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Beyond San Juan, bounties to see, eat, and soak in

By Marie Elena Martinez
Globe Correspondent / December 4, 2011
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This commonwealth has long been associated with its busy capital, San Juan, a grid of trendy restaurants and souvenir shops teeming with cruise ship tourists. But what few travelers know is that due east of the city tranquil places such as Río Grande and Luquillo - which meet the foothills of El Yunque rain forest - and such offshore treats as Vieques and Culebra offer a bounty of gorgeous beaches, a growing number of restaurants, beautiful golf courses, and authentic experiences. In these spots, Puerto Rico defines “island time.’’

RÍO GRANDE

On arrival at Luis Muñoz Airport, forgo the shuttle to San Juan’s luxury hotels, rent a car, and take PR-26 until it connects to Route 3, the main road to all points east. After about 20 miles, you hit Río Grande. Here, Puerto Rico’s only navigable river, Espíritu Santo, winds through El Yunque rain forest to meet the ocean on the grounds of the year-old St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort. Set on a former coconut plantation, the eco-friendly property’s tropically designed Robert Trent Jones Jr. golf course is one way to spend a morning. Or hike through one of two bird sanctuaries. Calls of the indigenous coqui frogs create a soothing soundtrack, and Fern, an upscale restaurant by Jean Georges Vongerichten, adds to the draw of Bahia Beach.

If the St. Regis is budget-busting, head to the Río Mar, a family-friendly Wyndham property with less fuss. Either way, don’t miss a day trip to El Yunque, the only tropical forest in the US National Forest System, with 28,000 acres and an elevation of 3,624 feet. Park rangers offer first-come, first-served guided tours daily from 11 a.m. for $5 from Palo Colorado Information Center. Local tour operators such as Dragonfly Adventures feature half- and full-day itineraries. When hunger calls, try Muralla, just past La Coca Falls, for some authentic arroz con pollo - a steal at less than $5.

LUQUILLO

Travel another 10 miles past Río Grande and you reach Luquillo, the “Sun Capital’’ of Puerto Rico. This seaside town boasts one of the island’s most beloved beaches, Balneario La Monserrate ($4 parking), an ideal choice for families with its brightly colored lifeguard stations. Tour operators offer everything from chair rental to kayaking to jet skiing along the moon-shaped stretch of sand. Just off the beach is a string of popular roadside food kiosks. Once dominated by fried Puerto Rican fare and riddled with crime, the shacks have become a go-to foodie destination selling everything from pastelillos (empanadas) to 2-pound lobsters. My favorites are El Jefe (#12), a tin-roofed shack known for its stuffed jalapeño burger and loaded fries, Tapas 13 (#13) for fiery Shrimp El Diablo, and Ceviche Hut (#38) for Peruvian ceviches and killer pisco sours. La Parrilla (#2) churns out huge stuffed lobsters and flame-grilled steaks by the dozen.

VIEQUES

Reached by a quick 10-minute flight from eastern Ceiba airport or a somewhat unreliable ferry, and harboring an array of alabaster beaches, crystalline waters, and a glowing bioluminescent bay, Vieques has seen its fair share of tourism since the US Navy left the island in 2003. Puerto Rico’s “it’’ destination, the swank W Retreat & Spa, has sunk roots on the quiet shores here, though such spots as the orange-hued Casa de Amistad in Isabel Segunda or hilltop Hacienda Tamarindo near Esperanza might feel more authentic. The food scene in Vieques is thriving; roadside Puerto Rican stalwart El Resuelve, high-end El Quenepo, and newcomer Next Course are full nightly, but it’s San Juan native Rebecca Betancourt’s Restaurante Conuco in Isabel Segunda that’s the real deal, with upscale takes on classic dishes like mofongo, sorullitos, and tostones piled high with fresh fish.

It’s hard not to stumble onto a beach in Vieques. Each is unique, and everyone has a preference. Secret Beach, reached by a dirt path, is for lovers, while expansive Blue Beach is for complete escape. Western Green Beach attracts snorkelers searching for coral treasure, while palm-lined Sun Bay, quiet during the week save for the wild horses grazing nearby, is the local favorite on weekends and the only beach equipped with facilities such as restrooms and food stalls. Most accommodations offer beach chairs and coolers for guest use, so swing past the Sol Food truck on Route 997, load up on sandwiches or pinchos (Puerto Rican skewers), don some SPF, and settle down for some serious rays.

