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Peoria Journal Star

Island Getaway -- Need A Dose Of Surf And Sand? Puerto Rico Offers An Exotic Taste Of Both While Still Being Somewhat Close To Home


August 3, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

When your thoughts drift to sun-kissed Caribbean beaches, soothing trade winds and colorful coral reefs, places like the Bahamas, Jamaica or the Virgin Islands may first come to mind. But you shouldn't forget about Puerto Rico - and don't ignore the fine print.

My girlfriend and I found that out this past June. A little time on the Internet scored us a package deal: Flying from Chicago* we'd have a five-day** and four-night romantic getaway*** in an oceanfront Hilton in the capital of San Juan for only $558**** per person! (More on the asterisks later.)

Asterisks aside, the setting fit the bill and was well worth the trip.

One nice thing about Puerto Rico is it's exotic enough without being too exotic. It's a U.S. territory, so passports aren't needed; their money is our money; and English is widely understood in San Juan, although Spanish is the prevalent tongue.

Also, unlike most tropical getaways, it's historic. San Juan has been colonized for about 500 years, making it the second-oldest city in the Western Hemisphere, and it has the forts, churches and colonial-style architecture to prove it.

And San Juan, a metro area of more than 1 million people, has the mix of shops, restaurants and nightlife that gives vacationers the option of tailoring their getaways to their wants. Chill on the beach? Go clubbing? Either way, you're in the right place.

Let's find a deal

At the outset, Kathy and I had no specific intention to go to Puerto Rico. I just wanted someplace cheap with a beach. She browsed, a site that lets you pick a specific hotel and travel dates at a set price but does not tell you your airline and travel times until after you purchase a package.

We thought about a cruise. We looked into Florida. Then she found this gem: Four nights at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan for the aforementioned price, including air travel from Chicago with details to be announced. Shopping similar packages on other sites found prices $300 a head higher.

How we lucked into that price can only be guessed at. Was it the start of hurricane season? Soft airline bookings? The Caribbean vacation off-season? All of the above? Regardless, it put an otherwise-unaffordable destination within our reach.

So we booked, and once I got the itinerary I saw our five days shrink, while we gained a detour from Chicago: The outbound flight was via a three-hour layover in Houston (Houston?), which is no closer to San Juan than Chicago is, with arrival in San Juan scheduled for around 7 p.m. And our getaway flight was leaving around 10 a.m. So much for days one and five, and hello, asterisks Nos. 1 and 2.

Our flights were on Continental Airlines, a nonplayer in downstate Illinois. Others may have had good experiences on this airline, but to make a long story short, Continental did nothing to make me forget about the stereotypical big airline experience.

Upon arrival in San Juan we went to an airport cab stand and hopped a taxis turisticos (literally, tourist taxis, which were painted white), which offered trips to and from touristy parts of town at flat rates ranging around $8 to $16 each way. And the cabbies, by and large, were friendly and willing to offer helpful tips on where to go and what to see.

Don't even think about renting a car. It's best to cab it everywhere because everyone drives like el diablos in San Juan. I heard the cars there come equipped with brake pedals, but I can't say that for sure. And the street signs are all in Spanish, to boot.

One view, two beds

Our hotel - said to be the Hilton chain's oldest and most historic property, and also the birthplace of the pina colada - was a neat place, offering an open-air lobby, several acres of tropical gardens, hammocks strung up between palm trees, a pool with a swim- up bar and a bunch of restaurants.

Our status as discount trip-bookers meant we couldn't make a specific room request at the front desk. The good news: We had an oceanfront room anyway, with a private balcony and a sweeping view from which to watch the sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean.

The bad: The room, booked under the "Romantic Spots" section of Hotwire, had two beds. No joke. Hence, asterisk No. 3.

Not that we spent too much time in the room, anyhow. Much of our days were spent on the hotel's private beach, a rarity in San Juan, which spared us the vendors that friends say harass beachcombers elsewhere in town. That's both a good thing (peace and quiet) and a bad one (where's the Jet Ski guy when you need him?).

On the beach, we found the tropical ideal every day: sunny (a stroke of luck, considering it typically rains every other day in the summer there), warm and salty green-and-blue waters and a gentle breeze that had us forgetting about the sky-high humidity. While Kathy concentrated on tanning, I decided to try my hand at snorkeling. It was easy.

After Kathy gave me a 15-second lesson ("just put your face in the water") I put on my goggles, snorkel and flippers; grabbed a waterproof disposable camera; and jumped in. It's that simple.

Snorkeling off the shores of San Juan was adequate for a beginner: a few feet of visibility, and a few fish (including some colorful ones that could always outrun my shutter finger). For something bolder, several firms offer all-day boat trips to outlying islands (with great visibility and neat reefs), with prices running $50 and up.

For the more ambitious watersport player, the surfing off of Puerto Rico's west coast at Rincon, and the scuba-diving off of its east coast at Fajardo Beach are said to be great.

