No passport needed for this Caribbean vacation spot, which has an energy and beauty all its own. For more Caribbean vacation ideas, visit our travel guide.
by Vanessa Infanzon
The warmth of Puerto Rico, its people and surroundings engulfs you about the same time you realize you’re on a Caribbean island and still in U.S. territory. Though there are many practical reasons to head to Puerto Rico — there’s no need for a passport or international cell service, and U.S. currency is accepted — it’s the island’s beauty and history that make it an ideal Caribbean destination for Americans.
Each year begins with the San Sebastian Street Festival (SanSe) in Old San Juan; this year, it’s Jan. 18-21. Tourists and locals celebrate the culture and traditions of Puerto Rico’s heritage with art, food, music and dancing. But a visit anytime of the year affords access to Puerto Rico’s cities, beaches and mountains.
An electric energy runs through the streets of San Juan. Founded in 1521, it’s the oldest city under the United States flag. Streetside tables are filled with patrons sipping piña coladas, the island’s national drink, and sampling empanadas. A stroll along Ashford Avenue, one of San Juan’s main thoroughfares, fills the senses, pulling guests into the excitement of the city.
Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, a seaside luxury resort named the No. 1 hotel in Puerto Rico by Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards, is central to local attractions and minutes from Old San Juan. After a complimentary glass of champagne or a passion fruit mimosa upon check-in, guests are free to explore the beach and an infinity pool overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Book a facial or massage at the spa, or enjoy poolside service while lounging on the deck. A variety of rooms — including connecting suites for larger parties — are available. Restaurants, such as 1919, the hotel’s premier fine dining experience under Michelin star-rated Executive Chef Juan José Cuevas, serve traditional Puerto Rican foods and various dishes featuring locally sourced ingredients.
Old San Juan
For a crash course on the area, walk the blue cobblestone-lined streets of Old San Juan with Flavors Food Tours. During the 90-minute, small-group guided food and history excursion, pay attention to the churches, landmarks and museums you pass along the way for an in-depth visit later in your trip.
Old San Juan’s building designs complement the sweeping views of the ocean meeting the cityscape. One architectural marvel is Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a six-level fort built by the Spanish from the 1500s to the late 1700s. Roam inside its walls while learning about centuries of military operations.
Puerto Rico produces more than 70% of the rum sold in the United States. One of its three main distilleries, Casa Bacardi, is 30 minutes from San Juan. Bacardi’s rum tasting tour starts under the bat-shaped pavilion with a signature cocktail. Then, guests travel on an open-air trolley for two tastings and a guided history tour of the plant’s grounds.
Traveling east from San Juan toward the Caribbean Sea lands visitors in several ecosystems, one being El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System. The nearly 29,000-acre rainforest features an educational center, self-guided hiking trails and waterfalls. Nonprofit Para La Naturaleza leads 90-minute guided hikes through the rainforest, explaining the history of the area and pointing out the local flora and fauna, like Caracolus caracolla, the large snails clinging to the trees. Kayaking Puerto Rico provides an all-day adventure with hiking in the rainforest and an evening kayak tour in a bioluminescent bay.
Pool at Condado Vanderbilt
On the edge of the forest is Wyndham Grande Rio Mar, a seaside resort in Rio Grande, a town in northeast Puerto Rico. In the style of an 18th-century Spanish hacienda with grand staircases and candelabras, rooms and suites — some overlooking El Yunque or the Caribbean — are steps from the beach, restaurants, pools, cabanas and two championship golf courses. Roots, open for lunch and dinner, serves sandwiches, pizzas, poke bowls and salads. Roots on the Go and 5 O’Clock Somewhere offer casual dining with outdoor seating by the pool and gardens.
The resort’s Mandara Spa boasts 11 treatment rooms for couples massage, facials, body scrubs and more. A redesigned casino will reopen later this year.
Activities such as morning yoga, water polo and s’mores by the fire pit are open to guests. A children’s club will debut this year. Other excursions such as ATV, horseback riding, jet skis and kayak tours can be booked through the hotel.
Thirty years ago, Kurt Legner founded Pomarrosa Coffee Lodge, a coffee farm perched atop the Cordillera Central mountain range about an hour north of the coastal city of Ponce. Most Saturdays, Legner leads a two-hour tour through the 8-acre farm. Guests enjoy banana bread made from bananas grown on property and, of course, coffee, while Legner weaves together tales of coffee history and island lore. During the second half of the tour, guests follow along a dirt and grass trail as Legner continues with his storytelling, encouraging guests to taste the red ripe coffee beans and pick a banana from the bunches growing just off the trail.
Left: Wyndham Grande Rio Mar. Right: Condado Vanderbilt and Pomarrosa Coffee Lodge
Overnight guests can stay at one of the four villas on the farm. In this rustic setting, the simple furnishings, front porch views and mountain breeze can bring calm and peace to any city dweller. Thousands of coqui (tree frogs) whistle a lullaby into the night; the creatures’ mating sounds carry through the villas’ open windows. Each morning, Legner treats guests to Pomarrosa coffee and a full breakfast under a covered patio overlooking the mountain range. If you’re lucky, a coqui may join you. SP
GETTING THERE: San Juan, Puerto Rico is a three-hour nonstop flight from Charlotte via American Airlines.
Want more Caribbean vacation ideas? Visit our travel guide.
Featured image: Old San Juan. Photographs courtesy Discover Puerto Rico and Wyndham Grand Rio Mar