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New York Daily News
EXPLORING THE ENCHANTED ISLAND
Rich Culture, Scenic Resorts Await Travelers Who Venture Outside Puerto Ricos Tourist Hubs
BY BOB KAPPSTATTER
August 25, 2002
The coqui, those tiny Puerto Rican tree frogs, are having strong competition tonight from all the other night sounds of the tropical mountain forest.
Their distinctive "ko-kee" is being met with choruses of "tch- tch-tch" and "phui-phui" from the night birds.
I take all this in from a rocker on the porch of Hacienda Juanita, an old coffee plantation high in the Cordillera mountain range near Maricao, puffing contentedly on a Don Collins Corona Grande Puerto Rican cigar and sipping some locally grown bean espresso.
It has been 20 years since I last sojourned around Puerto Rico , staying at mountain inns and beachside guesthouses, relishing the sweet aromas of the lush tropical forest and the in-your-face sunsets. And though there has been much growth and change (and maybe one too many shopping malls), it is still, to me, La Isla Encantada - the enchanted island.
STRAW HATS AND PASTEL SHANTIES
It's a lot easier to get around Puerto Rico these days, thanks to new superhighways. But I wonder how many back-road chance encounters have been missed because of those new thoroughfares - like the sight of a smiling sugar-cane worker, cigar clenched in his teeth, straw hat tilted back on his head, coming at us on his bicycle down that back-country road, past pastel-colored wood shanties. I couldn't grab my Nikon quickly enough to capture him on film, but his image is still frozen in my mind to this day.
But there's no need to dwell on the past. There is still enough of the old - El Viejo - Puerto Rico to come once again under its spell, including San Juan, the wonderful old Spanish colonial city. But we'll leave that for another day.
This trip was for investigating the romantic inns, guesthouses and a few resorts scattered about the island. We headed west out of San Juan, around and down the west coast, and then worked our way up to Las Cordilleras, the rugged mountains that run like a spine horizontally across the middle of the island.
Those mountain roads - I will be kind and describe them as 11/2 lanes - have more wiggles than a San Juan senorita at a Saturday night dance.
We ran out of time to really explore the east coast, with its steamy El Yunque rain forest and seaside portals to romantic Vieques and Culebra Islands.
PARADISE IN A PARADOR
Most vacationers to Puerto Rico usually book a package trip to one of those Miami Beach-like strip hotels along the Condado or on Isla Verde, just outside Old San Juan. And that's not a bad deal, if you just want to throw your weary bones on the beach by day and gamble and salsa away the evenings. But to see the real Puerto Rico , rent a car and explore the rest of the island.
A good way to start researching a trip is by checking out the paradors - government-regulated inns that offer extremely reasonable prices, usually from $65 to $100 a night, and unique locations, such as the former coffee plantations, Hacienda Juanita in Maricao and Hacienda Gripinas in Jayuya, high in the mountains.
A PATIO WITH A VIEW
Beach and seafood lovers will want to head to the west coast, stopping anywhere from Quebradillas and Rincon on the northwest end down to Cabo Rojo and Boqueron to the south. Besides paradors, there are a number of great beachside guesthouses and inns along the way (see related story, Hitting the Spot).
An old friend who retired to Rincon, with no regrets, turned us on to some great spots there, including Johnny and Gail Taylor's beachside Coconut Palms Inn.
During lunch on the patio, overlooking jade-green seas and gently waving palm trees lining the pristine shoreline, Johnny regaled us with tales from his undercover days as a U.S. Customs supervisor. Gail, a former hotel executive and "make yourself right at home, honey" South Carolina transplant, marveled at their good fortune in finding a semi-retirement heaven.
Besides being a surfer's paradise, Rincon is also a perfect spot for dolphin, manatee and whale watching, Gail told us. "This year was the piece de resistance," she said of a recent morning when, 50 yards out, a momma whale gave birth.
For more of nature's wonders, swing a little farther down to the southwestern edge of the island to Parguera, home of the waterfront paradors Villa Parguera and Posada Porlamar.
SOOTHING HOT SPRING
At night, especially when there is little or no moonlight, you can hop a $5 boat ride (we recommend Johnnie's) and see the wonders of the phosphorescent bay, filled with microorganisms that cast a bright glow when stirred up by the wake of a boat or splash of a hand.
If you're one of those vacationers who DO opt for the San Juan package, we'd still recommend at least a one- or two-night getaway to Los Banos de Coamo, an easy 11/2 hours south on a superhighway to the mountain town of Coamo.
Los Banos has been a country inn of one sort or another since 1846, drawing locals from across the island and overseas, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to its soothing and restorative hot springs.
Think swimming pool filled with 109-degree mineral water. Grab a pina colada from the bar next to the main pool at this historic country parador, take a 15-minute float in the thermal waters (the recommended time limit), then a refreshing splash in the main pool.
Those mineral waters, as I often tell my friends, make your skin feel like a baby's behind.
Later, back in San Juan, as I stroll by the ancient governor's home where Ponce de Leon lived, I wonder if the old boy should have skipped going all the way to Florida to look for his fountain of youth.
He could have found it right in his own backyard, if he'd have just gotten out of San Juan and explored the island.
Sidebar: HITTING THE SPOT
GETTING THERE: Puerto Rico is served by several airlines, including American, Delta, Continental and Jet Blue. Besides San Juan, some airlines also fly from the states into Mayaguez and Aguadilla, a good way to get right to the countryside, skipping the hassle - and the drive from San Juan.
RESEARCH: Most of the island's hostelries have Web sites with links to the Puerto Rico Tourism Co.'s site at www.gotopuetorco. com. You also can order printed material (including the highly recommended Que Pasa bimonthly official guide magazine) by calling 1- 800-866-7827. For armchair travelers - and planners - we like the Insight Guides book on Puerto Rico . And the photos are great.
RECOMMENDED: Some of the paradors, we found, are little more than bare-bones or business hotels that have somehow managed to wiggle themselves onto the listings. Be forewarned and check out the Web sites. Our specific recommendations, though there's not enough room to list them all, would be:
WEST COAST: Casa Islena, Coconut Palms Inn, the Lazy Parrot Inn, Parador Villa Antonio and the pricey but gorgeous Rincon Beach Resort, all in Rincon; Parador Villas del Mar Hau, a funky collection of seaside cottages in Isabela; and the elegant Villa Montana (they even have bidets, for goodness sake!), also in Isabela.
CENTRAL and SOUTHWEST: Hacienda Juanita in Maricao; Hacienda Gripinas in Jayuya; Villa Parguera and Posada Porlamar in Parguera.
SOUTH: Los Banos de Coamo.
TIMING: Puerto Rico 's country inns, guesthouses and resorts get fairly booked up during the summer and school breaks, when most island residents take their vacations - and it gets REALLY hot, hotter than the average 82 degrees. The best time is between November and early June. If you can, avoid the weekends. Stay in San Juan and party hardy!
September to early November is hurricane season in the Caribbean. Fuhgeddaboudit.