Want a trip that’s close to home but has foreign flavor? Can’t decide between Old World charm and natural splendor? Welcome to the island that doesn’t make you choose.
By Rob Davis
If you’re looking for the feel of a foreign destination that’s a little closer to home, Puerto Rico makes the perfect long weekend. (If you have more time, extend your visit by adding a visit to Vieques.) Picture sun-drenched walks through beautiful beaches and tropical vegetation, followed by electric nights of Latin music and salsa dancing. Explore the stunningly preserved Old Town of San Juan with its brightly colored building facades and rustic cobblestones — like an Old World capital conveniently in the New World. Also convenient: Most people speak English (though Spanish is the official language) and dollars are the currency, just like on the mainland.
If you want to assure a warm welcome from tourism experts that will pick you up, show you around the island from a native’s point of view, and make sure you safely reach your accomodations, plan ahead with help from juliantransportation.com (787-385-7604). They offer VIP treatment that won’t hurt your wallet.
Most visitors will begin their journey in the city of San Juan.For your first steps, steer clear of tourist draws like the fortresses of San Cristóbal and San Felipe del Morro and head to the Paseo de la Princesa. You’ll find the path at the water’s edge nestled next to towering stone walls and dotted with charming gas street lamps, waving trees and benches where you can look out over the water.
Next, see the quaint streets and classic architecture of Old Town, which feels like wandering in southern Spain. Old Town also boasts a fantastic array of shops and restaurants. Among my favorite places to eat was Marmalade (marmaladepr.com). Though it’s considered pricey by locals, foodies will find it a bargain by NY or LA standards. The ambiance and food are modern but infused with local spices, textures and flavors. (As a rule, Puerto Rican food is not overtly spicy — in the jalapeño sense — but features bold marinades that accentuate foods’ natural flavors.) We began with one of their signature starters: flavorful white bean soup. Locally sourced ingredients made every dish shine; notable stand-outs included the rich lobster risotto and the tender grass-fed beef tenderloin.
It’s a short bridge and a 10-minute drive from Old San Juan to the high-end neighborhood of Condado, where you’ll find many of the island’s best hotels. One of my favorites was the
O:Live Boutique Hotel (oliveboutiquehotel.com). Its stunning decor offers the feel of a Mediterranean villa accented with rich, rustic wood. Its rooms are on the smaller side, but have all the amenities: Ours included a see-through shower at its center that could easily accommodate two.
Nearby is the Condado Vanderbilt (preferredpride.com/metrosource). The 5-star luxury property was built in 1919, marking the beginning of high-end tourism in Puerto Rico. It fell into disrepair by the 1970s but recently underwent a $200 million renovation and now offers 319 guest rooms, a Hammam spa and one of Puerto Rico’s best high-end restaurants (appropriately named 1919) — all on property with the grandeur of the great mansions of Newport, Rhode Island.
There’s a whole other side of San Juan yet to see. One of the most memorable parts of our trip was our visit to the Santurce neighborhood. We checked out the Museum of Art of Puerto Rico, a first-rate art museum specializing in works by local artists. We also saw the great bronze sculptures outside the Centro de Bellas Artes, which houses four concert and theater halls. There’s art everywhere in Santurce: the sides of entire buildings are adorned with massive pieces of street art that’s a far cry from anything you’d call graffiti.
Popular with locals, La Placita (“little square” in Spanish) houses an enormous public fruit market by day; however, at night the area comes alive with music and dancing at some of the city’s liveliest bars and restaurants. One of our favorite hot spots was the Taberna los Vazques. The place is small (holding about 150) but its live, four-man band made us feel the rhythm of salsa and mambo. Friends of the band sing along, while local patrons dance salsa to the beat. While in Santurce, you might also want to check out the restaurant Jose Enrique (joseenriquepr.com) for great Puerto Rican cuisine.
After a few days in San Juan, we headed toward the island of Vieques in search of beaches, snorkeling and more outdoor activities. This rather secluded tropical island is just eight miles off the coast of Puerto Rico, and is a great escape from the noise and bustle of the capital. You can choose to take a short flight or make your way by car to the town of Fajardo and catch the ferry. Though you can make the drive in under an hour, I recommend leaving time to enjoy the ride.
On the way out of town (near the airport) we checked out the Ceviche House in Isla Grande. This casual place offers friendly service, can get packed with locals, and lives up to its name: The shrimp ceviche I had was fresh and tasty in its lime marinade. I can’t remember when I’ve had better ceviche and definitely will return.