Old San Juan

Nowhere is the island's history more evident than in Old San Juan, the district on the city's northwest side inside of aging walls filled with centuries-old restored colonial buildings and remnants of Spain's once-global empire (which we took over in the War of 1898).

The centerpiece is the Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, simply called "El Morro," a five century-old fortress first built by Spanish conquistadors as a colonial outpost in the New World, which the city grew around. The sprawling site includes cannons, steep stone walls, a lighthouse and a majestic view of San Juan Bay.

From El Morro, tourists can take a walking tour of Old San Juan that may be a bit of a chore to do: There is no posted route, and one offered in Que pasa! - a tourist magazine found in most hotel rooms - largely goes outside of Old San Juan's walls, which is akin to taking a walking tour of Downtown Peoria and sticking to the riverfront. It's nice, but you miss a lot that way.

To see most of the Old San Juan's collection of ancient churches, brightly painted buildings and intimate plazas, you may have to alter your route to plunge into the heart of the district. One of our cabbies recommended walking down Calle Fortaleza, near the city's cruise ship ports.

There, narrow streets (only one car wide in some spots) were lined with an odd mix of tacky tourist shops and trendy bars and bistros. We made a quick stop at the latest hot spot, the Parrot Club, and had the bartender sarcastically berate me into trying the house special, called the "Passion Parrot" - a fruity, cold tropical rum mix that actually hit the spot on what was turning into a real toasty day.

Near the fort is what may be the world's only slum with a view. Called La Perla, the barrio is located along the ocean just outside Old San Juan's north wall and it doesn't look tourist-friendly. Our cab ride on the main drag along La Perla - Calle Norzagaray - found cops in riot gear out at 10 in the morning. Not a good sign.

Eat, buy, drink

The dining in town ran to all tastes. On a friend's recommendation, our first full day there we ate at Ajili Mojili (pronounced ah-HEEL-e mo-HEEL-e), known for its Puerto Rican cuisine, where I had a plate of rice and big old shrimp. Tasty stuff. The next night, feeling lazy, we played it safe and ate on hotel grounds at a Morton's of Chicago steakhouse. Good chops, though.

A word to the wise: San Juan at night isn't Las Vegas. Shorts and T-shirts are fine while sight-seeing, but you generally won't get away with that while eating out or carousing. Don't forget to pack some slacks (and maybe even a sport coat) for guys and dresses for gals.

Also, restaurants know us gringos - and that's what locals call Americans in a generic way, so don't take offense - have testy tummies, so many waiters will ask pre-emptively if you want tap or bottled water. If you're unsure, it's no big deal to ask for the bottled stuff.

On our last night, we ventured to the San Juan Marriott for some food and fun. We ate at Ristorante Tuscany, an Italian eatery of great repute and steep price (if you like snooty, you'll love this place); and then hit the hotel's casino, of tiny size and ice-cold slots (if you love having money, you'll hate this place). We didn't linger long at the casino.

One popular day trip we passed on during our stay was to El Yunque (pronounced el JOON-kay; also known as the Caribbean National Forest), a 43-square-mile rain forest east of San Juan sprinkled with birds, waterfalls and the national symbol: the tiny coqui frog. Guided day trips were available from our hotel, but we were too content on the beach to go.

Sign now, pay later

Even without the trip to El Yunque and while spending most of the time laying flat on my back under the sun, my vacation's trip meter seemed to keep running way past our Internet price.

The real killer at the hotel was the ability to sign for everything. Lunch poolside? Just sign here. Need a snorkel? Please sign the ticket. How about a breakfast buffet? Sign on the dotted line. And don't forget the tip. You can sign for that, too.

Upon checkout I totaled up the damage: $220.50 (which included a $4.50 per day "resort fee" that was only vaguely referred to on the Hotwire site). Add up the dinner, booze and taxi bills away from the hotel and our travel insurance and the $558 per head turned into something considerably higher. And that accounts for asterisk No. 4.

Despite the asterisks, I won't claim a rip-off or a bad time. Puerto Rico was a pleasant tropical surprise to this gringo.

Caption: Warm sands, clear waters and palm trees swaying in the breeze were an inviting sight for beachgoers in San Juan recently. Other areas of Puerto Rico are highly regarded for surfing and scuba- diving.; Waves roll through the blue-and-green Atlantic Ocean and onto the shores of San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, on a typcial sun-kissed day this past July. The city's waterfront is lined with beaches and hotels, and is the frequent recipient of soothing trade winds.; A lighthouse of the Castillo de San Felipe del Morrow stands sentry over the Atlantic Ocean on a recent summer day. The fort, which has defended San Juan since the 1500s, began as an outpost of Spain's once-global empire.; Narrow streets, balconies and colonial-style architecture highlight Old San Juan, the core of the second-oldest city in the Western Hemisphere. San Juan has been a city since the 1500s, when Spanish conquistadors moved in.; Chart entitled "If you go" may be found in a separate document with the same heading.

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