The Family Getaway: Puerto Rico

So it’s time for a family vacation and you are looking for something different. You’ve done all you can with theme parks. You’ve visited coastlines on both east and west. You’ve even done your share of historical tours and national museum visits. But you want something more – something that feels like a distant voyage, but no more than a 2 or 3 hour flight. Something that invokes a difference in culture but with the comforts of home.

If you live in or near SouthFlorida, look no further than Puerto Rico (a.k.a. La Isla Bonita). From friendly smiles to easy-to-navigate avenues, you get the best of island culture and creature comforts when traveling here with children of any age.

Sure, you may be thinking now isn’t the time to visit, what with the government’s financial challenges – and yes, you will certainly feel the 11.5 percent tax on everything from food to tourism purchases. But there couldn’t be an easier trip to take for a 4- to 7- day getaway that features so many activities to do based on your children’s ages and interests.

WHERE TO STAY

When traveling with a family, whether it be toddlers or teens, there may not be a better place to stay than the Waldorf-Astoria’s El Conquistador Resort in the coastal region of Fajardo. Just look at the number of positive comments and high star ratings the resort gets on travel sites like TripAdvisor.com. There is a well-deserved reason for them – their attention to families.

Nearly three years ago the resort removed all of the casino machines and gambling tables and turned those spaces into video game arcades for kids of all ages. From racing games to games that reward you with tickets that can be redeemed for prizes, the only gamble here is if you can pry your children away from the arcade and into bed. There is also the Casablanca room, which features ping pong and air hockey tables, an oversized electric car racing track, and a Dance Party USA video game screen for anyone to join in. The Casablanca also hosts family-friendly programming on certain nights, like a magician.

The ultimate parent-child playground is in the main room of the resort’s lobby. Nestled between a bar called Lounge 21 and a bank of billiards tables is a DJ booth and dance floor that every night plays the best of pop and latin music from the 80s and 90s – with a sprinkle of current hits. Music videos accompany the songs on massive screens behind the DJ booth, where a scroll of text reads “Over 18 only on the dance floor”. But it must have been referring to inches and not age, as the dance floor is full of toddlers and young children – even some who can barely walk – bopping up and down and dancing to the beat, with their parents right there next to them. Where else can a parent grab a drink at the bar, and then join their children to get down on the dance floor before boogie-ing to your room to sleep?

The family fun doesn’t stop at the “disco”. There are plenty of kid-friendly options, like two ice-cream shops, a healthy, daily breakfast buffet, cockatoos in cages throughout the property that greet you with “hola”, four pools with easy access to food and drinks, and the Coqui Water Park that features an 8,000 square-foot lazy river with several waterfalls, three slides of varying degrees of speed (and one with a 40-foot drop), an infinity edge pool that looks out over the ocean, and a 2-feet deep children’s pool for toddlers and babies. (There is a separate fee per person to enter the waterpark.)

If you are looking for some beach time, you have to take a 10 minute ride on a ferry to the resort’s private Palomino Island to enjoy crystal clear water and plenty of outdoor activities. At first thought the boat ride may seem like an inconvenience, especially if you have to travel over some choppy water conditions. But once you arrive you realize no one else is on the beach than those staying at the resort (as well as some chickens and a few iguanas) – so you feel more relaxed leaving your belongings at one of the hundreds of beach chairs on the sand. There is an on-site restaurant and bar to keep the pina coladas flowing, as well as serve some tasty burgers or hot dogs for lunch. Two or three person kayaks are available for rent to explore a nearby sandbar that looks more like a mini deserted island, as are snorkel gear and paddleboards. There is even a spot to ride horses and tour the rest of the island.


THE PROPERTY

El Conquistador Resort feels like a sprawling, southern-style plantation with plenty of hispanic old world influence. The resort is spread over 500 acres in the fishing village of Fajardo, just 31 miles east of San Juan, and adorned with some of the lushest plants and greenery on the island, providing perfect refuge for the country’s “national frog” – the Coqui – and its distinct nightly whistle.

