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Island on the offbeat

Small in scale but with large appeal, the parador provides visitors to the 'Isle of Enchantment' with a more genuine experience than all-inclusive resorts

Email|Print| Text size + By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / December 24, 2006

ISABELA -- The way most people visit Puerto Rico is exactly the way we didn't want to spend our precious February week -- in glitzy resorts on San Juan's Condado Beach or all-inclusive wristband hotels on the nearby northeast coast.

Our son, Daniel, 10, probably would have been delighted with an all-in, do-nothing vacation. But we were intent on dragging him on one of our annual hunts for that quaint bungalow hotel, that old-fashioned bed-and-breakfast with ceiling fan lazily twirling, that remote inn right on the ocean. It took some work, but we found them.

By now, Daniel knows the cost of our kind of safari: some near misses, and occasional outright busts that fall far short of their website pictures and promises -- " steps to the beach" or " quaint and cozy." And he dreads the other intangible hassles of striking out stubbornly on our own in a rental car. Like when we got hopelessly lost in a maze-like military-industrial wasteland in Aguadilla in northwest Puerto Rico.

But there was a splendid payoff, or more accurately three payoffs, in exchange for the extra work we put into the trip. We stayed at three of Puerto Rico's "paradores," the network of family-oriented small hotels all along the coastline and in remote towns in the mountainous interior. Each parador we stayed at was dramatically different, adding variety to the journey.

Anyone hoping to find the equivalent of Spain's magnificent chain of paradores in Puerto Rico will be disappointed. The Spanish paradores are built in ancient castles and monasteries, offering exquisite luxury and rich history. The Puerto Rican versions are far more modest, and a lot cheaper -- often less than $100 a night per room.

The Puerto Rican parador system was created in the early 1970s to encourage tourism development in the more remote areas. The commonwealth's tourism agency monitors the paradores for quality and cleanliness, but they are built, owned, and operated by local entrepreneurs. The clientele is largely Puerto Rican, and the paradores are often filled on weekends with people from San Juan and other urban centers. That was exactly what we wanted.

In traveling to the three paradores on our counterclockwise journey around the island, we saw several more. Some, like the Boqueron Beach Inn , look adequate but very ordinary and block-like, so be picky. But to get a sense of the people and the way of life for Boricuas, as Puerto Ricans call themselves, the paradores can be a great way in.

Thanks to the ease of getting to San Juan from Boston -- particularly now that JetBlue has added seasonal nonstops -- our 7 a.m. flight got us to the hotel by noon, so we spent a full first afternoon exploring Old San Juan. Daniel loved the main fort; he was less thrilled about traipsing through the gorgeous but touristy streets of the old city. So we checked out early on our second day and set out for the countryside, without a hotel for that night.

We headed west and spent one night at the highly touted seaside parador in Isabela called Villas del Mar Hau, about two hours by car from San Juan -- or a few minutes from the Aguadilla airport. We ground our way along the crowded coastal Route 2, and found Route 466 (not well signposted) to the coast just west of Isabela.

We could happily have spent a week at Mar Hau. It's a tasteful, intimate complex of colorfully painted one- and two-bedroom bungalows just yards from the water, with combo kitchen-living areas, and a few two-story buildings containing two enormous, well-finished hotel-style rooms on each floor.

The cabanas and hotel rooms all have covered porches or balconies for contemplating the waves. The cabanas are rustic, not unlike those you might find in an old New England cottage complex. The hotel has an open-air restaurant facing the sea, with OK but pricey food. The equipped kitchens in the cabanas make for a more affordable and casual family week if you don't mind cooking, and it's easy to stock up at nearby markets if you have a rental car.

Much of the Mar Hau magic comes from its lovely curving sand beach, framed by a rocky point that helps break the otherwise open Atlantic surf. There's a small reef just 50 yards or so offshore, and in the lee of the outcropping the water is calm and shallow. There's a delightful natural pool in front of the rock, ideal for small children.

During our brief stay, the sea was calm and the snorkeling terrific: Schools of colorful fish swarmed around us. But guests caution that the northern coast can be windy and rough, making some of the beaches treacherous for younger swimmers but beloved by surfers. Villas Mar Hau also has a pool, games for kids, and horse riding nearby.

We spent three hours in choking traffic on a Friday afternoon getting from Isabela on the northwest corner of the island to the more tranquil southwest, Bahía Salinas, the site of our next parador. This is perhaps Puerto Rico's most remote region, and it's worth the effort. So was the Bahía Salinas Beach Resort, with some caveats.

The recently expanded hotel is still small and intimate, like many paradores at 22 rooms. But it is far more upmarket than most paradores, indeed like a small resort, with an infinity pool and a second pool overlooking the sea and plenty of relative glitz in the new, heavy dark wood bedsteads and furniture. We stayed in a suite, well-appointed but with one strange drawback: The bedroom had no window. We asked to switch to a non-suite with a window, but none was available. Meals were good, but the wait for dinner was usually agonizing, so don't get seated too late and don't bother taking the lunch plan.

The area offers plenty to do, but a drawback for families is that the grassy-bottom ocean inlet on which the hotel is located is too shallow to swim. It's knee-deep for hundreds of yards out. So we spent a fun day at the quiet Combate Beach, about 20 minutes away, and another at the rowdier and fun town of Boqueron, which has a long public beach and a ton of simple seafood restaurants. There is a fine beach at the curving Bahía Salinas itself in a state park at the very end of the gravel road, just a few minutes from the hotel. Walk to the lighthouse on a high bluff for the sunset.

From Bahía Salinas we traveled east along the coast for just half an hour to our final stop at La Parguera -- yet a third distinct parador experience. Parador Villa Parguera is a tidy whitewashed 1950s-style family hotel, right on the lone main street of a fishing and vacation village by the mangrove-rich bay of the same name.

As at Bahía Salinas, you can't swim right from your hotel. But walk two minutes down the street and you can rent a motor skiff for $20 an hour or get a boatman to take you out into the bay for some great snorkeling around the magical mangrove clumps. There's literally no ground: You hang your backpack in the branches and swim through the channels between the mangroves.

The staff at La Parguera is delightful and will point you to scuba-diving excursions and other outings. We again took a package including dinner, at $160. The aging casual decor gave the place a homey, welcoming atmosphere. We drove one afternoon to the one well-known and pricey resort in the southwest, the Copamarina, outside the town of Guánica and were dazzled. But we came away happy we had chosen the far more basic and intimate La Parguera. At night, don't miss an excursion on one of the boats from the harbor to the nearby luminescent bay, one of the few of its kind in the world, where a form of plankton gives off an eerie glow when disturbed. The kids love it. Adults, too.

We completed our island circuit on our final day and drove to San Juan Airport in about two hours. We felt we had packed in a ton of Puerto Rico in seven days and gotten a sense of its spirited people well enough to know we want to return.

Contact James F. Smith at jfsmith@globe.com

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