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The New York Sun

Puerto Rico For The Weekend


March 18, 2005
Copyright © 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

If you’re like me, you've had enough of the icy sidewalks and slushy subway stairwells that comprise a New York winter. What better way to escape the grim weather than to chase the perpetual summer of our Caribbean neighbors - even if just for the weekend? Enter Puerto Rico, where the ideal getaway mix of sun and sand, adventure and culture presents itself quickly and easily for those seeking a brief respite from chilly everyday life. Many visitors to Puerto Rico base themselves near San Juan and don't venture much past that area, which offers a lot but doesn't do the island full justice. Guilty of this in the past, I vowed to see more than just resorts and beaches when I returned over a recent holiday weekend. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that in Puerto Rico, I could drive through mountains and along coasts, kayak the Caribbean Sea and body-surf the Atlantic, witness the American and Boriquen sides of the island - all in four days.

San Juan is where the journey usually begins, and at least one day and evening should be spent exploring the capital city. Accommodation options abound in the city's distinct neighborhoods, although many are expensive. My group of four found an affordable option on the beach at the Aleli by the Sea Guest House in Condado (Calle Sea View 1125, 787-725-5313; doubles $55-$100), a 15-minute ($15) taxi ride from Old San Juan, the historic tourist center of the city.

Don't be discouraged by the cruise ships and the English overheard in Old San Juan's myriad restaurants, shops, and museums: The city's rich history as a military base and more recent architectural restoration are sources of cultural pride for Puerto Ricans, and it shows. The blue cobblestone streets brim with the delightful balconies and flowerpots of colonial buildings; we spent an afternoon wandering them to absorb the city's unique mix of European and Latin charm. El Morro, the island's oldest fort, whisked us back to the time of pirates with its 71 1751 222 1763

seaside lookouts, prison, and cannon rooms - a stark contrast to the kite-flying family hangout its lawns are today. In the evening, faced with a diverse nightlife, we chose the Nuyorican Cafe (Calle San Francisco 312, entrance on Callejon de la Capilla, 787-977-1276) for its $3 Medalla Light beers, seven-piece salsa band, and teeming dance floor.

We left town our second morning with a Budget rental car ($186 for three days) and drove west on Highway 22. The dizzying array of strip malls and fast food chains along main highways is a conspicuous reminder of Puerto Rico's U.S. commonwealth status; however, I learned that they were merely the tradeoff for traveling quickly around the island - more scenic, meandering routes between any two points often exist as well. From San Juan, we reached the city of Arecibo in under 90 minutes via the uninspiring freeway, but if we had time to spend three or four hours, we might have taken the more southerly route through dramatic karst country.

Once we turned south onto Route 10 and curvy Highway 144, verdant peaks and valleys provided a much lovelier landscape. The winding roads through Puerto Rico's craggy heart are not for the faint of stomach, but the turnoff for Jayuya isn't far off, and the mountain vistas through the open windows of Restaurant El Buren (unmarked number on Carretera 527; ask a local to point you toward it) are worth a little discomfort. We sampled the curious-sounding mofongos, mashed plantains filled with meat or seafood, which were excellent, as was the asopoa de camarones, a hearty gumbo-like soup with shrimp.

We continued southwest toward the Bosque Estatal de Guanica (Guanica State Forest), a gorgeous dry forest region combining Caribbean beaches, two islands, hiking trails, Puerto Rico's largest variety of bird species, and nearly 10,000 acres of cacti and dry scrub. I had reserved a large studio at Mary Lee's By the Sea (Calle San Jacinto 25, 787-821-3600, ; studios $80-$100), a unique complex of furnished units ranging from studios to three-bedroom houses that were, as the name suggests, steps from the sea. The heart of the Bosque is miles from civilization, and Mary Lee Alvarez, an American expat for 44 years, informed me over the phone that only a few restaurants exist nearby. However, each of her units comes equipped with a kitchen and BBQ access, so we stopped in nearby Yauco on the way for groceries.

Our spacious studio was homey and perfectly accommodating. We barbecued and played cards with the door ajar to catch the breeze, now and then chasing Mary Lee's friendly dog, Mia, out of the apartment. The quiet, dark night begged to be seen, and the dock at the property's base provided a perfect stargazing opportunity. I felt so far removed from the previous night's outing in lively Old San Juan, as if days had passed. My second night, and already I'd escaped.

We awoke to a brilliantly sunny, hot morning - typical winter weather in this region and perfect conditions for a short kayaking expedition (single kayaks from Mary Lee's $10/hour, doubles $15/hour, $35 full day) to tiny Guilligan's Island, which is also reachable by ferry. The kayaks are precariously lightweight, but I wouldn't have minded if mine had tipped me into the warm, crystal-clear seawater below. Idyllic and isolated, the mangrove-covered Guilligan's and the nearby Isla Ballena easily warrant a full day's visit, but we were due to head east on Highway 2 to Ponce, the start of our loop back to San Juan.

Boasting impressive architecture and several worthy museums, Ponce has a colonial history to rival that of San Juan. We spent some time exploring the oft-photographed city center, with 667 1501 825 1512its funky firehouse museum, huge fountain, and busy pedestrian shopping mall, but it's ice cream for which I'll always remember Ponce. A stop at King's Cream (Calle Marina 9322, 787-843-8520) should be mandatory for all visitors to Puerto Rico for the delicious tropical fruit flavors, cheap prices, and friendly servers, who insisted we sample nearly every flavor before choosing.

We found accommodation for the night further east along scenic Route 901, which hugs the southeast coast, at the Parador Palmas de Lucia (Intersection Rte. 901 & Rte. 9911, 787-893-4423,;doubles $90-$100). The hotel's large pool, restaurant, basketball and volleyball courts, and proximity to Playa Lucia offer plenty to do for a one-night stay, and after sufficient pool time the next day, we left for nearby Restaurant Villas del Mar (Km 2.0, Rte 901, 787-861-0899). Their huge terrace overlooking the Atlantic offers the spectacular views this area is known for, and is well enjoyed over a snack of $2 turnover-like pastelillos and pina coladas.

Back in the northeast en route to the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport, we stopped for a final swim in Luquillo at Playa Monserrate, a popular public beach. Before leaving, I lingered for a last look at the exotic surroundings: the towering palm trees and perched pelicans, the warm Atlantic that was so much more attractive than the one I knew at home. A lot of distance had been covered, but still I felt completely rested and invigorated. Was I prepared to return to snow? Not really. But summer seemed one step closer.

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