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TENNIS Magazine

TRAVEL: Island Time -- Puerto Rico

No Other Caribbean Isle Combines As Much Tennis And Sightseeing As Puerto Rico

By Ian Keown

August 18, 2002
Copyright © 2002 TENNIS Magazine. All rights reserved. 

From the September 2002 issue of TENNIS Magazine

Puerto Rico is a crossroads. Semi-independent and officially bilingual, its culture fuses Native American, Spanish, and West African traditions with the modernizing influence, and money, of the United States.

What does this mean for travelers? It means they can go in any direction they choose here. If you want to relax in luxury, the coasts are dotted with colossal beach resorts that have every recreational amenity imaginable. For local culture, there's San Juan's walled 16th-century Old City (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, like the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal) or quaint Spanish Colonial hill towns.

The sightseeing is excellent, too: Within an hour's drive of the beaches you'll find wonders both natural and man-made: a primeval rain forest, 50-million-year-old caves, a world-famous observatory.

How about tennis? No fewer than five of the island's big resorts have first-rate programs, with at least seven courts and full-time teaching pros ready with lessons, clinics, and round robins. And most of the year the weather is ideal. Temperatures are a steady 73 to 80 degrees, with easterly winds helping to keep the air fresh.

While there is a hurricane season, from July to August, the typical cloudburst won't keep you off the court for more than an hour.

To make the most of what Puerto Rico has to offer, plan a trip that includes a few nights in at least two of the resorts and finish with a night or two at the Caribe Hilton Hotel San Juan, a few minutes from the Old City. That way you can play tennis each day and take in the island's prime attractions.

The northeast corner of Puerto Rico, with its miles of beach and hiking trails, is a popular destination. It's also home to two of the island's major tennis resorts, the Westin Rio Mar and the Wyndham El Conquistador.

Opened in 1996, the Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort & Country Club is the newest of the "tennis five." Covering 500 acres 40 minutes east of San Juan, Rio Mar has 600 rooms, two golf courses, two swimming pools, and eight restaurants.

The tennis center, headed by Brazilian pro Fabio Vasconcellos, of Peter Burwash International, has 13 clay courts. Features include a free one-hour lesson (for one player from each room) and theme events organized by club members (guests are welcome), with dinner and a full day of tennis for $50.

A few miles to the east, sprawling across a bluff where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean, is the 500-acre, 918-room Wyndham El Conquistador Resort & Country Club. A world unto itself, El Conquistador offers a choice of environments. Accommodations are available in five areas, all of which are beautifully landscaped and stylishly furnished. Las Casitas, a replica of a Mediterranean village, is the most secluded, with 90 villa suites, butler service, and a 26,000-square-foot Golden Door spa.

The country club at El Conquistador includes 18 holes of golf and seven tennis courts. A comprehensive tennis program is run by the Rios family, Juans Jr. and Sr. (the latter learned the game from Nick Bollettieri). Features at the courts include the annual Tennis Open (September 26-29) and a complimentary weekly beginners' clinic.

El Conquistador and the Westin Rio Mar share one major draw: Each is 20 minutes by car (you can rent one at either resort) from El Yunque, the U.S. Forest Service's only tropical rain forest.

You'll feel like it's the dawn of creation at this 28,000-acre wonder world of twining vines, wild orchids, and giant mahogany trees. The jungle sounds alone are worth the visit--the whoosh of mountain streams, the trickling of water through the greenery, the croaking of native tree frogs. The new El Portal Rain Forest Center (787-888-1810) provides guided tours.

Head west, past San Juan to the white-sand beaches of Dorado, and you'll find two Hyatt hotels, the elegant Hyatt Dorado, which has 298 luxury rooms, and the newer Hyatt Regency Cerromar Beach, with 506 rooms. The Dorado, a spread of low-rise buildings, has long been popular for its lush landscaping and relaxed atmosphere. The Cerromar is geared toward sports- and fitness-oriented families.

But you don't have to choose, because the resorts are connected by a free shuttle trolley, allowing guests access to the athletic facilities of each resort. And facilities like these are hard to beat--four Robert Trent Jones golf courses, water sports, the Spa del Sol and fitness center, a 1,176-square-foot river pool with waterfalls, and 13 tennis courts. Maria Lirio heads up the Peter Burwash pros and guarantees the right match from a long list of local members.

Drive west from Dorado and you'll come to karst country, a landscape of haystack-like hillocks, sinkhole valleys, and 4,000-foot-high forested peaks. At the Rio Camuy Cave Park, you can ride an open trolley down into a luxuriant sinkhole, then take a walking tour through one of the largest cave formations in the Western hemisphere, including an underground room with a 20-story-high ceiling--a spooky place of stalactites, petroglyphs, and sightless fish. (Rio Camuy information: 787-898-3100.)

