Go Puerto Rico!
Published: May 2009
By Heather Smith MacIsaac
Six approaches to the island outpost that are perfect for families. Choose your own adventure
A quick hop from the mainland is a place where the sky is blue and the water's bluer, the beaches are all public, no passports are needed, and you never have to change your money. Few family getaways are this easy—and exotic. Want a rain forest or a dry forest?Righteous surf or quiet coves?A jungle hideout or oceanside quarters in Old San Juan?How about a dose of all these things?
COPAMARINA, GUÁNICA by the sea, oh how happy we'll be
Seek out Puerto Rico's most parched spot, the 9,900-acre Guánica Biosphere Reserve on the sparsely populated southwest coast, two hours from San Juan, and you'll be surprised to uncover a water wonderland. The Copamarina Beach Resort is a 20-acre oasis of clipped lawns, tropical flowers, and coconut palms. In tin-roofed, plantation-style buildings, the 106 rooms overlook gardens, pools (two adult, two kiddie), and a stretch of soft white sand along the Caribbean Sea. The luckiest families nab one of the two new three-bedroom villas.
Beached at the shoreline is every type of watercraft (kayaks, catamarans, water-skimming tricycles); moored in shallow waters is a trampoline (it's well-padded, Mom), and there's fishing for marlin and snapper from the long white dock. Those who want to venture farther out hop on the resort's Pro-Jet boat to reach some of the best diving and snorkeling spots in the Caribbean. An on-site PADI scuba operation certifies guests (starting age, 10). But a mask and fins are all you'll need to explore the reef at Gilligan's Island, five minutes away by ferry. After dark, a boat ride from nearby La Parguera transports guests to Bahía Fosforescente, one of Puerto Rico's most exciting light shows: Take a swim, or dip a finger in water that's teeming with phosphorescence (720,000 dynoflagellates, the fireflies of the sea, per gallon).
If you can coax your group out of the water, Copamarina is also well situated for landlubber outings. The Guánica Reserve is perhaps the best-preserved subtropical dry forest ecosystem in the world. Hiking trails wind through a bonsai-dense landscape of dwarf plants; others lead to milkweeds as tall as trees. If you drive 45 minutes west of Copamarina, until the road runs out, you'll find yourself at what looks like the edge of the world: sand dunes, salt flats, and cliffs where pirates once found shelter. Remember the brochure beaches that lured you to Puerto Rico?They're all here (El Combate, Bahía de Boquerón, Bahia Salinas), in this least-visited corner of the island. And Ponce, 20 miles east of the resort, feels like Old San Juan—minus the crowds. Don't miss the black-and-red-striped 1882 firehouse.
COPAMARINA BEACH RESORT Carr. 333, Km 6.5, Guánica; 800/468- 4553 or 787/821-0505; www.copamarina.com; doubles from $165, children under 12 free; airport shuttle $65 per person round-trip.
LA CASA GRANDE, UTUADO at the corner of hammock and vine In less time than it takes to crack a coconut, parents relax into the rhythm of the jungle—every room at La Casa Grande has its own porch, slung with a hammock—while the kids run around chasing lizards. Set on a former coffee plantation deep in the highlands (two hours west of San Juan), the hotel is now home to a well-labeled botanical garden of, among other things, apricot moonflower trees; Chinese-hat plants; a shrub called yesterday-today-and-tomorrow; and eight varieties of ginger. Boardwalks link the pine guest cabins, which are staggered up the hillside (two are connected by a tunnel of lobster claw heliconia). There are no televisions or radios here, and the pool is free of fluorescent foam noodles.
That's because Casa Grande is owned and run by Steve Weingarten, a former New York lawyer who knows what mainland families need a vacation from—and where to find the local fun. He'll have the whole crew playing Robinson Crusoe: hiking to the nearby river, scrambling along a waterfall, riding on horseback into the woods (that's his ex-wife, Marlene, who operates the stable across the street), and coaxing a kayak around pretty Dos Bocas Lake, where you can dock at a cantina for lunch.
