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The Sunday Patriot-News Harrisburg

Tourists Often Miss Out On Puerto Rico's Appeal


March 16, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Sunday Patriot-News Harrisburg. All rights reserved. 

"You're not dreaming. You're in Puerto Rico." That's Puerto Rico's official marketing slogan, but it doesn't represent many travelers' impression of the island.

It does accurately reflect how Barry Richcreek feels. He believes that Puerto Rico is too often dismissed as a vacation destination, either because of misconceptions by people who have never been there or misperceptions by cruisers who have only seen the island from the port of San Juan.

"It's a lot prettier than people think," says Richcreek, owner of Richcreek Vacation Center in Harrisburg. "It's a whole different lifestyle than what people think."

His last visit to Puerto Rico occurred in December when he took his wife, Margaret, the other owner of Richcreek Vacation Center, to see the island from a different perspective. Until then, she had been there only on a cruise and was hesitant about spending more time on the island. She came away surprised at what she found.

She loved the ease of getting around and how safe she felt. She enjoyed being able to hop in a car and drive to many attractions. And she found the people to be more than accommodating about speaking English.

Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island that's part of the United States. Its official languages are Spanish and English. The U.S. dollar is the local currency and mail is sent through the U.S. Postal Service at the same rates as "on the mainland," as Puerto Rico's Web site puts it.

Traveling to Puerto Rico from Harrisburg is easy thanks to US Airways and Delta Air Lines. US Airways has a flight to Charlotte that leaves around 8 a.m. and connects to a flight to San Juan that arrives around 1:30 p.m. Actual flying time is about four hours.

When you fly into Puerto Rico, San Juan looks dirty, but the entire city isn't like that, Richcreek says. Even so, he recommends that travelers stay outside San Juan and return for visits.

For people who want to stay in the city, he recommends the Wyndham El San Juan Hotel & Casino, an old-style hotel with old world charm that's centrally located, with the hustle and bustle of San Juan at the front and a beach at the back. It's expensive, he says, but well worth it.

Two hotels he particularly prefers outside San Juan are the Hyatt Dorado Beach Resort & Country Club and its next door neighbor, the Hyatt Regency Cerromar Resort & Casino. Both have well-maintained golf courses and are on the beach, but otherwise they are quite different.

The Hyatt Dorado Beach offers a country-club atmosphere, relaxing and quiet with fine dining and no casino gambling, Richcreek says. In contrast, the Hyatt Regency Cerromar is family-oriented with a big swimming pool and several kids' activities. There's a casino on- site.

Puerto Rico offers alternative lodgings called paradores for travelers looking for a more native experience. Found around the island, paradores are moderately priced accommodations that are often situated in historic plantations or in especially scenic settings that feature authentic local food.

What visitors won't find are all-inclusive resorts, although hotels offer meal plans, Richcreek says.

San Juan is the island's major city. Within its borders is an historic section called Old San Juan, which is where the cruise ships pull in. The area used to have a lot of crime, Richcreek says, but it's been cleaned up and now features trendy shops and bars.

The island's best attractions are found outside San Juan. Driving to them is easy, although Richcreek says you have to watch out for road construction that comes up suddenly without advance warning. Traffic is heavy around San Juan, but otherwise the road system is good and well-marked.

Puerto Rico measures only 100 miles long and 35 miles wide; nothing is more than a three-hour drive away.

Natural attractions rank among the top sightseeing venues and include El Yunque, a rain forest; Cathedral Cavern in the Camuy Underground River System; and the Bioluminescent Bay in Vieques. Richcreek says visitors can spend days at El Yunque, about 45 minutes from San Juan, hiking its trails and taking nature walks.

Richcreek also recommends a visit to Ponce, a small town with world-renowned art and a must-see firehouse; the Arecibo Radio Telescope, home base for NASA's Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence; and, of course, the Bacardi Rum Distillery in Catano, a 20-minute drive from downtown San Juan. Bacardi offers free tours along with free samples of rum. The tours last an hour and a half.

Typical of a Caribbean island, Puerto Rico offers beautiful beaches, lots of water activities and temperatures that average in the mid-80s year-round. For more information, log on to Puerto Rico's official Web site at Annette Reiff's column appears Sundays in the Travel section. Reiff, a certified travel counselor, has worked at several midstate travel agencies since 1985. An experienced traveler, she has written on a range of travel and business topics and is the author of "Introduction to Corporate Travel," a textbook used in travel schools. She is an instructor in the travel and tourism program at Harrisburg Area Community College. Reiff may be reached at

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