By Lena Katz
You don’t exactly swim in the limpid blue-green sea off the shore of Puerto Rico’s famous Flamenco Beach; you bob like a cork. The warm, calm water and soft sand make this one of the most swimmable beaches in the Western Hemisphere — and hardly trafficked compared with others of its stature. This is only one of many surprises that make Puerto Rico one of America’s favorite Caribbean vacation destinations.
Though it hasn’t been given statehood, Puerto Rico’s much more a part of the U.S. infrastructure than most people realize. This is immediately obvious when you step off the plane, passport in hand, to discover that you can whiz straight to bag check and thence to your hotel without passing through Customs. Then once you’re out, behold! Real modern roads, normal taxis and bilingual signage. Walgreens, Haagen-Dazs and Starbucks cater to the everyday needs of the numerous East Coasters who shuttle back and forth from Boston/Jersey/New York to San Juan on a regular basis.
While the presence of the familiar makes Puerto Rico comfortable, the exotic and unique sense of place is what makes it fun. There are the impromptu rumba parties Saturday evening at Ocean Park Beach. In Placita el Mercado, vendors blend up fresh banana batidas, and stalls display a busy rainbow of tropical fruits, plantains, random root vegetables and wicked-looking little chilies. When going out for a Friday night on the town — barhopping on Fortaleza Street or merengue dancing in the lobby of the magnificent El San Juan Hotel — locals dress and act like they’re going to a grownup prom. And in the daytime, people take a table smack-dab on the sand at Dos Palmas or Terraza and spend the entire afternoon sipping sangria or Dos Palmas’ signature fresh juice mimosas (passion fruit, tamarindo, grapefruit and more).
Food is a huge part of life in Puerto Rico…and sadly, because of the key ingredients (plantain, yuca, beans, rice, cheese, roast pork) and the cooking methods (fried, fried, stewed, fried) it can only be a Caribbean vacation indulgence for most of us. Dishes like mofongo (fried mashed plantains stuffed with meat or seafood) and arroz con pollo are the ultimate in comfort food. You might not think you can manage them on a tropical 90 degree afternoon, but guess what? After a few glasses of sangria or an ice cold beer, you’ll get in the spirit of things.
Look around at places like Raices Restaurant in Old San Juan — every table is full, with people ages 8 to 80 feasting on fried things and merrily clattering their tin cups on the wooden tables. Lunch is a sport here! Local pit stops like the Luquillo Kioskos offer an endless assortment of fritters, empanadas, and little fried dumplings. And if you tire of traditional dishes, eat a chorizo-stuffed hamburger or Medalla beer-battered tilapia washed down with white sangria at El Jefe Burger Shack, a newcomer to the Kioskos.
There are big, once-in-a-lifetime sights to be seen on this island. Vacationers often make a day trip to El Yunque Rainforest, also known as the Caribbean National Forest. Or they take a night paddle to Laguna Grande in Fajardo or Mosquito Bay in Vieques, where bioluminescence causes the protected waters to glow blue-greeny-silver. But don’t pack each day and night full of activities. Spontaneity serves you well here, especially if you’re staying on Condado Beach or in Old San Juan.
If you’re in one of the bigger hotels, you won’t need to leave your property to have a fully blissed-out Puerto Rico vacation. At the Caribe Hilton, beachfront hammocks and a bird sanctuary lend tropical flourish to the self-contained luxury resort experience. At Hotel El Convento, which used to be a Carmelite convent and was later a guesthouse for VIPs and diplomats, Colonial history and Old World elegance are preserved, while amenities and services are fully modernized.
And at the Marriott Stellaris, business groups mingle with vacationers on permanent happy hour in the vast lobby lounge, while families and honeymooners splash in the pools or play in the Condado Beach surf. In the 12,700-square-foot casino, the action goes round the clock. And at night, the Marriott Stellaris lobby lounge becomes one of the busiest spots on the island. Grab a table before 10 p.m., because even though it seems like this vast space could never fill up, it actually gets packed with salsa-dancing, people-watching, mojito-drinking patrons.
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Lena Katz is the author of SUN: California and SIP: California, part of the Travel Temptations series published by Globe Pequot Press.