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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Puerto Rican Ramblings

By Carolyn Spencer Brown

April 14, 2002
Copyright © 2002
South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

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 weeklong drive, we discovered colonial architecture, a great rain forest, and a wonderful art museum.

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, which feels like a slice of Europe, is in direct opposition to the bigger, much more urban main city, with its pricey high-rise condos, gambling casinos and chichi art museums. Just seven square blocks, 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.

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.

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,

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.

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."

While no frills are connected to Bahia Beach, there is one special amenity: a private-access beach that'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,

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.

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.

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;


Ponce's Plaza de las Delicias, a town square with gardens, fountains and the historic Cathedral of Our Lady Guadeloupe, 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.

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-mache masks are a specialty. 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.

The Ponce Museum of Art (25 Las Americas Ave., 787-848-0511) is open daily; admission $3.

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.

Hacienda Gripinias is in the foothills of the Cordillera Mountains, outside the town of Jayuya; its restaurant, Don Pedro, serves breakfast and dinner. Info: 787-828-1717, www.haciendagripinas .com.

Horned Dorset Primavera

The Horned Dorset Primavera is Puerto Rico's most intimate and romantic -- not to mention utterly luxurious -- country inn. It's a rambling collection of 30 villa rooms that spill down a bougainvillea-splashed hillside. 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.

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 21Ú2-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 a night (low season), $380 (high season); packages are available.

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