A 1947 hacienda houses Casa Grande's office and lounge, with a leave-one, take-one library. Guests commune on its broad and breezy veranda from sunup to moon-up, stopping by the resort's restaurant, Jungle Jane's, for smooth, rich coffee; dishes like chuletas ahumadas (smoked pork chops with pineapple); and mango, papaya, and avocado plucked from the garden. The porch view skims across a steep valley encompassing every shade of green: chartreuse backlit fern and palm fronds, the fir-hued rooftops of the guest rooms and yoga pavilion (daily classes at 8 a.m.), and the malachite, shamrock, and emerald of the Cordillera Central, the island's biggest range. This is the perfect place to catch early evening tranquillity giving way to the after-dark din of the jungle. Here's a bedtime quiz for the kids: What's producing that chirping cacophony?Answer: tiny frogs, called coquis after the sound of their croak, that blanket the jungle floor.
LA CASA GRANDE MOUNTAIN RETREAT Carr. 612, off Carr. 140, Utuado; 888/343-2272 or 787/894-3939; www.hotelcasagrande.com; doubles from $80, children under 12 free, over 12 $10.
HYATT RESORTS, DORADO AND CERROMAR two if by sea
Bathing suit, check. Sunscreen, check. Sunglasses and hat, check. For kids, add an inflatable inner tube. For grown-ups, a book or two. That's the suggested packing list for a stay at the Hyatt Regency Cerromar. Or you could simply come empty-handed—all of the above are available on-site. This Hyatt, like its sisters worldwide, is a full-service, American-style resort, where reliability is the watchword. Most rooms (there are 506, stacked seven stories high) have balconies or terraces with ocean views; all come with the comforts of home (mini-bar, movies on command). And if you plan to arrive during the off-season, you can book a second room at half price.
Adults may find the palette a bit too canned-tropical, but kids won't have time to notice. They'll spend every waking hour up, out, and, very likely, in the 1.5 mph current of the man-made river pool that stretches 1,776 feet. Guests tube, snorkel, and drift, lingering under bridges, waterfalls, and at the swim-up bar. And when they get to the end, a large free-form pool that's also the drop point for two water slides, they start over. Other swimming spots are scattered around the property, fresh or salted and in all sizes: kiddie to Olympic, and, of course, there's also the ocean, an alternative that remains relatively out of mind though fully in sight.
The Hyatt Cerromar shares crescents of soft sand and 1,000 acres of a former grapefruit and coconut plantation with the Hyatt Dorado, a lower-rise, decidedly higher-class hotel built by Laurance Rockefeller in the fifties. In the Dorado's guest rooms, plantation-style beds and wooden shutters evoke an easier era. Families with very young children may prefer the quieter pace here, where the buildings disappear into the trees, and the scene—such as it is—is seaside rather than poolside. But all Hyatt comers can take advantage of the extensive activities (shell hunts, ice cream parties, beach bonfires) at Camp Hyatt, based at the Cerromar, and the impressive facilities shared by both hotels: four golf courses, 13 tennis courts, a school for windsurfing and other water sports, a spa, a casino, and a gym. The experience is more generic Caribbean than Puerto Rican, but if what you're after is a demand-free vacation for both body and mind, expecting the expected is a sure way to get there.
HYATT REGENCY CERROMAR BEACH RESORT & CASINO Carr. 693, Dorado; 800/554-9288 or 787/796-1234; www.hyatt.com; doubles from $315, kids free. HYATT DORADO BEACH RESORT & COUNTRY CLUB Carr. 693, Dorado; 800/554-9288 or 787/796-1234; doubles from $250, kids free.
VILLAS DEL MAR HAU, ISABELA living la vida playa
A pair of dolphin statues flap their flippers in welcome on the roadside sign in front of the hotel, 60 miles west of San Juan on an out-of-the-way stretch of the north coast. Numerous other signs—CUIDADO, NIÑOS JUGANDO—lining the narrow drive through the property repeat the message: children at play. Some of the kids belong to the Hau family, who founded Villas del Mar Hau 40 years ago and still manage the resort. Others belong to the Puerto Rican clans who are regulars here. At play they are—on the basketball and tennis courts, in the volleyball sandpit and well-stocked game room, and astride horses.
And they're in the water. A reef just offshore creates a calm and shallow seawater pool for splashing around, practicing your breast stroke and butterfly, or just lounging in chairs dragged ankle-deep into the water. Older kids catch the waves— and the rip-curl culture—at beaches running from the hotel 30 miles south to the surfer hangout town of Rincon.
