprisingly, a wide range of hotels and prices was on the list, from $240 per person for five nights to over $1,000. The deal has since expired, but Puerto Rican tourism is suffering, so look for similar enticements in coming months.

Package Cost: $333.60 per person, including free airfare, five nights' lodging and a welcome drink, but no food or ground transportation.

Real Cost: $725.10 each, including rental car, food, drinks, activities and tolls to Newark, N.J. ($23 round trip).

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