As we made our way from San Juan to Fajardo, we enjoyed the beautiful scenery, including Luquillo Beach, where many locals go to enjoy the sand — though the best beaches of our trip were still waiting for us in Vieques.
If you plan to stay in Fajardo, you can’t beat the El Conquistador Resort (elconresort.com), which combines the luxury of a Waldorf Astoria property with the exotic touches of a tropical escape. It’s a popular choice for destination weddings and visitors looking to explore Puerto Rico’s natural wonders. Indulge in the spa, lounge by the pool, enjoy a variety of water sports, and even head to their own private island for horseback riding.
Just a few miles away you’ll find the entrance to the only tropical rain forest in the U.S., El Yunque. At 43 square miles, it’s the largest public park in Puerto Rico. Though it was at the top of my to-see list, I found the place a bit too filled with American tourists for my liking. They seemed to be having a great time frolicking in the water, but I would have preferred to go much deeper into the forest and find more secluded places to explore.
The Ferry (vieques.com/ferry-vieques-fajardo) from Fajardo to Vieques takes just an hour and a half. As rental cars are not permitted on the ferry, make sure to reserve a vehicle for Vieques in advance as you’ll need one to get around, though the entire island is only 20 miles long.
Vieques will sound familiar to many Americans from when it was used as a bombing range by the U.S. Navy. After significant protests, the military left in 2003, and Vieques has since become better known for its beauty and the many ways it offers to enjoy the great outdoors.
The ferry arrives in Isabel II, one of its two main villages (the other is Esperanza). We headed in our rental car to HIX Island House (hixislandhouse.com). This unique property has been written up in every major design publication, as it was conceived by the celebrated architect John Hix.
Hix famously said of his architectural philosophy, “Things that I find in Nature are more fascinating and beautiful than things that are made by man. I strive to make my buildings fit with Nature.” This is evident in the way the HIX Island House’s minimalist concrete buildings blend harmoniously with the nature that surrounds them. However, the property is not for the faint of heart. For example, you’ll be spending the night under mosquito netting, as much of the property is exposed to the outside, allowing little critters in after dark. Think of it as indoor camping.
We mainly visited the villages for meals or to meet our adventure guides. The place to be in Vieques is outside the towns on the long stretches of the world’s most incredible beaches. But don’t worry: If you need a taste of civilization, you can head to the W Hotel for poolside food and cocktails. For us, though, Vieques was about getting away from all of that and back to nature.
The island is also home to one of the most incredible natural sights I’ve experienced: Mosquito Bay, known as the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world. In the dark of night, its waters sparkle with the light of tiny creatures called dinoflagellates that glow blue. There are only a few places in the world where you can see this phenomenon. We enjoyed it with help from Abe’s Snorkeling and Bio Bay Tours (abessnorkeling.com). After meeting a group of about 30 to 40 guests, their guides shuttle us by van to the bay at sundown.
No motorized boats are permitted on Mosquito Bay, as this would kill the fragile animals who provide the fireworks. So Abe supplies kayaks for the guests and leads the group. When we visited, we were about a week away from the new moon (when the absence of light makes the glow of the bay particularly impressive). The experience was so extraordinary that if I return to Vieques, I’ll be sure to go when there is no moonlight at all, to make the experience that much more eye-popping.
We had such a great time at night that we also decided to do some exploring with Abe by day, as well. We had a great day of snorkeling — spotting sea turtles, rays and an impressive array of colorful fish swimming among the coral around the island.
When it was time to come up for air, we had worked up quite an appetite. Our favorite place to eat by far was Conuco (restauranteconuco.com) in Isabel II. Though it’s open only for dinner (and closed Sundays and Mondays), it had the best food I found on the island. Located in a former home, it gives you the feeling that you’ve been welcomed into a local dining room. Each evening’s menu was different, allowing us to sample dishes such as seafood with rice (a sort of paella) and veal stew in a
plaintain bowl. It kept us well-fuelled for our next round of outdoor adventures.
The definition of a “great trip” varies pretty widely, depending whom you ask, but I found my experience in Puerto Rico would fit a variety of them. For those who seek the rich culture and architecture of cities that have stood the test of time, there were the beautiful streets of Old San Juan. For those who like once-in-a-lifetime adventures, there were the waters off Vieques: filled with surprising creatures by day and by night. And, of course, there were plenty of options for those who simply want a fantastic beach where they can worship the sun until it’s time for a cocktail.
But a surefire definition of a great trip is one where — even before you’ve left — you’re already planning your return visit. And by that definition, for me, this trip was certainly a great one.
Last modified: October 13, 2017