Most families, however, stay put, content in the shade of the casuarina pines that canopy the resort grounds. Forty-one brightly painted wooden cottages are strung like a candy necklace along the oceanfront boardwalk, which runs from the main office to the open-air but surprisingly formal Olas y Arena restaurant. Each villa has air-conditioned bedrooms and a generous porch facing the beach; most sleep up to six and have simple kitchens. There are barbecue pits and outdoor taps for rinsing off sandy feet. The mode is decidedly low-tech; in some rooms bunk beds are fashioned out of two-by-fours. Type A's should look elsewhere. This is the spot for a down-home holiday that's as unencumbered as it is unassuming.
VILLAS DEL MAR HAU Carr. 466, Km 8.9, Playa Montones Isabela; 866/862-7428 or 787/872-2045; www.villahau.com; doubles from $68, kids 5 and under free, 5—12 $10, over 12 $15.
CARIBE HILTON, SAN JUAN old san juan and the sea
Get away from it all in the Caribbean's biggest and busiest city?It may seem an unlikely choice, but the appeal is in the mix—of man-made and natural, old and new, active and idle. In 1949, Hilton strategically placed its first Caribbean property on the eastern gateway to the islet on which Old San Juan was built—the roughly seven-square-block area that is the city at its most charming. But guests aren't confined to the historic district's tiny scale. The Caribe, after all, is big: its 646 rooms occupy 17 acres of manicured gardens and lawns. These grounds overlook Fort San Gerónimo, a Spanish Colonial fortress, on one side, a park with a jogging track on the other, and the islet's only hotel beach.
Caribe's sands, though not as long or as wide as the Condado strip shared by the mega-hotels to the east on San Juan's mainland side, are more sheltered and secluded. At the towel stand, kids can pick up inflatable rafts, fish feed, bingo cards, hula hoops, and sand castle construction tools. Poolside, the refreshing white noise of the surf is replaced by that of the waterfalls, which, along with wide, curving steps and arched bridges, connect a series of liquid playgrounds. The local gathering spot is the swim-up bar and grill, shaded by a roof shaped like the Flying Nun's headgear.
The Caribe's other attractions range from in-room fun (movies and video games) to the Hilton's all-day kids' program to group activities (a game room, lighted tennis courts) and parental diversions (a new spa and health club). The concierge can arrange for bikes to be delivered so that the whole family can pedal the two miles to Old San Juan. The ride, along wide sidewalks bordered by parapets overlooking the Atlantic, is one of the best in the city. It passes Fort San Cristóbal, an engineering feat spanning 27 acres, and the narrow streets of Old San Juan (wing back later for refreshments) before ending at the impressive tunnels, dungeons, and lookouts of the El Morro fortress. (Both forts are the ultimate for playing soldiers-and-pirates.) If a bike isn't your vehicle of choice, hail a taxi for $10, and forgo the headache of parking a car. In fact, in a weeklong stay at the Hilton, you might not need a car at all—unless you crave the wild green of the El Yunque rain forest or the Río Camuy caves. The beauty of the Caribe is that almost everything is at your feet.
CARIBE HILTON Los Rosales St., San Gerónimo Grounds, San Juan; 800/468-8585 or 787/721-0303; www.caribehilton.com; doubles from $139, kids under 12 free.
THE VIEQUES ALTERNATIVE Longing for a simple island stay—or looking for an easy escape from San Juan?A 20-minute puddle jumper or one-hour ferry ride can take you from the city to Vieques, a blessedly undeveloped island off Puerto Rico's east coast (book a flight through Vieques Air Link; 888/901-9247; www.vieques-island.com; round-trip from San Juan $135; the $2 ferry leaves from Fajardo). Vieques has been in the news for its U.S. Navy battle testing—and the protests against it—but don't believe the hype: naval bases may occupy much of the island, but the military keeps an extremely low profile, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a soldier anywhere. What you will find are hilly roads with 360-degree views of both the Caribbean and the Atlantic (pick up a sporty Suzuki Sidekick from Island Car Rentals; 787/741-1666) and miles of unspoiled beaches. Sun Bay, in the town of Esperanza, is easy to get to; go off-road a bit from there to find the shallow waters of Media Luna—great for splash-happy kids. Also, don't miss the island's bioluminescent bay. Tour it at night with Island Adventures (787/741-0720; www.biobay.com; from $23, $12 for kids). La Casa del Francés (787/741-3751; www.enchanted-isle.com/LaCasa; doubles from $130), a plantation house converted into a funky 16-room hotel with a pool, welcomes families. Or rent one of La Finca Caribe's rustic hilltop houses (787/741-0495; www.lafinca.com; casitas for four from $525 a week until December, doubles in main building $60 a night) with outdoor showers and views of the sea. —H. Scott Jolley
Plantains are to Puerto Ricans what tomatoes are to Italians—a staple prepared 1,001 ways. But they're always cooked, because this tropical fruit isn't sweet right off the tree. Go bananas and try a different variation at every meal: mofongo, mashed plantain balls flavored with pork rind; tostones, twice-fried plantain slices; arañitas, a spider's nest of crisp slivers. Or stick with the potato chip—like platanutres, which at Copamarina are wonderfully light and ribbony.
