(Part 1 of a 2 part series on traveling to Puerto Rico)
Secluded powdery soft beaches? Check. Remote caves, undulating rainforests and year-round bucolic weather? Check, check and check. Romance? Absolutely. Nestled in the northeast Caribbean, travel buffs will discover a virtual paradise: Puerto Rico. From its slate-blue cobblestone streets in Old San Juan to its lush El Yunque National Forest to its sleepy beaches to its glow-in-the-dark bioluminescent bays, La Isal del Encanto (the island of enchantment) offers something for both those seeking adventure or simply a shady spot to dawdle under a palm tree.
Where to Stay
Nuzzled on 483 acres of a former coconut plantation, the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort is located in Rio Grande (21 miles southeast of San Juan) and offers both ritzy perks and natural wonders. Abutting El Yunque rainforest, the property boasts verdant trees, tropical flora, curious wildlife (most notably the coquí frog which sweetly sing come nighttime), poolside cabanas and sparkling seascapes for as far as the naked eye can see.
As the island’s sole AAA Five Diamond Resort ranking hotel, the property is peppered with luxurious offerings such as a Robert Trent Jones, Jr.-designed golf course, Remède Spa, Jean-Georges’ cuisine, tennis courts, water sports and leafy nature trails. Boasting 139 rooms, each guest quarter boasts private terraces, 300-thread-count sheets and contemporary furnishings — with the spacious bathroom being a decadent touch compliments of a vanity mirror replete with an embedded LCD television.
Keeping true to its roots, the St. Regis Bahia Beach evokes a traditional plantation feel. The sprawling grounds’ crown jewel is the “Plantation House” which is home to the reception area, sunny foyer, rich woods, chic library, art-filled bar and Jean-Georges’ restaurant, Fern. Overlooking the ocean, a seat in a rocking chair here (armed with a freezing piña colada) whisks guests away to a faraway place — void of stress and worries.
What to See
A visit to Puerto Rico is incomplete without a visit to Old San Juan, El Yunque National Forest, Playa Flamenco and its bioluminescent bay.
Wander the narrow streets of Old San Juan and be sure to snoop around the 16th century fortress, Castillo San Felipe. Built by the Spaniards between 1539 and 1786, “El Morro” was built to protect the harbor entrance with its labyrinth of ramps, turrets and towers. On-site rangers will kindly provide fascinating insights on this huge military complex including tours of the tunnels, cannon batteries, barracks and museum.
The Casa Blanca — a home built for Ponce de Leon in 1521 — is another must see. A guide will show you around the lovely colonial mansion adorned with tile floors, colonial-era furnishings and beamed ceilings. While in San Juan, head to Avenida Ashford, where you’ll find designer boutiques, including Nono Maldonado, one of the island’s homegrown design talents. Scoop up hand-rolled cigars, one-of-a-kind art, festival masks (vejigantes), antiques and more while meandering the island’s capital city.
Hikers and nature lovers alike can explore the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest system, El Yunque. Spanning 28,000 sprawling acres, reaching an elevation of more than 3,500 feet and receiving an estimated average of 200 to 240 inches of rain each year, park highlights include rich flora and fauna, El Portal Visitor Center and Cascada La Coca — falls which plunge 85 feet down a flat sheet of solid rock. Breathtaking!
Puerto Rico’s best beach? Ask the thousands of Sanjuaneros who fly or ferry out to the isle of Culebra on weekends and the answer is Playa Flamenco. White sands and crystal-blue waters aside, Playa Flamenco offers stellar snorkeling and solid surfing conditions, too.
For a trippy experience, take a puddle jumper to the island of Vieques and kayak through the island’s world-famous Mosquito Bay. Brimming with microscopic organisms, its waters glow in the dark offering a truly surreal experience. Allow yourself to be enveloped by the neon spectral show as it’s a totally psychedelic exploit.
Where to Eat & Drink
Take your palate out for new adventures compliments of Puerto Rico’s cocina criolla (creole cooking) and new, innovative gourmet restaurants popping up on the culinary scene. Locals will be eager to point your toward Marmalade in Old San Juan. As the area’s hippest restaurant, the menu uses sustainable and non-modified ingredients prepared in California-French fashion. Order up the yellowtail served with lemongrass and compressed watermelon for an out-of-this world dining experience.
Perched on the second floor of the St. Regis Bahia Beach’s Plantation House, serious foodies can relish internationally acclaimed Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Fern restaurant. Fern’s Caribbean Latin and Afro-Caribbean inspired menu offers a spate of delectable dishes with the fresh grouper with black beans being the must-try dish. Save room for desert as Jean-Georges’ infamous molten chocolate cake is sheer sweet seduction.
Here’s a fun fact for you: The piña colada was invented in Puerto Rico. This mixture of pineapple juice, coconut cream, liberal amounts of rum and always garnished with a pineapple wedge and maraschino cherry was invented by Ramón Marrero at the Caribe Hilton in 1954, or by Ramón Portas Mingot at the Barranchina Bar in 1963, depending on who you believe. The two venues have fought over bragging rights for years but one cannot argue this truth: The piña colada is the quintessential vacation drink. Cheers to that.
No matter where you dine, be sure to order up a batch of locally loved mofongo. In this dish, green plantains are mashed with a wooden pilón (mortar and pestle), mixed with garlic and other flavorings, and fried in a pan. When stuffed with fresh fish or shellfish, it’s delicioso.
Even though Puerto Rico is a quick 2.5-hour flight from Miami, visitors will still feel as though they’re world’s away compliments of the island’s natural beauty, rich history and slower pace. This archipelago offers a bounty of outdoor offerings — surfing, scuba, snorkeling, ziplining, big-game fishing, golf, tennis, hiking, paddleboarding — and is notably family friendly. As for those who desire to do nothing at al
l, they can always order up a frosty piña colada and reach for the beach.
• 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.
• St. Regis Bahia Beach is a 25-minute transfer from SJU. Nightly rates from $400.
• High season runs from mid-December through mid-April.