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The Associated Press
The beach is perfectly Caribbean, and not far away a tropical rain forest covers a hazy mountain.
By Kristen De Groot
April 3, 2005
Our bed-and-breakfast boasted that it was a 10-minute taxi ride from the San Juan airport, something that made my husband very suspicious. How nice could it be, he said, if it's that close?
As the taxi pulled into the gated neighborhood of Ocean Park, his fears were put to rest. We rolled by mansions, some Spanish-style with tile roofs and stucco walls, others more modern, but all lovely -- though well-fortified with iron bars and concrete walls to protect against burglars.
As we rolled up to the Hosteria del Mar, we were greeted by a splashing fountain, trees decorated with sparkling white lights and the brain-cleansing smell of salt air. The hotel was on the beach. Not near it. On it. The lobby was breezy, with clay tiles and cozy woodwork. Our room was simple, with an air conditioner we promptly turned off, opting instead to open the window and door to the patio overlooking the Atlantic. Changing out of my wool pants, coat and turtleneck was like transforming myself into a different animal. I wanted to set my heavy clothes on fire.
Falling asleep to the sound of crashing waves, I felt like I'd exhaled for the first time in months. I felt lighter, younger, happier.
In the morning, our hotel choice was validated with the view from the balcony, bordered by palm trees framing the golden sand below and the turquoise sea. We saw nothing but water, sky and sand.
We chose Ocean Park because we didn't want to do anything except relax or go anywhere except the beach. The neighborhood is not touristy. The beachgoers seemed to be mostly locals from the fancy gated homes, walking their dogs in the morning, jogging after work, chatting with neighbors.
Each of our three mornings was the same: breakfast, then beach.
The breakfast at Hosteria del Mar perfectly fit our mood: simple. Crusty, fresh white bread, butter, tasty preserves, papaya and mango juice and fabulous Puerto Rican coffee.
At the beach, my husband swam for hours, rested, then swam some more. I reclined on the hotel's chaise lounges situated on the sand, ordered numerous non-alcoholic (I was pregnant) frozen fruit drinks of mango, papaya and pineapple, and read a book. Then I swam. No other activities were necessary.
Our other meals at the hotel's restaurant were a nice culinary contrast to the fried food and rice and beans we'd eaten on our previous trip to Puerto Rico. These meals -- although expensive -- were a mix of Latin and Asian cuisine, including macrobiotic and vegetarian options. The house specialty drink, the uvatini, was a martini with freshly squeezed grape juice. Meals can be taken inside or on the deck with the ocean views.
On our last night, we walked down the beach to another bed and breakfast -- creatively named the Numero Uno Guest House -- to dine at its restaurant, Pamela's, which serves fabulous Caribbean fusion cuisine. An online article claimed the restaurant was actor Benecio del Torro's favorite in San Juan. After eating there, I could believe it.
We did venture one afternoon by cab into Old San Juan, but soon realized we had seen most of the historic sites -- which include forts and churches dating back to Spanish colonial times -- on previous visits. The bustling cobblestone streets weren't fitting in with our relaxation plans; we should have stayed at the beach.
But after another day in the sun and surf, we did feel ready to do something. So we rented a car (very easily with hotel help) and headed to one of the island's gems -- the rainforest, El Yunque.
Getting there was fast and easy. The scenery transformed rapidly from the palm-dotted coast into hazy mountains covered in lush tropical vegetation. We stopped in a little village at the base of the mountains to buy pastries, then continued along the road into the dense greenery. It rained. It stopped. We parked and climbed a slick stone path to a tower atop a hill. At first, we were in the clouds, surrounded by the smoky white mist. Then a breeze picked up and the clouds blew away, revealing green hills covered in palm trees. In the distance, we could see the ocean, dotted with ferries heading to the islands of Vieques and Culebra.
We ate our pastries and listened for coqui, the tiny tree frog that is a symbol of Puerto Rico. We could hear the chirping from the branches of nearby trees covered in giant leaves.
We hiked to one of the park's many waterfalls. We were hot and sweaty when we found what we were looking for, and at the advice of a friend, we had worn our swimsuits under our shorts and T-shirts and dove in. It felt like Fantasy Island -- the beautiful clear water, the roaring waterfall, and my husband and I feeling like we were the only people on Earth. Most passers-by took a look and walked on, those fools. It was a dream.
Back home, taking childbirth classes, I had to practice relaxation exercises, and the San Juan trip was the sole inspiration for the images for my "comfortable place." I focused on the view from our hotel's patio, the palm trees framing the breaking blue-and-white waves, the sky clear and sun-filled.
I wonder if Puerto Rico will be as relaxing with a baby along for the trip.
If you go: San Juan
Lodging: Hosteria del Mar, Calle Tapia 1, Ocean Park, San Juan. Phone: 800-448-8355. Rates: $89 to $279 nightly, December through April; air conditioning and breakfast included.
Numero Uno Guest House, 1 Santa Ana St., Ocean Park, San Juan; www.numero1 guesthouse.com or 866-726-5010. Rates: $115 to $265 nightly, December through April; air conditioning and breakfast included.
El Yunque: Also known as the Caribbean National Forest. From San Juan, take PR 3 past the signs for Rio Grande until the sign for "Palmer-El Yunque" on the right. Turn right, follow signs for PR 191 through village of Palmer. Take PR 191 south until signs for Caribbean National Forest. Many hotels can arrange taxis to El Yunque or recommend tour bus trips. For more information, visit www.southernregion.fs.fed.us/ caribbean/