Vieques by night is all about kayaking in Puerto Mosquito, one of the most concentrated bio-bays in the world. Miniscule dinoflagellates emit energy in the form of neon light when their waters are disturbed, and on local boy Abe’s kayaking tour, the dark bay glows in wondrous display as oars skim the still surface. After visiting the bay, head to Esperanza town, a bohemian strip on the island’s south side. Hit Duffy’s for a beer in the company of mainlanders or La Nasa, a local joint that explodes in salsa and merengue dancing until the wee hours.

CULEBRA

From Vieques (or Ceiba airport), another 10-minute flight or spotty ferry deposits you on this tiny island, which seems to be stuck in a simpler time, when the Internet, iPhones, and the general chaos of daily life were different. Culebra, 7 miles long by 3 miles wide, offers little to do and that’s exactly the point. The island is ringed by the electric blue Atlantic and snorkelers and divers wander underwater reefs amid turtles, stingrays, spiny lobsters, and schools of colorful fish. Rent a Jeep and explore the island’s two winding roads. Don’t worry; it’s impossible to get lost because both end at the sandy shores of an immaculate, usually desolate, beach.

Playa Flamenco, with its eight food kiosks and campgrounds, is the most populated beach on Culebra, but make the journey to Playa Zoni, which overlooks two smaller islands, Cayo Norte and Culebrita, for true solace. Water taxis make runs to Culebrita’s perimeter, and from there you can hike to the top, where a dilapidated brick lighthouse built by the Spaniards offers breathtaking views. Catch a sunset at Playa Melones, reached by simple instruction - “bear right at the church’’ - then head to Zaco’s Tacos for some of the best food this side of Mexico. Want more refined dining? Chef Susie Hebert is elevating the scene with well-thought-out dishes such as mahi mahi in beurre blanc with ginger and scallion sauce. For drinks with the super-friendly Culebrenses, try Mamacitas on Saturday night when conga band Wiki Sound tears up the place or The Spot for a “Drunken Seagull.’’

Put down roots at the island’s most elegant accommodation, Club Seabourne, and hope you don’t have to return to mainland reality anytime soon.

Marie Elena Martinez can be reached at www.marieelenamartinez.com.

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If You Go

What to do
El Yunque Rainforest Tour
Luquillo
787-889-7430
www.dragonflyadventures pr.com
Guided rain forest tours begin at $59 per person.
Puerto Mosquito Bio-Bay Kayak Tour
787-741-2134
www.abessnorkeling.com
Two-hour Bio-Bay tours: Adults $30, children ages 4-11 $15.
Culebra Divers
4 Calle Pedro Marquez, Culebra
787-742-0803
www.culebradivers.com
One- and two-tank dives, $70-$98. Equipment rental $15.
Where to stay
St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort
State Road 187, Río Grande
787-809-8000
www.stregisbahiabeach.com
A 139-room luxury hotel featuring 35 butler-equipped suites. Rates from $569.
W Retreat & Spa - Vieques Island
State Road 200
787-741-4100
www.wvieques.com
Oceanfront resort with oversized rooms. Rates from $419.
Club Seabourne
Fulladoza Bay, Culebra
787-742-3169
www.clubseabourne.com
Twelve rooms featuring 8 villas with terraces from $185.
Where to eat
El Jefe Burger Shack
Route 3, Luquillo Kiosks #12
787-615-0896
eljefeburger.com
Casual spot for lunch and dinner. Burgers $7.95-$11.95.
Restaurante Conuco
110 Luis Munoz Rivera, Vieques
787-741-2500
www.restauranteconuco.com
Upscale twists on Puerto Rican classics. Entrees $12.95-$20.95.
Susie’s
Off Calle Escudero, Culebra
787-742-0574
www.susiesculebra.com
Seafood-centered menu in a waterside setting. Entrees $18-$24.