Aguadilla is the biggest town on Puerto Rico's northwest corner, which is filled with great beaches and other natural blessings for an active vacation experience. And it makes a good base from which to explore the area, with lots of hotels, restaurants, good infrastructure, a fairly large mall, and lots of attractions, such as a water park and golf course.

Several airlines now run direct flights to the town's Rafael Hernández Airport, especially during the high season. It's the island's second international airport after Luis Muñoz Marín in San Juan. So visitors who want to spend their whole vacation in the west don't have to go through San Juan. Puerto Rico's best surfing spots run from Rincón south of here, around the northwest corner to Isabela and points east along the north coast.

The region also is near such major attractions as the Arecibo Observatory and the Río Camuy Cave Park. In addition to its coast, there are mountain forests and lakes nearby. Aguadilla has an ice-skating rink, water park, and a very reasonably priced golf course, adding to its family appeal.

Crash Boat beach is popular, and gets crowded on weekends, but during the week it's usually quiet and picturesque. There are a few beach shacks and stands selling seafood, snacks and cold drinks, and brightly colored wooden fishing boats are often parked on the beach. There's a former Navy fueling pier on the beach, where aquamarine water kisses the white sand. In winter, the northern end of the beach faces open water and is much rougher. Waves at Aguadilla's beaches are among the fiercest in the island, carrying in them the full force of the Atlantic.

Aguadilla is more than its beaches. It's coming into its own in other ways. With an international airport, several offshore companies with operations here, a large U.S. Coast Guard presence, it's one of the island's more prosperous areas. You can see this in the renovations taking place in Aguadilla's historic downtown waterfront district, and the continual growth in new hotels, restaurants, shops and services for tourists each year.

The Isabela coastline is also beautiful. Narrow country roads weave between cliffs and white beaches, set off by dramatic rock formations and submerged coral reefs that send surf crashing skyward. This is an area of salt-water wells and blowholes, through which dramatic eruptions of saltwater spew from submerged sea caves. Several are found in the area known as La Princesa, and Jobos beach is home to the most famous, El Pozo de Jacinto, which is located on a huge rock formation at the eastern end of Jobos Beach. There is a local legend surrounding the sinkhole, where the strong ocean currents blast through the huge opening, so that it has become something of a tourist attraction. Visitors should be warned, climbing out to see El Pozo can be very dangerous as the rocks are slippery. They also must respect the power of the sea, as local riptides have caused the drowning deaths of many area swimmers.

Jobos, the heart and soul of the Isabela-Aguadilla coastline, is a large beach with a famed surf break, which cuts from its eastern to western end, but swimmers can frolic along more protected areas along this mammoth shore. There are also guesthouses and restaurants here, and on summer and holiday weekends it's got a party atmosphere.

For many reasons, the eastern end of Jobos is the place to be. An area at the base of the rock formation is partially sheltered from the strong ocean currents and is the best place for casual bathing. Even if you want to surf, you can walk out to the end of the rock formation, as it’s a point break here. Surfers catch waves that crash at an angle towards the coastline, so the waves stretch across Jobos Beach as they make their way to shore. There are a number of bars, beach shacks and street stands along the shore that serve cold beer, tasty fresh fish turnovers, and chicken kebabs. It’s a fine town and can enjoyably rambunctious on holiday weekends.

Further east, Montones Beach has rock outcroppings and reefs that make a beguiling seascape and also protect the water from the raging surf in this area. You won't find the restaurants and bars here that you will in Jobos, but you can find your own secluded spot on the beach.

Area development, however, appears to be accelerating, and newly built condominiums and other properties have marred access to some beaches. There are still miles of open beachfront though, and most development is confined to small hotels and low-slung villas.

The good surfing, and increasingly the burgeoning northwest beach culture, extends east beyond Arecibo to Barceloneta and Manatí. East of Isabela, steep cliffs drop in flat jagged lines to the rough surf along the rugged Atlantic coastline of Quebradillas. Guajataca Beach, named after a powerful Taíno Indian chief, is a great spot, but think twice about swimming here. The currents are extremely powerful and dangerous, and while surfers love it, casual swimmers should proceed with caution. The white sand is as smooth as silk though, so it's a great spot for sunbathing and watching the surfers risking all and loving every minute of it. It's a great spot for seashell collecting. The beach is also called El Tunel because there's a large abandoned railroad tunnel carved out of a mountain at the entrance to the beach. It was once part of a railroad that ran all around the Puerto Rico coast to haul sugar cane. There is a parking area here and a no-frills, open-air restaurant and bar. It's a nice shady spot, a cool respite from the sun-bleached beach.