Puerto Rico provides reasons to explore, exhale
RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico - Here, on the beach at the Wyndham Rio Mar Resort, my husband, two college-age daughters, and I lolled on chaise lounges, a tiki bar and palm trees behind us, the warm surf of the Atlantic Ocean in front of us, and all around us sand the color of light brown sugar and the baby-soft texture of refined flour. Like many families with older children, we find it difficult to carve out family vacation time, so this week in Puerto Rico was a welcome treat.
Less than an hour to the west was San Juan. Directly across Route 3, the area's main drag, replete with strip mall chain stores and makeshift roadside stands, El Yunque National Forest rose into the clouds.
We were staying in a friend's condominium a short golf cart ride from the beach, which gave our daughters (who were too young to drive our rental car) some time on their own. A few minutes away was Luquillo, a palm-lined public beach.
We had arrived at a location filled with a rich variety of things to do and plenty of opportunity to do nothing but lie in the sun or body surf. The latter was the appeal to our daughters, who complain when we pack in too much sightseeing. This time, as our 21-year-old put it, "It didn't feel like too much."
El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the US National Forest System, began as a 12,300-acre reserve set aside by King Alfonso XII of Spain in 1876. Now a 28,000-acre dense, verdant preserve, its 1,200 plant species include some 240 types of trees and 70 varieties of orchids. The warble of the coquí, the Puerto Rican tree frog, provides the sound track. For an introduction, stop at El Portal, a visitors center entered via elevated pathways that provide a canopy walk 60 feet above the forest floor. It features an introductory film narrated by actor Jimmy Smits.
Well worth the $5 ticket is the guided walk that leaves the Palo Colorado Interpretive Site on a first-come first-served basis from 10:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. daily. On a one-hour slow stroll along a forest path, a guide pointed out miniature orchids and "air plant" bromeliads that attach themselves to trees and take moisture from canopy drippings above.
El Yunque has an extensive system of trails, many paved and dotted with picnic areas built during the Great Depression. The most popular is El Mina, a trail that descends from 2,132 feet to 1,640 feet in less than a mile, sometimes on concrete steps. The trail runs along, and crisscrosses, the La Mina River and ends at the spectacular Cascada La Mina, a 35-foot waterfall.
In the northeast corner of Puerto Rico, where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean, is the town of Fajardo, launching point for ferry service to Vieques and Culebra. The islands are also reachable by 10-minute flights. We chose Culebra, the smaller of the two, for our only full-day trip of the week.
The ferry docks in the tiny hamlet of Dewey. Those interested in snorkeling can stop by the dive shop opposite the ferry to rent gear and get directions to close-to-shore reefs. We hopped on one of the myriad taxis waiting to take visitors to Playa Flamenco, an exquisite white-sand beach routinely ranked as one of the world's most beautiful. An entrepreneur rents umbrellas and chaise lounges by the day. Taxis run in a continuous loop between Dewey and Flamenco, so there's always a way back to town. One snorkeling site is a 15-minute walk away.
Just east of San Juan is the little town of Piñones. From the road it is not much to look at, just one modest business after another. But behind them is a beautiful stretch of beach, and we enjoyed one of our best meals at the Soleil Beach Club. My mahi mahi in a caper and white wine sauce was tasty and tender and served with the traditional Puerto Rican mashed plantains with cassava.
My husband and I returned to Piñones, where a scenic boardwalk runs along the water and into a mangrove forest. We ate lunch at the Reef, sensationally set on a small waterfront knoll with a magnificent view of San Juan, and rented bicycles for $5 an hour just over the bridge from San Juan.
We left Old San Juan for the end of our week. Our first stop was El Morro, the stunning, thick-walled Spanish fortress built between 1540 and 1783. It sits on a bluff with a panoramic view of the harbor and across a lush expanse of lawn that is a popular spot for flying kites. Visitors are free to roam El Morro's maze of tunnels, dark passages, and stone stairways.
Ponce de Leon may never have found the Fountain of Youth, but he founded this island's first settlement. Casa Blanca, an old white mansion where de Leon's descendants lived, sits on the site of the wooden house he had built for himself in 1521 but never occupied. De Leon's tomb is in the Catedral de San Juan Bautista.
We ate a scrumptious dinner in the garden courtyard of Baru, whose eclectic fare is served tapas style. We loved the shrimp skewers in orange liquor, mixed greens with mango and balsamic vinaigrette, tuna carpaccio with seaweed salad, empanadas, and chicken skewers marinated in green curry and peanut sauce.
Before we left, we stopped at Mi Pequeno San Juan and bought a handmade plaster replica of a yellow, flower-draped Old San Juan facade. It hangs now in our powder room to remind us of our delicious week on the island.
Irene Sege can be reached at sege @globe.com.