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National Post

The Popular Island No One Goes To: Puerto Rico Has Long Been Overlooked In Favour Of Other Caribbean Destinations. What's Up With That?

Neil Dunlop

March 6, 2004
Copyright ©2004 National Post. All rights reserved.

Puerto Rico is one of the best-kept secrets in the Caribbean. Often overlooked in favour of the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Barbados, Puerto Rico offers more diversity for visitors than any place in the region: beautiful beaches, rugged mountains, great services, friendly people and an engaging Spanish history going back 500 years.

The best way to get maximum enjoyment there is to split the trip to spend some time near the capital, San Juan, and at a beach resort removed from the city. Each provides a different experience.

With a half-million residents, San Juan is home to nearly one-third of all Puerto Ricans. Most of it looks like any other southern American city (Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States) -- strip malls, service stations, fast-food joints, expressways and other trappings of urban sprawl. In fact, you might have a hard time telling the difference between it and areas of Miami.

But one part of San Juan, seven square blocks known as Old Town, is unique to Puerto Rico.

Set on a small point of land poking into the Atlantic Ocean, the historic Old San Juan was once a walled fortress built in the 16th century to protect the interests of the Spanish Empire in the Caribbean. Its massive walls still exist, in places more than 12 metres high and six metres thick. You can walk around the perimeter, between the crashing, frothing waves of the Atlantic and the looming stone parapets. Cylindrical sentry boxes hang over each corner, only big enough for a solitary soldier. From here you enter the city, as the original inhabitants and visitors did, through the San Juan Gate, one of six equipped with massive wooden doors to hold out would-be marauders. Passing through is like entering a portal to another world.

Old San Juan very much resembles an old-world Spanish city. Its narrow streets are paved with blue bricks that were brought over as ship's ballast from Europe. The streets are crammed with traffic, and the thin sidewalks overflow with tourists, many from the cruise boats that dock in San Juan. On corners old men hawk water and ice cream from battered, hand-drawn carts. Their cries of "agua" echo off the buildings, competing with the chatter of tires on the blue streets.

There are more than 400 restored 16th- and 17th-century buildings in Old San Juan. Most are two or three storeys tall and painted in mellow Caribbean shades -- ochre, cerulean, sand yellow and aquamarine. Many have elaborate cast-iron balconies overhung with the lush leaves of tropical plants and their bright flowers.

Old Town's various squares are shaded by palms and decorated with statuary and fountains. They are dotted with coffee kiosks, craft sellers and outdoor cafes where people sit and watch the pigeons and the movement of the city in the hot sun.

The town's gem is the fort El Morro. Built on a point, its fortifications rise 42 metres above the crashing waves of the Atlantic and San Juan Bay. (In 1595 it repelled an English assault led by Sir Francis Drake.) The fort is a maze of tunnels, dungeons, barracks, cannon emplacements, powder rooms and staircases. There are other forts in San Juan, but El Morro is the oldest and the most dramatic.

Old Town has several hotels, but many visitors make their way to the Condado, a strip of oceanfront land connected to Old San Juan by a short bridge. Filled with hotel towers, the area was once known as the Riviera of the Caribbean and is often compared to Miami Beach. We stayed at the stylish and popular Wyndham Condado Plaza Hotel & Casino, a 570-room, two- tower property with three pools, six restaurants, a casino and various other attractions. The staff is helpful, and the rooms are comfortable with private terraces but are a little dated. However, US$6-million is earmarked to freshen the rooms.

The Wyndham El San Juan Hotel & Casino is its spectacular sister. A short cab ride away, it evokes an age gone by. The huge lobby is jaw-dropping. A boat-sized chandelier hangs over a sunken bar where gowned women and suited men sip flutes of Champagne. The beamed, dark wood ceiling is intricately carved with roses and vines. Saturday nights are best when a salsa band plays in a corner and well-dressed couples crowd on to the wooden dance floor. A cigar bar occupies one corner, where men and women sip cognac and single malts, silently smoking and watching the action. A constant stream of traffic moves in and out of the elegant casino, losers recovering and winners celebrating in the rarefied atmosphere.

The Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort and Golf Club is far removed from San Juan's action. A 45-minute ride east from the capital, it sits on 200 pristine, landscaped hectares of tropical beachfront. It has more than a kilometre of private beach on the Atlantic, which provides some of the best body-surfing waves in the Caribbean. There are a couple of pools surrounded by palms with waiters hustling to serve families lunch and couples exotic cocktails. It's so attractive that even the large local iguanas come and lounge by the pool, providing a colourful curiosity.

The Westin's 600 guest rooms and suites are roomy and bright. Each has a private terrace and many have ocean views.

The resort has a 13-court Peter Burwash tennis centre and two championship golf courses, including the only Greg Norman-designed layout in the Caribbean. There are five bars as well as a casino. With a choice of eight eateries -- including high-end Italian, traditional Puerto Rican, steak and seafood -- there is little reason to leave the property.

It would be a shame not to, though. The El Yunque rain forest is only five minutes away. Part of the Caribbean National Forest and the only tropical forest in the U.S. National Forest System, the park provides a glimpse of what the island looked like when Christopher Columbus first sighted it in 1493 on his second voyage to the New World.

It covers 11,340 hectares of the Luquillo range, steep old mountains covered with a profusion of vegetation including 142 types of trees (some 1,000 years old), giant ferns and rare orchids. It's very wet -- the forest sees 4.5 metres or almost 400 billion litres of rain annually. Even when it's dry, hot and sunny elsewhere on the island, heavy clouds of mist hang on the mountain tops in El Yunque.

The rain forest is a singular experience, quite different than the aged ramparts of El Morro, the palm-lined, brown-sugar beach at the Westin Del Mar or the refined passion of the El San Juan Hotel lobby, but it's just another of Puerto Rico's many offerings.


Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort and Golf Club, 6000 Rio Mar Blvd., Rio Grande, 00745, Puerto Rico;

Wyndham Condado Plaza Hotel and Casino, 999 Ashford Ave., San Juan, 0091, Puerto Rico;

Wyndham El San Juan Hotel & Casino, 6063 Isla Verde Ave., Carolina, 00979, Puerto Rico;

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