I just returned from a getaway to Puerto RicoÂ?and yes it rained a lot but there were glimpses of sunshine and no hurricanes, so all in all, a great vacation, albeit short. Seems I left just in time as tropical storm Chris was fast approaching.
When I last reported back on Puerto Rico after a trip in November last year, I mentioned the building boom. Much to my disappointment the hotels that were slated to open, remain under construction some eight months later, so that scrapped any plans I had of staying in one of them. I did however return to the Condado as it is the closest beach area to Old San Juan and offers less of a strip mall atmosphere (and less over-flying aircraft noise) than neighboring Isla Verde.
I decided to stay clear of the big named resorts and go more local and small scale. I had the good fortune of choosing a boutique property called At Wind Chimes Inn (tel. 800/946-3244; www.atwindchimesinn.com), located one block from the beach on the fringe of Condado Beach, where it meets Ocean Park. Consisting of only 22 rooms this property boasts an intimacy and charm coupled with personalized service not found in other hotels in the San Juan area. The hotel itself is made up of two large 1920's era Spanish style two-story villas in a quaint setting with a central courtyard, lounge areas, day beds, a sunbaking deck and private balconies shaded by bougainvillea and palm trees. The rooms are comfortable with a tropical theme and feature king, queen and full-sized beds. The Boat Bar has friendly bar staff that doubles as gourmet chefs, whipping up healthy breakfasts and delicious snacks at the drop of a hat (and at very reasonable prices to boot). The pool area is small but inviting with heated salt water (a welcome relief without the irritation of chlorine) a deck area with sun lounges and even a waterfall feature which my 18-month-old daughter was obsessed with (yes the hotel is kid friendly too). The reception staff assists with every request from making dinner reservations to recommending itineraries for day trips or tracking down a mini van at short notice. At Wind Chimes Inn rates during low season (August 1 until December 14) start from $65 for a single, $75 for a standard queen room, $85 for king, $99 to $125 for a room with two full sized beds and $125 for a junior suite with kitchenette. In high season the rates start from $80, $99, $110, $120 to $140 and $135 to $150 respectively, making this hotel not only highly affordable but also excellent value for money.
Another cute boutique property in a central position in Condado is El Canario Inn (tel. 800/533-2649; www.canariohotels.com), a bed and breakfast located right on Ashford Avenue a block from the beach. This property has 25 rooms set in a historic colonial style building but unfortunately has no swimming pool. Room rates range from $80 to $110 during low season (May 1 to December 15) and $105 to $149 in high season. Their largest rooms accommodate up to four people in two full-sized beds but note that there are no beds larger than full size at this property, so lovers of queen and king sized beds best sleep elsewhere. A complimentary tropical breakfast and morning newspaper daily are included and receive $5 off each room night if you book online through their secure reservation website page. They also have two sister properties including El Canario by the Sea, just steps from Condado beach with the same daily room rates as above.
A little further a field, in Carolina, just outside San Juan is the chic Water Club Boutique Hotel; (tel. 888/265.6699; www.waterclub.com). The hotel is on the beach and has a rooftop lounge and sushi bar named Wet offering a panoramic of San Juan's coastline, a bar called Liquid with a DJ to keep things going until the wee hours and the Tangerine restaurant which serves American Asian cuisine overlooking the Atlantic. Room rates range from $143 for a deluxe room to $695 for a suite in low season and in high season, prices start from $294 for a deluxe room. My favorite part of their website is their celebrity "star sighting" section where they list the rock stars, actors, fashion designers and beauty queens who have visited the hotel.
Food is a big part of Puerto Rican life. If you think it's all rice and beans, think again. True a lot of food can and does come with these two staple side dishes, but fresh seafood and Latin fusion cuisine is prominent on many menus. Although I would generally not recommend hotel restaurants, I did have a delicious meal with exceptional service and live music at the Coral by the Sea Hotel in Isla Verde. The Platos Restaurant (tel. +787/791-7474) is an up-market place which is moderately priced by U.S. standards but probably considered on the expensive side for Puerto Rico. Their churrasco was better than the dishes I have eaten in Brazil and their risotto made me believe that they had an Italian chef stashed out in the kitchen. After dinner the pastry chef came out to display her delicacies de jourÂ?and neither the coconut flan nor the strawberry cake disappointed. It's located on Isla Verde Avenue, only a block or two from the El San Juan Hotel and Casino - a must visit destination when you are in Puerto Rico. We stumbled upon a salsa competition with dozens of sweaty sexy couples burning up the dance floor dancing to a live salsa band on the night we visited.
