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PUERTO RICO HERALD
How Long Can This Last? Splashes Of Solitude And Something For (Almost) Everyone In The Southwest
By Natalia de Cuba Romero
August 8, 2003
When you're in charge of putting together a vacation for a large group, "You can't please everyone" just won't cut it. Be it a family reunion, a meeting with business associates, in-laws you can't shake or old buddies with the spouses and offspring they've acquired since college, a camel could pass through the eye of a needle with more ease than you coming up with a destination that everyone will enjoy or at least not hang you by the toenails for.
I'm not going to say that I've found the perfect solution to all your problems. After all, Guánica lacks good shopping, golf is about 30-45 minutes away and unless there's a chef in your group, the dining is going to be merely adequate, but aside from that, it has a dazzling array of activities crammed into one small geographical space: incredible coastline panoramas, good beach, excellent snorkeling and diving; fine bird-watching, mountain-biking, hiking, stupendous kayaking (paddling and surfing), American history, massage and spa, wind-surfing, deep-sea fishing and cave explorations, plus good to very good accommodations for different budgets.
And Guánica has the added plus of being relatively undiscovered (except for weekend hordes - particularly long weekends), so you can enjoy an incredible tropical paradise vacation in virtual solitude.
Funny how Guánica has been celebrated over the last 100 years in different ways and yet remains a secret.
This is where the Americans landed in 1898 to take over Puerto Rico from the Spanish in the Spanish-American War. After one or two shots from the harbour, the American sailors rowed in and docked and claimed the territory for the United States. Different folks tell it differently: some say the locals waved palm fronds on the Americans' triumphant march to San Juan, while others say there was rebellion along the way. Beats me who's right, but since 1898 Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory and the blessed siesta went the way of the Roman chariot. Heavy sigh.
At any rate, today the malecón (boardwalk) in the rather sad town of Guánica sports a boulder memorial to the arrival of the Americans.
American history duly visited, head for where the real vacation starts. Hop onto Road #333 on the east side of town and drive the rising, windy road that wraps around the harbour, enjoying the panoramic view of coves carved into the mountains by the relentless sea. You are entering the Guánica Forest, a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve, and the reason why Guánica has such eco-cool credentials.
This subtropical dry forest has hundreds of cacti and semi-evergreen and desert plants, all in miniature sizes. Hikers will love the seaside trail -- part of the 1,640-acre Guánica State Forest, which features 12 major hiking trails. There are something like 700 species of flora and fauna - including close to one hundred species of bird - many endemic.
And the dry forest frames Caña Gorda Bay, dotted with tiny mangrove cays that can be explored by snorkel. Some, Like Gilligan's Island, can even be your private beach island for the day. Caña Gorda is the ocean's treasures in microcosm; from thalassia sea grass beds to mangrove tree roots pulsing with baby lobster, fish and shellfish, to reef to a 22-mile-long undersea wall that drops to 110 feet, and deep-sea creatures beyond, what else could a water lover desire? Breezes and chop for windsurfing? Well, yes, Guánica's got that too.
With so much to do, you'll want to stay more than just a day, although you can just grab a ferry at San Jacinto dock and visit the bay for a few hours.
There are several places to stay, on or just off Road #333. Copamarina, the first hotel in Puerto Rico to offer an all-inclusive plan, is a lovely, mid-scale resort with adult and kiddie pools, two restaurants, plus a grill on the way, full-service spa and fitness center, tennis and fab landscaping. It's got its own beach, dive shop and ferry and small boats to putter about the bay and visit the cays, but it's small enough to feel homey. A special note about the spa and fitness - Copamarina is now providing doctor consultations to develop personalized fitness programs and the spa even has an aromatherapy capsule. So while the active part of the group is chasing sharks, the bon-bons-in-bed set can be pampered all day long. Copamarina is very popular for weddings and honeymoons.
Just beyond Copamarina, Mary Lee's By the Sea offers funky Caribbean décor 1-2-3-room efficiency apartments on the water, which allow you to take as many rooms as your group needs and they all sort of interconnect. And just beyond that, in the San Jacinto neighbourhood, Paul Julien's Caribbean Vacation Villa & Eco-Sports Center offers adorable fully-furnished apartments for long or short term stays and all the sports equipment you could possibly need to try everything the area has to offer. In addition to being a very nice guy and a good drummer, Paul is an international water sports expert and his crew has similar experience, so whichever activity you choose will be guided by people who know what they're doing - be it cave exploration, kayaking or teaching you to windsurf (there is wind and surf for all levels). You can choose your privacy level for the outdoor decks - think sunbathing in the buff -- and Lynn is a terrific licensed massage therapist who will come to you with hot stones, deep tissue, shiatsu and more.
Having said that the food is not great in this area, I must mention that my parents - avid bird-watchers and card-carrying members of Audubon - are frequent visitors to Guánica and they like to lunch at La Concha on the main street at Playa Santa. I have not been, but they are critical eaters who accompany me on many restaurant reviews, and they say that the creole food is good and - this is important - the staff was very accommodating about their dietary limitations on salt and fats.
So, if you've got a big crew to please, or if you're looking for an outdoor adventure escape with a nice bed to fall into when you're done, look into Guánica, an outdoor banquet of fun with an unassuming attitude of welcome.
Guánica can be reached from San Juan by taking Highway 52 to Ponce then getting on Road 2. Take Road 116 South to Guánica and get on Road 333 to Caña Gorda. Gilligan's Island can be reached by ferry from San Jacinto dock. It's closed on Mondays and crowded at weekends.
Contact Copamarina Beach Resort at www.copamarina.com;
firstname.lastname@example.org, or 787-821-0505.
Contact Mary Lee's by the Sea at 787-821-3600.
Contact Paul Julien's Caribbean Vacation Villa & Eco-Sports Center
email@example.com or 787-821-5364.
Contact La Concha restaurant at 787-821-5522
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.