By Beth D’Addono
Dreaming of an island escape? A place to recharge on the beach and simply be a human being? Or do you hanker for a destination that delivers adrenalin-spiking thrills, from hiking to zip-lining to sea kayaking. Maybe a deep dive into food, music and culture is what you crave.
There’s one island that delivers on all counts and you don’t even need a passport to get there! Welcome to Puerto Rico, a nearby destination offering an array of experiences for every kind of holiday. Thanks to upgrades in properties island-wide, easy access and a new downtown entertainment district, tourism on this intriguing Caribbean island is stronger than ever.
Facing down the challenges of two extremely destructive hurricanes in 2017 and recent earthquakes in the southwest, this plucky U.S. territory of 3.2 million is very much open for business. You don’t need to worry about bringing an electrical outlet converter, and forget about fees for changing currency or international cell phone plans. Puerto Rico delivers the convenience of an American destination wrapped in the exotic allure of the Caribbean. Additionally, AAA preferred travel partners like Travel Impressions provide the ideal accommodations to match your style. So, what flavor of island getaway do you want?
Yes, the beaches are fantastic here. But at the island’s heart, emerald green forests, create eco-systems begging to be explored, from caves to waterfalls and the lush beauty of El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S.
Get that adrenalin pumping at Toroverde Nature Adventure Park in the central town of Orocovis, where the longest zip line in the Americas — more than 1.5 miles — sends you flying at 95 mph above a canopy of trees. Rope fields, obstacles and climbing towers test mettle and agility.
With the chirping of coqui frogs as a soundtrack, hike the El Yunque tropical rainforest for spectacular mountain and waterfall views. Don’t miss climbing the Yokahu Tower — a 1,575-foot-tall observation tower with a narrow, winding staircase and gorgeous vistas from the top.
For an unforgettable adventure, take a kayak tour at night through the glowing waters of Mosquito Bay, the bioluminescent bay on the south shore of Vieques island, an hour from Puerto Rico. Photos don’t do this place justice — think blue northern lights shimmering underwater. Magical.
Located on a former 483-acre coconut plantation, The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, Puerto Rico sits between El Yunque National Forest and the Espiritu Santo River State Preserve.
Puerto Rico’s only AAA Five Diamond resort, the St. Regis is paradise for nature lovers, home to the Caribbean’s first and only Audubon Signature Sanctuary, more than seven miles of lush trails and 63 acres of canals, ponds and lakes for boating and water sports. Spacious rooms overlooking sea and gardens are ideal for family getaways.
White sand and stunningly turquoise water are standard on this island, where beaches — remote and accessible — deliver an array of sun-soaked experiences.
For a lively backdrop, the hip Condado district in San Juan evokes Miami’s South Beach style, a fab stretch of beach anchoring a thrumming neighborhood of boutique resorts, shops, bars and restaurants. Because it’s so close to Old San Juan, you can easily tour in the morning and kick back for beach time in the afternoon.
Travel outside of the city to the Isla Verde coastline, to Rincon where surfers ride impressive waves, while the calmer waters of Playa Crashboat are perfect for splashing in the surf.
Head east a little further to find Luquillo Beach, a mile-long crescent-shaped stretch of powdery sand with lifeguards and plenty of amenities. For a day at a more remote beach, Seven Seas in Fajardo about an hour east of San Juan is secluded and perfect for the ultimate chill time. Waves break on a coral reef, making the water’s edge a calm oasis for relaxing with a fruity cocktail and a book.
Want an even more remote experience? Ferry to islands like Culebra and Vieques, both havens for snorkelers and divers. Visit the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge, where birdlife abounds, and protected leatherback sea turtles make their nests.
Think small with a stay at the 15-room Olive Boutique Hotel, A Small Luxury Hotel of the World in Condado just two blocks from the beach. All of the modern rooms, bright with Spanish tile and upmarket furnishings, have outdoor terraces, some overlooking the lagoon. Chef Mario Pagan presides over the chic Sage Steak Loft restaurant and a rooftop bar is an inviting space for craft cocktails. This laid-back hideaway feels like a romantic gem, a secret you might not want to divulge.
Puerto Rico’s charms are many but its 500-year-old capital tops the list. Wandering through the cobblestone streets of San Juan is a lively cultural foray that’s endlessly entertaining. Get a sense of the island’s history with visits to El Morro, a Spanish colonial fort dating back to 1539, a fortress meant to dissuade pirates and other bad actors. While the interior is interesting, walk the surrounding pathways for views of the towering walls and the waves crashing below. The massive city walls offer another portal into the past.
Heaven for foodies, Old San Juan is rich with gastronomic culture. Take a morning or sunset walking tour with Spoon food tours, a three-hour eating and drinking fiesta laced with history and local lore. From locally grown single-origin coffee paired with traditional pastries, to sampling mofongo, the iconic dish of garlicky mashed plantains and seasoned pork served with rice and beans, this snapshot of local cuisine is most satisfying. Street fare, sold in kioskos, and modest eateries, is a must-taste. Try El Jibarito, a local fave that features the likes of chicken stew, skirt steak and chillo frito, fried fresh local snapper. Take the short stroll to La Factoria, one of the best and most atmospheric bars in town.
Not sure if the original Carmelite nuns basked in the Hotel El Convento’s current lap of luxury, but never mind. This 58-room boutique hotel near the landmarked citadel in Old San Juan is as romantic as it gets, dishing nearly four centuries of history in a setting that simply oozes style. From the Spanish colonial architecture and antiques to the lovely rooftop terrace, onsite restaurants and service-focused staff, El Convento is the answer to a travelers’ prayer.
Puerto Rico is calling! Visit your local AAA Travel office or call 800-750-5386 to plan your tropical escape.
(Traveler Summer 2020)