About five blocks east of At Wind Chimes Inn, on McLeary Avenue (the continuation of Ashford Avenue) but in Ocean Park there is a wonderful wine bar cum bakery called Reposteria Kasalta (although I never saw a sign with that name, it appeared on my credit card statement) that serves a delicious array of home made pastries and cakes alongside beer, wine and appetizer snacks. It almost looks like a funky cafeteria from outside with tables, fixed bar stools and several refrigerated counters housing the tasty treats. Prices are low and it's open late, making a great dessert option, or alternatively go there for breakfast and stock up on lunch items to take to the beach with you. Also in that block is Dunbar's (tel. 787/728-2920) - somewhat of a local San Juan tradition -- a loud local bar and band venue with pool tables that actually serves delicious international cuisine from sushi to pasta and one of the best hamburgers I had eaten in a long time.
Although you can easily spend all your time in and around San Juan (especially in the historic areas of Old San Juan), I do recommend getting out and about in a car to see the real Puerto Rico - from the small fishing villages to the rural areas inland and the spectacular beaches on the islands of Culebra and Vieques. I have always chosen to rent with brand name car rental companies in the past, but the big three (who shall remain nameless) were not only more expensive with less availability, they were also less customer friendly. We choose L&M Car Rentals (tel. 800/666-0807; www.lmcarrental.com) who have several branches in the San Juan area. They will come to your hotel to pick you up and allow you to drop your car back at their off-airport site at no extra charge - something the other companies refused to do. I paid $80 a day including taxes for a late model Ford mini-van with unlimited mileage.
We did venture out of the San Juan area, with a requisite daytrip to El Yunque National Rainforest (www.elyunque.com), which is a beautiful break from the heat and features some spectacular waterfalls, forest hikes and wildlife sightings. Make sure you stop in at a fantastic gallery in Rio Grande called Coqui International (www.coquiinternational.com). It is located on the turn off from the main highway (Route 26) to El Yunque (exit 171) so you really can't miss it. The owner, Tom, stocks a wide selection of works by local artists and a collection of ornate hand-made ceremonial and festival masks ranging in price from $30 to $300. The shopping experience here is made all the more pleasant with Tom's offering of free samples of home-made rum cake and what he calls "the best cappuccinos in Puerto Rico." If you can't carry all your purchases, he'll gladly offer to ship your goods to you.
A side trip to the city Ponce on the south central coast was rewarding. Its petite historic center has a number of beautifully restored 18th and 19th century buildings, a few decent souvenir stores, an impressive fountain with gardens and a small scale cathedral. Whilst on the south coast, we spent close to two hours looking for a beach with actual sand. It turns out that the Puerto Ricans call a beach a beach even if you can't swim and there is no sand (we made that mistake by pinpointing Playa Salinas as our destination - lots of restaurants but no playa). We eventually found one - the same one as about 5000 other Puerto Ricans seeking relief from the scorching afternoon sun (yes it was sunny that day). Playa Santa is a cute local beach located about 45 minutes west of Ponce, exit 194 off Route 2 West. You can swim in a tranquil, wave-free stretch of the Caribbean, rent jet skis or just relax under the trees.
Getting to Puerto Rico is cheap and easy, especially in low season (August to December) with most major and discount carriers servicing the route with non-stop and one-stop flights. JetBlue has non-stop flights from New York or Orlando from $99 one-way during the months of August, September and October 2006. American Airlines matches those prices with a $198 round-trip fare from New York.
Other sample fares include:
- From Fort Lauderdale: $186 on Delta from August 19, 2006 to January 13, 2007
- From Chicago: $329 on United for travel until November 15, 2006
- From Dallas: $368 on Delta or Continental for travel until December 13, 2006
- From Los Angeles: $368 on most major carriers for travel until December 2006
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