Casa Grande's locale is ideal for day trips. Within an hour's drive northwest, an adventure in itself along the narrow, windy roads of the Cordillera Central, you'll find the Arecibo Observatory and Río Camuy Cave Park, as well as the Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Caguana (Carr. 111 at Km 12.3, Caguana; 787/894-7325).
Considered the Caribbean's most significant Indian ceremonial site, the park's batey ball courts are outlined by headstone-like monoliths dating from A.D. 1200. Give the game a try. Batey is similar to soccer, but with rules that sound like a riddle: the ball can never touch the ground, yet no hands or feet are allowed. Hint: heads, knees, elbows, and stomachs are fair game.
Make a game out of spotting the statues of the explorer that pop up in nearly every town on the island. The bronze sculpture anchoring the plaza in Dorado, a pretty town near the Hyatt resorts, is the fairest of them all—literally: it honors, along with Columbus, credited as the first European to "discover" Puerto Rico in 1493, the Africans who arrived as slaves in the holds of ships and labored in mines and fields, and the Taìnos, a tribe believed to have settled here about a.d. 600. The latter group invented a universal language, as well as the hammock and the maracas.
The Arecibo Observatory (787/878-2612), a 45-minute drive southeast of Villas del Mar Hau, resembles a mad scientist's jungle lair. The facility's radio telescope (which scientists use to detect signals 10 billion light-years away) is the world's largest, and its satellite dish spreads across 20 acres. At the visitors' center, interactive exhibits make an earnest attempt at explaining the inexplicable. But what we really want to know is: If E.T. phones earth, will the Arecibo take a message?
At Río Camuy Cave Park (787/898-3100; tours Wednesday through Sunday), a half-hour drive southwest from Arecibo, visitors venture by trolley through the jungle and down a 200-foot sinkhole to Cueva Clara de Empalme. From there they set out on foot to tour one of the largest cave systems in the world, with giant stalagmites, cathedral-sized ceiling heights, and a passageway in which one can't so much see the third-largest underground river as feel and hear it.
On an island where 85 percent of the native trees have been felled, the El Yunque rain forest (787/888-1810; www.elyunque.com), in the high peaks of the Sierra de Luquillo, preserves 28,000 acres of untamed Puerto Rico. Located less than an hour southeast of Old San Juan, El Yunque (pronounced "el-yune-kay") has at least 23 miles of well-maintained jungle trails. Or you can stay in your car and follow the main road 20 minutes beyond the treehouse-like welcome center to La Coca Falls, pulling over (and over) for well-worth-the-stop photo ops. At the falls, everyone clambers over the boulders to touch the cascading water. Weather report: the forest gets 250 inches of rain a year; intermittent downpours are the norm. Before or after your rain forest adventure, stop at food kiosk number two, one of a group lining Route PR3, for fast and memorable empanadillas, mini empanadas stuffed with lobster, crab, or conch. It's also traditional to take a post-trek dip at nearby Luquillo Beach or at the adjacent, and more secluded, Playa Azul.
www.travelandsports.com The place for help getting oriented and gathering information based on location. The home page is a map of Puerto Rico, well marked with towns, sights like El Yunque rain forest, and major highway routes. Click on a topic like Diving, and the spots where it's offered light up on the map. Or click on a town, and listings of everything from hotels and beaches to local artisans pop up.
www.gotopuertorico.com The tourism board's site is refreshingly well-designed, comprehensive, and easy to use. You can search by categories, such as Beaches and Sports or Nature and Adventure, look up the current weather and a calendar of events, and check out the PR is Fun! packages. The path to accommodations is a bit more wayward—though extensive—in its listings. Just keep in mind that few paradors (government-regulated inns) in Puerto Rico live up to the charm the name conjures up.