 

Resting on a cliff top high above the sea, every room in the five villages of the resort boast of scenic ocean view rooms overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. If you want an elevated residence experience, Las Casitas Village offers one-, two- and three- bedroom villas with a full-sized kitchen and 24 hour resort butler service, along with 2 private pools, including an iconic infinity edge pool with stunning views of the ocean and cliff side.

There is an Arthur Hills championship golf course that winds through the cliff side (complete with iguanas that enjoy watching golfers tee off) and a 26,000-square-foot Waldorf Astoria Spa with 25 treatment rooms and a children’s spa program.

Guests have 23 different restaurants, bars and lounges to choose from, each with a distinctive menu and atmosphere (including a Starbucks!). Chops restaurant offers traditional Italian and steakhouse fare in a warm, rich setting with plenty of red leather banquets and nostalgic images of women throughout. Make sure to order the buttery-tender filet mignon or a tasty, crispy cheese pizza for the kids.

EXPLORING THE ISLAND

The great thing about Puerto Rico is you can get from one side to the other in about 3 hours. Highways are easy to navigate, so make sure to rent a car to have the option of exploring at your leisure. With a family of four or more we suggest a minivan like the Toyota Sienna, what seems to be the unofficial car of Puerto Rico as they appeared at every turn. The minivan allows for plenty of cargo space (for luggage and strollers) and riding comfort (for those 90 minute drives points of interest).

The first stop to check out is Old San Juan, with its cobblestone streets, colorful row houses, and endless restaurants that serve local fare. (From Fajardo, plan for a one-hour drive.) Parking may seem tricky, but two massive parking garages exist on the north and south ends of Old San Juan. Next to El Morro (a must see fort that is set on the island’s north coastline and is surrounded by a gigantic open greenspace perfect for flying a kite or for kids who want to run around and expend some energy) is an underground parking area that charges by the hour. The southern-most garage sits across a popular row of restaurants on Calle Recinto Sur, making the drive from the fort to a dinner spot easy if you have small children – just go from garage to garage. Some of the more popular spots for dinner here include Raices (mofongo!) and La Cueva del Mar (fish tacos!).

Another great location for local food and culture is Luquillo Beach, where 45 mini-warehouses sit next to each other and house a variety of restaurants, bars and gift shops. Some spots are bars only, some feature live music, and others are full-on restaurants with plenty of seating. From the main highway you see the entrance and parking, but once inside each venue has it’s own theme and all have views of the ocean out the back porch (until the sun sets, of course.) Our favorite spot for dinner was La Parrilla, which featured local seafood, traditional sampler platters, and delicious fried pork (just $8.50 for more than you could eat). After dinner, take a stroll down the kiosks and do some shopping, take in some live music or hunt for some dessert. Saturdays and Sundays are the most popular here, so if you prefer to avoid crowds, try going in the middle of the week – just know that not all spots will be open. (From Fajardo, just a 15 minute drive.)

Other places to explore with family – but best if the children are at least 5 years old – include El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest system (it spans 28,000 acres, reaching an elevation of more than 3,500 feet and receiving an estimated average of 200 to 240 inches of rain each year) or the Bioluminescent Bay in Fajardo (where in the pitch black of night you will kayak and the water will glow blue with every paddle stroke). Make sure to check the moon as a full moon will produce too much light to enjoy the glow from the water. Glass bottom boats are a riding option if children are not comfortable with a kayak. Many guided tours are available.

 

THE LOGISTICS

Flights from Miami (MIA) depart daily to San Juan (SJU) on American Airlines. Roundtrip rates from the $500s. Two and a half hour, non-stop direct flight. Southwest also flies direct to SJU from Fort Lauderdale (FLL) and bags fly free, which is a plus when flying with children.

High season runs from mid-December through mid-April.

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