Puerto Rico: Beyond the Surf, Sand and Slot Machines
By Melanie Reffes
With temperatures in the eighties year-round and no passport needed from the U.S., Puerto Rico tops the list as the perennial vacation destination. Boasting fine beaches, casinos, golf courses, shopping and eco-adventures, Puerto Rico is a sun-soaked trio of islands catering to every taste and budget. Spanish culture abounds in San Juan while Vieques–the largest wildlife refuge in the Caribbean–and Culebra offer laid-back Caribbean charm without the crowds.
“We are selling beyond San Juan,” said Gabriel Emanuelli, director sales, North America, Puerto Rico Tourism Company. “We are encouraging visits to our sleepy fishing villages and our smaller islands.” With 12,500 hotel rooms and an additional three thousand expected within three years, Puerto Rico is on a roll with a tourism product guaranteed to please.
Newly re-branded as the Verdanza, the 222-room property is steps from the beach in San Juan’s Isla Verde tourism district. Perks include bike taxis to the beach, pillow menu and Puerto Rican coffee in each room. Starting at $90 nightly per person, per room, the Summer Vibe package includes breakfast, food credit nightly and gratis room with a booking of three or more. “The Verdanza is an experience that allows our guests to feel one with the true vibe of San Juan,” said Ricky Newman, general manager. Travel agent rates start at $85 per room. Visit www.verdanzahotel.com.
Waldorf Astoria Collection properties include El Conquistador Resort with an 18-hole golf course, 750 re-designed rooms and the new Coquí Water Park. Visit www.elconresort.com. Redesigned with room upgrades, El San Juan Hotel & Casino tempts with a trio of hip bars named Gold, Silver and Blue and the new Rose Ultra Lounge featuring burlesque-style floor shows. Visit www.elsanjuanhotel.com. A Winter Escapes package at both Waldorf Astoria properties (through April 30th) includes breakfast for two and a $50 activity credit for each two-night stay.
Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Conrad San Juan is sleek and modern with a 24-hour casino, tennis courts and two top eateries–Varita and Pikayo–dishing up caliente cuisine. Visit www.condadoplaza.com
Celebrated as the birthplace of the piña colada, Caribe Hilton resort unveiled 96 Condado Lagoon Villas, rendering the property the largest in San Juan with 910 rooms. “Travel agents have been and continue to be a great part of our success,” said Jose Campo, general manager. Visit www.hiltoncaribbean.com.
Starwood Hotels opened a 157-room W Retreat & Spa in Vieques in March including Alain Ducasse’s first eatery in the Caribbean called "miX on the Beach.” A 136-room St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort will open in November. Visit www.starwoodcaribbean.com.
Bevy of Beaches
Known as balnearios, public beaches offer changing rooms, lifeguards and car parks. In San Juan, Condado and Isla Verde are crowded strips of golden sand; further east, Luquillo beach is family-friendly with clear shallow water; and for a slice of secluded paradise, Punta Santiago on the east coast is relatively deserted.
Playa Boquerón on the south-western tip is a palm-fringed bay with food vendors hawking a cornucopia of spicy snacks. Named for an old US Air Force pier, Crashboat Beach boasts unsurpassed snorkeling and swimming on the northwest peninsula.
The coastal town of Fajardo is coveted for dive sites such as Superhero and Palomino Wall, where caverns and reefs are decked in a variety of corals. Off the coast of Humacao, more than thirty sites are within a five-mile radius and on the southwestern tip a long black coral wall descends to 120 feet before disappearing into the sea.
On the western side, divers are treated to some of the best underwater visibility in the region. Mona Island is home to whales and dolphins and at the Condado reef in San Juan butterfly fish happily pose for underwater photographs.
Few destinations in the world have any bioluminescent bays, however, Puerto Rico lays claim to three. The Kayak Night Tour travels through the glowing waters of Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve and although safety equipment is provided, the tour is not recommended for people not in top shape.
Putting in Paradise
Puerto Rico boasts more than twenty courses–more than anywhere else in the Caribbean. Top greens include the 18-hole Berwind Country Club in Rio Grande, two championship courses at the Westin Rio Mar and the Palmas del Mar Country Club in Humacao designed by Gary Player and Rees Jones. For spectators, the Ladies PGA Tour and the Senior PGA Tour both finish their seasons in Puerto Rico.
Wild Green Yonder
With twenty-eight thousand acres of majestic crags, rushing waterfalls and views of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean National Forest, known in Spanish as El Yunque, is Puerto Rico’s most popular natural site. An hour southeast of San Juan, it is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. Forest System and carpeted with thousand year old trees, a riotous array of flowers and the chirping Coquí frog whose image adorns mugs and t-shirts.
Twenty minutes east of San Juan, the Piñones Forest is a stretch of mangroves with a boardwalk that cuts through the middle past sandy dunes. The adventurous rent bicycles while those interested in bird-watching opt for a leisurely stroll.
The Café con Leche exfoliation is the big draw at the Spa at the Ritz-Carlton San Juan while Le Spa at the Inter-Continental is popular for the Jet Lag massage.
At the Caribe Hilton, Olas Spa offers a refreshing eucalyptus soak for winter weary feet and the Victoria Sauna in the Ponce Hilton excels with a volcanic stone massage. The largest on the island with twenty-five treatment rooms, Golden Door Spa in El Conquistador tempts with a medley of massages incorporating medicinal herbs and plants.
Twenty-three airlines provide 15,000 flights from 62 destinations to the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan including Continental, Delta, USAir, United, Jet Blue, Northwest, Spirit and American Airlines, which has made San Juan its hub for flights to other Caribbean destinations. For tourist information visit the Puerto Rico Tourism Company at www.gotopuertorico.com. For information about FAM trips, call 1-800-223-6530.
Mark your Calendar
April 9–11th is the Saborea Food Festival. Visit www.saboreapuertorico.com.
October 6–8th is the Hospitality Expo at the Puerto Rico Convention in San Juan.
For further information contact the Puerto Rico Tourism at 800-223-6530 or visit www.welcome.topuertorico.org or www.gotopuertorico.com