Within the space of 10 minutes during one recent San Juan sunset, I walked along the fat ocher stones of a centuries-old fortress, passed through a garish strip mall with an ocean view, and ended up at a romantic Italian restaurant. I went in, of course, and ate well, surrounded by Renaissance images. At the next table a family spoke rapidly in Spanish; then the eldest daughter stood and made a toast in crystalline English. Her bilingualism shed some light on this mysterious city, a distinctive blend of Caribbean and Latin American cultures that has also absorbed and transformed Uncle Sam's considerable influence. Mainland tourists will feel both at home -- what with the English-language newspapers and Walgreen drugstores -- and as if they are somewhere far away. This is, after all, a city of lush foliage, dark late-night bars throbbing with tropical sounds, and endless beaches where a coco frío is never far from reach.
where to stay
Which hotel you should choose depends on what you're after. The resorts of Isla Verde -- with casinos and all the amenities that anyone could want, except golf -- front a broad, dreamy beach. Non-ocean-view rooms, however, generally overlook the airport, and there isn't much to do outside the resorts. Old San Juan has hotels that are more eclectic, but they're a 20-minute walk from the beach. The area does, however, have the city's best stores, museums, restaurants, and strolls. Condado, with the look and feel of Miami Beach, is not as inviting as it used to be (and the undertow can be dangerous).
El San Juan Hotel & Casino 6063 Isla Verde Ave., Isla Verde; 800/468-2818 or 787/791-1000, fax 787/253-0178; doubles $345-$495. It's rare when Hollywood set-decorating techniques result in such an inviting rococo atmosphere. Improbably, the overuse of murals, marble, gilt, and candelabra make the soothing, dark interiors the most inviting on Isla Verde, even while they remind you of Liberace's boudoir. The service suggests that someone actually cares, and the mammoth pool and grounds are done in full tropical splendor. The restaurants are frequented by locals as well as guests.
Ritz-Carlton San Juan Hotel & Casino 6961 State Rd. 187, Isla Verde; 800/241-3333 or 787/253-1700, fax 787/253-1777; doubles from $400. The lobby oozes easygoing affluence, from the Puerto Rican women in frilly dresses sharing an elaborate tea while talking on their cell phones, to the business travelers trying to close a deal as the pianist tinkles out "Close to You." Everything is done in pretty, light colors, and the employees are prone to smiling as you pass. Hang out at the spa -- for beauty treatments, yoga, fitness classes -- or on the beach right out the back door.
Hotel El Convento 100 Calle Cristo, Old San Juan; 800/468-2779 or 787/723-9020, fax 787/721-2877; doubles from $313. On the top floors of a converted 17th-century convent, the 58-room El Convento has an intimacy and luxury not found in the large resorts. Guests enter their rooms from balconies over the courtyards, and from most windows you can see the old city and the harbor. Breakfast is served on the terrace, a few steps below the small plunge pool and outdoor spa tub overlooking the water.
La Galería San Juan 204 Calle Norzagaray, Old San Juan; 787/722-1808, fax 787/724-7360; doubles from $95. At the highest point of Old San Juan, artist Jan D'Esopo has turned several buildings -- linked by stone patios and public areas -- into an eccentric hotel. From the roof decks, you can see the whole of San Juan, old and new. Tropical birds chatter back and forth, and the owner's artwork is everywhere (and for sale). If you're splurging, go for the recently constructed suite with terrace and ocean-view spa tub.
El Conquistador 1000 Conquistador Ave., Fajardo; 800/468-5228 or 787/863-1000, fax 787/253-1078; doubles from $375. An hour's drive east from San Juan, the massive El Conquistador has everything -- golf, tennis, beaches, swimming pools, restaurants, great rooms -- except a sense that you're in Puerto Rico. That said, there are incredible views of the islands of Vieques and Culebra. At the hotel's private Isla de Palomino, you can walk the secluded beach, ride horseback, snorkel, or ply the waves on a kayak or sailboard.
San Juan is divided into many neighborhoods, but visitors usually stick to three on the city's Atlantic, or northern, edge: Isla Verde, Condado, and Old San Juan. (Another barrio, Santurce, isn't the most tourist-friendly, but it does have the central market and La Casita Blanca restaurant.) Taxis are always available, although the ride from Isla Verde to Old San Juan can cost $20, and you'll probably make the trip several times during your stay. Cars can be rented for as little as $35 a day, but traffic and parking can be a problem. Driving is about as easy -- or as stressful, depending on your point of view -- as in any large mainland city. Nearly everyone speaks English, and U.S. dollars are the currency.
on the natural side
Just an hour outside of San Juan, and I could breathe the difference. The air was fragrant with forest decay and a hint of rain -- no wonder, because I was in the Caribbean National Forest, or El Yunque. This part of the U.S. National Forest system gets 120 inches of rain a year. It is home to almost all that remains of Puerto Rico's vast rain forest.
Though it has many rivers, several peaks, and more than 250 species of trees, El Yunque was almost too easy to explore. Instead of the muddy paths found in most tropical forests, there are paved trails in some places, wooden steps above the rough spots, and a road winding up the mountain to lead lazy day-trippers like me from trailhead to trailhead without strenuous hiking. In a little less than three hours I made my way through steamy lowland rain forest, a palm forest spotted with clumps of ferns and mosses, and a magical dwarf forest, high in the mountains, where the trees are small, the epiphytic plants thick, and the clouds dense. The Taino Indians who once lived on the island believed that their gods passed the days here.
At one point I climbed to a lookout tower called Torre Britton. I found offerings of feathers and other objects from a recent ceremony of Santeria, the Afro-Caribbean religion practiced in Puerto Rico. I searched for blue-and-red flashes in the trees, but I never did see one of the endangered Puerto Rican parrots (only 32 of which remain in the forest).
Leaving El Yunque, I stopped at Luquillo Beach, white sand and calm water ringed with thousands of palms. Small, clean restaurants sold sandwiches, coco frío (a whole green coconut with a straw to suck out the water), and fritura (tacos, fritters, and other finger foods, filled with meat and deep-fried). A souvenir shop had pretty little jewelry boxes encrusted with seashells, and a stand rented beach chairs and umbrellas.
You could spend the afternoon at Luquillo, but I chose to visit the Cabezas de San Juan Nature Preserve (reservations required; 787/722-5882 weekdays, 787/860-2560 weekends; $5), a half-hour away in Fajardo. Its 316 acres contain a stunning variety of ecological zones, including mangrove swamps, coral reefs, dry forest, and phosphorescent lagoons. Going against my worst instincts, I refrained from pocketing a treasure on the coral-covered beach my tour visited, but was rewarded when our guide let me -- along with the kids -- hold a live sea urchin. A pleasant tram tour winds through the park and up to the 19th-century lighthouse with its commanding views -- the kind that make me think I could (and should) live here.
a sunset stroll
Descend Caleta de San Juan, a narrow street in the old city, until you hit the arched gate called La Puerta de San Juan. To the right is a rocky path that runs by the sea wall below El Morro. The trail, which takes about 30 minutes round-trip, offers a remarkable bit of solitude in the bustle of Old San Juan. You'll pass massive stonework put in place by the Spanish, and eroding 100-foot cliffs. Cruise liners and frigates ply the shipping channel, and fishermen cast lines from wave-drenched boulders. If you're inclined, bring some treats for the dozens of stray cats slithering around and napping on the sand.