A few miles away is the Arecibo Observatory. You may have seen it in movies (most recently Contact, starring Jodie Foster), a gargantuan satellite dish 1,000 feet in diameter set into a 20-acre natural bowl. This is the world's largest radio-radar telescope.

Scientists from Cornell University use Arecibo to collect data from space and send out their own signals, hoping to make contact with another civilization. You can learn how the whole thing works in the new visitor center (787-878-2612;

On the other side of the island, on the southeast coast, is the Candelero Resort at Palmas del Mar, in Humacao. It's the least expensive of Puerto Rico's big tennis destinations, but the 101-room hotel (part of a 2,750-acre resort community) has two golf courses, three miles of beach, and 18 restaurants.

And the Candelero is serious about tennis. It has the largest private tennis facility on the island, with 20 courts. The Burwash staff is headed by Scott Anders, whose clinics are sharply focused, some emphasizing aerobics, others match play. With a membership of 600-plus, Palmas is also a good bet for game matching.

Palmas' comfortable guest rooms have been renovated recently, and there are also 110 condos and villas for rent, all with kitchens and washer-dryers.

The resort puts you within driving distance of El Yunque and the island's second-largest city, the historic Ponce, which underwent a $400 million revamp in 1992. Stroll here among restored plazas with 19th-century gas lamps and neoclassical facades, tour Castillo Serralles, a hilltop mansion, or hear about the island's storied musical heritage at the Museum of Puerto Rican Music (Ponce information: 787-841-8044).

A great place to wind up any Puerto Rican tour is the rejuvenated, 640-room Caribe Hilton Hotel San Juan, home to the island's only private beach, a spectacular ocean-view pool, a new spa and fitness center, and three hard courts. The hotel offers a matchmaking service with the local membership; check to find out when part-time pro Tony Ortiz, who learned to play on these courts under the tutelage of the legendary Welby van Horn, is available to give lessons.

The Hilton is just a few minutes from Old San Juan, and no trip to Puerto Rico is complete without a few hours (preferably a few days) spent wandering its cobblestone streets. While this 14-square-mile walled city turns the clock back 500 years, it has evolved over the last two decades from a rundown barrio to a well-groomed landmark with restored centuries-old houses. There are also a dozen museums, cafes galore, and some of the best little restaurants in the Caribbean.


Travel File:

How to get there

Flights from 20 U.S. airports connect to San Juan; major carriers are American, Delta, Northwest, United, USAirways, and, most recently, JetBlue. All the resorts mentioned have shuttle service from the airport. You can rent cars at the resorts to get to the island's sights.

Where to stay

Rates are based on double occupancy.

Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort & Country club 6000 Rio Mar Blvd., Rio Grande 00745 Lodging: 600 rooms and suites. Rates: $195-$750 per room; $445--$3,200 per suite. Courts: 13 clay (2 lit). Court time: $21 hourly per court. Information: (800) 474-6627;

Wyndham El Conquistador Resort & Country Club 1000 Ave. El Conquistador, Las Croabas 00738 Lodging: 918 rooms. Rates: $265-$2,145. Courts: 7 (4 clay, 3 hard; 4 lit). Court time: $25 hourly per court. Information: (800) 996-3426;

Hyatt Dorado Beach Resort & Country Club; Hyatt Regency Cerromar Beach Resort & Casino Rte. 693, Dorado 00646 Lodging: 804 rooms (298 at Dorado; 506 at Cerromar). Rates: $250-$390 (Dorado); $265-$340 (Cerromar). Courts: 13 hard (4 lit). Court time: $15 hourly per court. Information: (800) 233-1234;

Candelero Resort at Palmas Del Mar 170 Candelero Dr., Humacao 00791 Lodging: 101 rooms and 135 villas. Rates: $160-$1,000. Courts: 20 (15 hard, 5 clay; 7 lit). Court time: $20 hourly per court, $25 with lights. Information: (800) 725-6723;

Caribe Hilton Hotel san juan Los Rosales Street, San Geronimo Grounds, San Juan 00901 Lodging: 646 rooms. Rates: $205-$1,090. Courts: 3 hard. Court time: free ($15 per half-hour with lights). Information: (800) 445-8667;

Can't-Miss Dining

In Old San Juan, try La Mallorquina (787-722-3261) for Old Havana ambience. Amadeus cafe (787-722-8635) offers upscale Puerto Rican. Baru (787-977-7107) is popular with foodies for its Colombian cuisine.


Puerto Rican Tourism Company: (800) 866-7827;

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