Offering U.S. visitors an international island flavor without having to venture too far from their familiar comforts, Puerto Rico is a uniquely beguiling prospect. By Karl Cushing
The ‘All Star Island’ that has given us Ricky Martin and the piña colada, also offers a taste of the U.S. with a refreshing colonial Spanish and Caribbean twist. As a Commonwealth of the United States, Americans can use their dollars and visit without a passport, and being similar in size to Connecticut, it’s possible to tick off a lot of sights on a long weekend break.
The capital San Juan makes for an excellent city break, its modern hotels and buzzing nightlife acting as a nice foil to historic Old San Juan. Others are drawn to its resorts, such as Palmas del Mar, and sandy stretches, including Isla Verde’s expansive beachfront, dreamy Flamenco Beach on Culebra Island and the dunes of Isabela. Bioluminescent bays add a touch of magic, while golfers will appreciate the 20-plus courses on offer.
To the east lies El Yunque tropical rainforest, a magnet for nature lovers and hikers, and Luquillo’s excellent beaches and tempting food kioskos. Offshore, the popular island of Vieques is served by Antonio Rivera Rodríguez Airport and excellent hotels such as the W Retreat & Spa. West coast lures include laid-back Rincón, with its six beaches.
Hotly anticipated openings include AM Resorts’ all-inclusive, 250-room Dreams Puerto Rico Resort & Spa in southwesterly Guánica, slated for October 2018. Over in the capital, recent newcomers include the 149-room Hyatt Place San Juan/City Center, while the iconic El San Juan Hotel & Casino is undergoing a major makeover. The Sheraton Old San Juan and ESJ Azul (formerly ESJ Towers) have also both recently emerged from multi-million dollar renovations.
Morning: Spend the morning exploring the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, marveling at the colorful Spanish colonial buildings, historic fortifications and impressive Plaza de Armas. The old town also makes a good base for couples as its historic boutique properties, such as Hotel El Convento and The Gallery Inn, ooze romance.
Afternoon: Have lunch at La Bombonera or The Parrot Club, sampling classic plantain-based dishes, such as alcapurrias, tostones or mofongo. After an excellent local coffee to pep you up, take refuge from the midday heat in Old San Juan’s great range of art galleries, museums and shops. Or, join an organized culinary tour.
Evening: After dinner at Marmalade in Fortaleza Street, it’s time to sample the famous local rum at one of the street’s welcoming bars. After some bar-hopping, consider taking in some music at a spot such as hip Club Flow, Nuyorican Café or Café Carli or try sophisticated dance club Brava at El San Juan Hotel.
Morning: Head out early to El Yunque National Forest, whose highlights include La Mina Falls, or clear your head by hotfooting it to ToroVerde Nature Adventure Park in Orocovis. Alongside its panoply of rope courses, suspension bridges and rappels, ToroVerde is home to La Bestia, the world’s longest zipline. toroverdepr.com
Afternoon: Head south to the island’s Caribbean coast and Puerto Rico’s second city, Ponce. Take in its distinctive colonial architecture on a two-hour trolley tour, snapping sites such as Plaza Las Delicias, before visiting cultural treasures such as Ponce Museum of Art.
Evening: Grab a taxi to the seafront for a stroll along Paseo Tablado La Guancha boardwalk, fringing the Caribbean Sea and overlooking the yacht harbour — the lookout tower at one end offers great sunset views — before refueling at El Paladar restaurant.
Morning: Take an early morning boat tour from La Guancha to beguiling Coffin Island, spending the day swimming, snorkeling, hiking and ticking off sites such as Almeida Cave, before flopping down on Pelican Beach.
Afternoon: Returning to Ponce late afternoon, it’s time to transfer to San Juan, about a 90-minute drive north. Make a trip of it and drop by a rum distillery, or loop west to see Guánica’s stunning dry forest. visitcasabacardi.com; destileriaserralles.com
Evening: If you’re feeling flush — or just fancy a spot of people-watching over a few drinks — swing by one of the capital’s casinos at hotels including La Concha or the Ritz-Carlton. Or, seal the deal in one of the lively nightlife areas: Isla Verde Avenue, Condado’s Ashford Avenue or Calle McLeary in Ocean Park. Alternatively, end your trip with an atmospheric nighttime walking tour of Old San Juan.