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PUERTO RICO HERALD
A Total Immersion Playground
By Natalia de Cuba Romero
May 16, 2003
The area of Aguadilla and Isabela in the northwest corner of the island is so jam-packed with things to do on land and sea that you could exhaust yourself before you exhaust the possibilities. It's a good thing it is also a relaxing, off-the-beaten-path destination, because after a long day of bouncing in, on and under the waves, you'll need a restorative meal and a cozy place to lay your head.
I like the neighbourhood's wooly-headed surfer side - with beaches like Jobos and Gas Chambers providing reliable waves, this curve of coast brings them in from all over the world. And as in Rincón, grown-up visitors may have lost the long hair and traded in their flipflops for proper shined shoes and a tie, but they haven't given up their love for the sea. Sometimes called executive surfers, the dudes of yesteryear - now in their 30s, 40s and 50s - are coming back in droves to cut up the curl in fine style.
And fine style requires a bit more of a stylish setting. The bunk bed dorms of old have given way to newer, more sophisticated properties that give the families of these sportsmen somewhere sweet to hang out while their paterfamilias (or matriarch) is riding the waves.
I just stayed in one such place: Villa Montaña Resort (787-872-9554; www.villamontana.com), straddling Isabela and Aguadilla on Route 4466.
This place, 16 acres (and eventually to reach 30 acres) of villas nestled in lush tropical landscaping on 150 meters of sparkling beach, has just become one of my favourite escapes from the hustle of life. Owned by French-Colombian Alain Tiphaine (formerly of Palmas del Mar Resort), it is an upscale getaway for people who like the outdoors, tempered with some luxurious indoors.
There are currently 55 units available and more on the way. You may inquire about purchasing one as well, if you've got several hundred thousand dollars to spare. Offering 1-3 bedroom options, they are tastefully decorated in warm terracottas and deep blues with overstuffed sofas, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired lamps and Balinese wood. They offer king- and queen-size beds, several kitchen options and outdoor patios for dining or reading in the hammock. You can bathe in one of two pools and work out in the Fitness center, practice on the climbing wall or simply walk on the beach, which stretches for about five miles.
The on-property Eclipse Restaurant is presided over by charming chef, Jan Rabe, who comes to us from Germany by way of Hawaii. Open for breakfast lunch and dinner, he offers classics like New Zealand lamb chops with creamy mashed potato and filet mignon in a goose liver and port wine sauce, served with flair and elegance in an outdoor setting, something you didn't used to get a lot of in this neighbourhood.
And the region is not just about surfing anymore. The surfers are joined by a water and wind-driven sport: kiteboarding. I personally think it's for maniacs, but I thought that about surfing until I started. These guys hitch themselves to huge kites and strap a board on their feet and use the wind to skip across the waves and even get airborne. If that kind of excitement appeals to you, you need to visit Isabela and Aguadilla (Call ahead: Velauno 866-PR-VELA1; velauno.com ).
Scuba is more my speed and this area features a Blue Hole, underwater caves and the occasional encounter with a manatee. How the sailors of old could have confused these slow-moving, whiskered, tubby brown sea cows with women - thus giving birth to the mermaid legend - is beyond me, but I suppose weeks at sea with only other smelly guys for company could do that to you.
Another must-do activity is a horseback ride with Tropical Trail Rides (787-872-9256; http://home.coqui.net/barker/), right next door to Villa Montaña. Here's your chance to ride a paso fino horse on the beach, through an almond forest and to Survival Beach - which bears a marked resemblance to that beach on the original Planet of the Apes. Summer is actually a great time for the trip as the sea often lays flat and gives you a chance to wander the caves that are underwater in winter. The horses are mellow - there are also quarter horses available - and there's swimming at deserted Survival too.
Among the other stuff I like to do around there is have beach bar snacks, excellent Cuba Libres (with Don Q Cristal and lots of lime) on Happy Belly's (787 645-4775) terrace overlooking Jobos Beach and the surfers in Isabela. And stop in on Playa Brava Longboard & Coffee House at Km. 9.8 on Route 110 in Aguadilla (787-890-2189; firstname.lastname@example.org) for healthy meals, laid-back atmosphere and longboard lessons and rentals and directions to the best beaches. Golfers will want to check out the Punta Borinquen Golf Club's (787-890-2987) sweeping, palm-studded 18 holes at the entrance to the former Ramey Air Force Base in Aguadilla. It is Puerto Rico's most economical links. And speaking of the air - there are direct flights from Newark on Continental for folks coming from the mainland. PanAm is also expected to start direct flights from Orlando's Sanford International Airport. Otherwise, expect an 1.5 hour drive from San Juan.
Natalia de Cuba Romero is a freelance travel, food and arts writer. Her column, "Sights, Sounds & Tastes of Puerto Rico", appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald. She can be reached at NataliaHerald@centennialpr.net.