Want a quick trip to a joyful vacation spot that is both foreign and American? Try San Juan, Puerto Rico. I had the pleasure of a long weekend there recently, my first trip to this lush, vivacious island. Fun is waiting around every corner.
We loved the casino in the hotel, the incredible ocean views everywhere, the laid back, kite flying, sun-kissed afternoons, the tasty cuisine and the ongoing party in the streets. And did I mention the rain forest and the rich historical architecture?
Puerto Rico, the tropical archipelago situated in the Caribbean, was formed by volcanoes more than 1,000 years ago and discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493. Since then, Puerto Rico has been under the control of the French, Dutch, English and Spanish. It wasn’t until 1898 that Spain relinquished control to the United States; Puerto Ricans were granted citizenship in 1917.
Puerto Rico is perhaps best known for its white sandy beaches, blue waters, coral reefs and tropical, lush landscape and I can vouch for all. Mix up rum, peppers, seafood with a dazzling blue ocean and you have the recipe for a blast.
The San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, located in El Condado and just a 15-minute drive from the airport, served as our base during our time in Puerto Rico. El Condado is an oceanfront district with quick access to beaches, shopping, dining and more – everything is within walking distance. El Condado once served as a vacation destination to wealthy tourists, including the Vanderbilts who owned a home here, during the early 1900s. Today, it is still just as bustling as it was nearly a century ago with new boutiques and restaurants opening frequently.
Locals love the hotel and often fill the lively Red Coral Lounge listening to local, live music and enjoying the enticing cocktails made from fresh fruits. And it's not just the locals who like to party here – they love working here too. HansGeorg Rohrbein, the general manager, told me more than 50 employees have been at the hotel more than 20 years.
The balcony in my room was small but directly over the beach. Inside the room, the water seems to be lapping just beneath my window. Walk through the tropical vegetation surrounding the large, multipool area where massages can be had in garden nooks onto the beach where staff help guests secure beach chairs, umbrellas and plenty of Don Q! The casino, just off the lobby, has plenty of slots and table games to keep guests occupied. Guests also enjoy the resort’s wellness center, spa, resort-style pool, on-site restaurants and more.
El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest to be found in the National Forest System and it sees more than one million visitors each year and spans more than 28,000 acres. Puerto Ricans and tourists alike flock to this tropical rainforest during summer months when the river water is cool and the sun is warm. Within the forest there are 150 kinds of ferns, 70 species of orchids, Puerto Rican parrots, coquis frogs and trees that have lived more than 1,000 years. The visitor center is a great starting place. There are many trails and hikes of varying difficulty.
Spoon Food Tour
This was the star of the trip and highly recommended. Co-owner Paulina Salach led us into the bright and busy La Cueva del Mar, where we indulged in fresh grouper tacos and conch fritters, washing it down with Don Q (locals do not say Don Q rum, it is simply known as Don Q) and ice cold Medalla Light beer (the island’s local brew). Puerto Rican food is never spicy but does offer a large array of flavors.
At our next stop, out came the national dish – mofongo. Green plantains are cooked and mashed with garlic, olive oil and spices, then filled with any number of concoctions. We walked Castillo San Felipe del Morro, also known as Fort San Felipe del Morro or Morro Castle, stunning against the ocean and a large green park filled with children and families flying kites, on our way to a lovely coffee shop in Old San Juan where we feasted on macaroons and latte.
Guests of the San Juan Marriott can take advantage of a special culinary package including the Spoon Food Tour. This gastronomical excursion will take guests off the beaten path to some of the best local hot spots in San Juan. Experience the blending of cultures via Puerto Rico’s unique local cuisine as you taste your way through town.
A ramshackle grouping of open air restaurants and souvenir shops are jutted along side abandoned concrete stalls on the beach in the small town of Luquillo, This long row of colorful yet humble buildings are right on Route 3 along the beach and provide an authentic Puerto Rican experience. Wander among them and take in an eyeful of offerings in glass cases – whole fried fish, mofongo, empanadas, bacalaitos, pastelillos and even the soul-satisfying rice and beans. There are about 60 places in all, although hours vary from place to place. Grab a few dishes to share, a Medalla and gaze at the gorgeous ocean.
La Placita de Santurce
Farmers market by day, open air plaza by night, La Placita de Santurce exudes the flavor and feel of Puerto Rico. Sample the local cuisine and browse for souvenirs during the day and when the sun goes down, come out for the social scene Thursday through Sunday when La Placita transforms into a lively block party. Not sure where to start? For fresh seafood try Tasca el Pescador, for a unique whiskey and coconut water cocktail try El Coco de Luis, and for a quiet, quaint dinner try Jose Enrique.
This self-proclaimed avant garde restaurant lives up to the title with a cascading waterfall by the bar, the surface of the ocean mimicked on the ceiling and other special visual effects capturing the attention of diners. Equally as innovative and impressive are the plates at Zest which feature locally sourced ingredients and are scientifically and expertly crafted. Located in the Waterbeach Hotel, this is an experience of fusion, nouveau cuisine and old-style Puerto Rican ingredients.
Overlooking the lagoon is Yantar – a place where comfort and fine dining coexist and delicious food and a unique atmosphere are all to be expected. The chef at Yantar was named as one of “The Caribbean’s Top 25 Chefs” and the carefully created menu items are a testament to such recognition. Items are served tapas style but are so delectable that they just might be too good to share.