Caribbean: Puerto Rico
Looking for sparkling high-rises and glitzy casinos? They're here. How about stunning nature reserves and charming seaside villages? Check, check. History? No problema. Best of all: This commonwealth territory of the United States is located close to home (between the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic), offers great airfare and hotel deals (due to its high tourist volume), and is a cinch to navigate: English is widely spoken, the U.S. dollar is the national currency, and no passports are required!
In a Word: Joy
Perhaps it's the fact that Ponce de Leon, seeker of the Fountain of Youth, was the island's first governor. Perhaps it's the homegrown rum, chaotically colorful carnivals, or world-class coffee. People like to have fun in Puerto Rico, and they welcome you to join in the revelry with open arms.
Why We'd Go: Eight Features You'll Never Forget
- Old San Juan: The capitol of San Juan is two cities: one old, one new. Old San Juan, a walled city with cobblestone streets, was founded in 1521 and is one of the best-preserved Spanish colonial cities in the world. The seven-square-block World Heritage Site is located on a peninsula and stuffed with candy-colored 16th-, 17th-, and 18th-century buildings in which people go about their 20th-century life. Window shop the boutiques of Fortaleza Street (Puerto Rico has no sales tax on most items, so take some extra money); grab a piña colada at the Parrot Club or Barrachina Restaurant (where they were invented!); visit Casa Blanca, Ponce de Leon's family residence that was built in 1523 and now houses two museums; and be sure to wander the maze of secret access tunnels at the hulking El Morro Fortress, where soldiers rebuffed Englishman Sir Francis Drake in 1595.
- Mother Nature: Puerto Rico has 20 forest reserves, including the 28,000-acre El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System (bring a slicker!); Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve (which includes seven unique ecological systems and an "El Faro," a 19-century lighthouse with great views); and the Guajataca Forest Reserve, with 25 miles of trails. Located 45 minutes from San Juan in the Luquillo Mountains, El Yunque encompasses four types of forests, 50 orchid varieties, and 26 families of wildlife found nowhere else in the world. Go to watch the vibrant Puerto Rican parrot flit among one of 150 fern species and listen to the shy Coqui frog's sing-song soundtrack. On the north coast, sign up for a tour of Rio Camuy Caves, (787) 898-3100, to see one of the world's largest underground rivers and caverns reaching up to 170 feet in height.
- King Neptune: A myriad of dive sites and Crayola-colored fish beckon offshore. (Non-divers, don't worry: Visibility via a snorkeling mask is excellent!) Near the town of Humacao on the eastern shore there are more than 30 sites with caves and tunnels to be discovered. In the northwest, Desecheo, a small island 13 miles from the city of Aguadilla, offers 24 dive sites. Head south along the coast from Cabo Rojo to Guanica and you'll find a 20-mile-long underwater wall. Parador Posada Porlamar and Copamarina (see "Romantic Rooms" below) are excellent home bases for kicking up your fins.
- Fore!: Eighteen courses dot Puerto Rico, including 12 champion-level courses designed by the likes of Robert Trent Jones, Sr., Rees Jones, George Fasio, and Gary Player. Avid golfers might consider staying at one of four hotels that have two courses each.
- Day-Glo Sea Creatures: Looking for a little B-movie fun? Glow green when you swim in Phosphorescent Bay near the town of La Parguera or Mosquito Bay off the island of Vieques. Bioluminescent plankton found there emit light when agitated, producing a firefly effect. Go on a moonless night for the best sea monster effect.
- Flan: Sure, the tostones (fried green plantains) and mango daiquiris are addictive, but the true taste treat is creamy flan (rhymes with "pan"), a custard dessert. Whether cheese, coconut, vanilla, or coffee, don't miss an opportunity to indulge in a spoonful (or six).
- Perky Ponce: Puerto Rico's self-proclaimed "Pearl of the South" celebrated its 300th birthday in 1992 with a massive makeover. The result? A citywide photo op. It would be hard to miss Parque de Bombas, the vintage firehouse built in 1883 and dolled up in fire engine red with black stripes. At Plaza las Delicias, the "delightful place," Our Lady of Guadalupe Church sports a baby-blue paint job with white frosting. An antique carousel twirls at the Plaza del Caribe. Hop a free trolley tour or stroll the streets and shop for santos (small hand-carved wooden religious figures) and caretas (carnival masks) as you nibble on sugary churros or a tamarindo snow cone. For a shot of culture, visit the excellent Ponce Museum of Art and the Serralles Castle Museum, an ex-rum lord's Spanish Revival mansion with a café overlooking the city. About 15 minutes north of town, you'll find a beautifully restored 19th-century grain mill and coffee plantation at Hacienda Buena Vista. Here you can enjoy the serenity of the lush grounds and sip a cup of the island's best java. Also near Ponce is the Tibes Indian Ceremonial Park, with the oldest Indian burial ground in the Antilles, seven ceremonial ball courts (where a form of soccer was once played), a re-created Taino Indian village, and a museum.
- Nightlife: You'll note that most of the big hotels have casinos, but don't expect the frenzy of Las Vegas, probably because liquor is off-limits inside. Still, you'll feel dizzy from the opulence of casinos such as those at the Ritz-Carlton, the largest casino on the island, and the San Juan Grand Beach Hotel & Casino (go to Grand Beach's Martini's Nightclub for a night cap). Salsa is the beat here, best taken in at one of the hotel clubs.
Pucker Up: Best Place to Smooch
Along Old San Juan's southwestern edge lies Paseo de la Princesa, a coastal esplanade overlooking San Juan Bay. Accented with fountains and flickering lanterns, this is romance central for sunset or evening strolls.
When to Go: Puerto Rico at its Best
- Best weather: January to April (Christmas week has the highest prices and January the lowest during this period); the average temperature is 83 degrees in winter and 85 degrees in summer
- Best prices: Mid April to mid December; hurricane season swirls from June to November and rainy season peaks in August
- Festivals: There are three "faces" to Carnival in Puerto Rico: Revelers in Ponce (south) begin festivities on February 2 in elaborate papier-mache masks adorned with horns or bells. Fiestas de Santiago are observed during the third week of July in the town on Loiza (northeast) with masks made from dried coconut husks and adorned with three wooden horns. The Festival of the Holy Innocents is celebrated on December 27 and 28 in the town of Hatillo (northwest) with masks made of wire mesh. Heaven for coffee connoisseurs is at a Coffee Harvest Festival in Maricao (pronounced "marry-cow") during the third weekend of February or in Yauco during the last week of February.
Photo: The Jamaica Tourist Board