Puerto Rico: Historic island still young at heart

Golden girls Jezmine Lora and Key Diaz head out from the surf near Pinones. Puerto Rico's 272 miles...

Golden girls Jezmine Lora and Key Diaz head out from the surf near Pinones. Puerto Rico's 272 miles of coastline boasts hundreds of beaches. Barbara Taylor/QMI Agency

BARBARA TAYLOR, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:56 AM ET

I may have unwittingly embraced Ponce de Leon's fabled quest for the fountain of youth on a recent trip to Puerto Rico.

Flying almost a mile through the air like Superman wasn't on my bucket list when I stepped off the plane in San Juan, but I can now cross it off anyway.

Ziplining in the lush "coffee" mountains of Puerto Rico was one of many diverse highlights enjoyed in the warm glow of what is affectionately known as the "island of enchantment."

Of course the transition from a freezing late February in Canada to seven days of tropical sunshine helped set a carefree mood. So, too, the marvellous mix of history and culture on a Caribbean island claimed for Spain by Christopher Columbus more than 500 years ago. And, one home to the descendants of Puerto Rico's first governor, who famously sought the fountain of youth.

But I believe it was the prevailing "good life" vibe put out by the locals that sealed the deal for me. Whether they were taking care of business on city streets, serving in restaurants and hotels, or lolling on beaches, my encounters with Puerto Ricans were always a charm.

For tourists, Puerto Rico offers a unique opportunity to combine an island vacation with authentic old world charm.

 

 

Officially named the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the territory was ceded to the United States in 1898 during the Spanish American War. It shares the same currency as the U.S. and most visitors come from there. Modern American conveniences such as Walgreens are there if you want them, plus superb cross-cultural dining and world-class modern hotels.

Here's a sampling of a week well-spent in San Juan and environs:

CATCHING A WAVE

Stand-up paddle boarding in San Juan's Condado Lagoon was a breeze for me. With some expert instruction from Carolina of Velauno paddle-boarding our group enjoyed a morning paddle on calm waters with up-close views of the surrounding cityscape. We didn't see any marine life but were advised manatees and stingrays often swim in for added excitement.

WOW, FOR SOME

Learning -- or trying -- to surf in the warm waters (average 27 C) off San Juan's Isla Verde beach proved more challenging, though not for lack of a good instructor. Danny of WOW Surfing School & Water Sports was wonderfully patient and pleasant during my many failed attempts. Big waves along the expansive sunny beach proved less challenging for others and tons of frolicking fun for youngsters.

OLD WORLD CHARM

A walking tour of Old San Juan is a top tourist attraction for good reason. The city, founded in 1521 by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, is still a treasure trove of colonial buildings with much of it connected by 16th-century cobblestone streets. It is chock-full of historically significant plazas, stately residences and museums. Much of the ancient architecture has been restored. Lively shops, cafes and bars give the old city a lively vibe.

Visitors can take a self-guided tour or hire a qualified guide. Our step back into history was fun and fascinating led by Leopoldo Rosso. A world-traveller as well as an Old San Juan aficionado, Rosso charmed us with centuries of anecdotes in addition to encyclopedic facts and figures on the marvels before us.

Tour highlights include the expansive grounds of Castillo de San Felipe del Morro -- or "El Morro" -- fortress built on San Juan Bay with the adjacent sculpture-laden Cementerio Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis, the above-ground burial site of many distinguished Puerto Ricans. Built in the 1860s, it contains about 1,000 graves and dramatically overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.

NEW AGE LUXURY

It's a short drive to the other side of San Juan, where hotels, spas and restaurants offer modern conveniences to rival mainland American cities. The balcony of my room at the big posh Condado Plaza Hilton provided a breathtaking ocean view and panorama of a vibrant city shoreline. On-site amenities include a spa, 24-hour casino, restaurants and ocean-side pool.

HIT THE SPOT

I reached my room at the Verdanza Hotel at the same time as the bellboy delivering a complimentary ice-bucket with Medalla Puerto Rican beer and a dish of nuts. A short walk to a beautiful beach and delicious dinner at the hotel's restaurant rounded out an easy-to-recommend casual stay.

SADDLE UP

I enjoyed the best trail ride in years saddled up on spunky Cristalina at Carabali Rainforest Park, and guided by fun and knowledgeable Eduardo Soto. Loved to see bunches of bananas and a couple of iguanas hanging above plus a refreshing river stop.

PADDLE MAGIC

Excitement was definitely in the air as our group of six listened to marine biologist Javier Medina describe what to expect after we climbed into bright yellow kayaks.

It was dusk when we paddled into the mangrove-lined channel en route to Laguna Grande and it would be pitch black when we returned two hours later. In between we spotted a rare Little Blue Heron, shared the canal with swooping bats and were dazzled as Medina pointed out the brilliant constellations.

But the real magic of the evening was provided by millions of glowing micro-organisms inhabiting the bioluminescent Laguna Grande known as Bio Bay. Seems the pristine ecosystem of this lagoon, and only four other bioluminescent bays in the world, are the perfect environment for a high concentration of plankton, which light up with a flutter of a paddle or splash of the hand.

TAMING THE BEAST

They call it La Bestia or The Beast and for ziplining thrill-seekers, it's the one to text home about. The Beast's platform is also a turning-back point for some zipliners, comfortable riding through the air in a sitting position, but drawing the line at being strapped in Superman-style. At 1,446-metres, Toro Verde Nature Adventure Park's Beast is one of the longest cables in the world and at 260-metres tall, one of the highest. Exhilarating and highly recommendable!

CONVERTED CONVENT A PEACEFUL PARADISE

The sound of trickling water greeted me inside my ground-floor room at Hotel El Convento. To my delight the source was a real waterfall -- a unique feature of a private enclosed garden room, just beyond the elegant four-poster bed.

Nestled in the heart of Old San Juan, El Convento is an architectural and historical gem. It was inaugurated as the Monastery of Our Lady Carmen of San Jose in 1651, operating as the first Carmelite convent in the Americas for 252 years. It has undergone various incarnations since it was purchased from the nuns in 1913 leading to today's extensively renovated and refurbished hotel.

Inside it's flush with beautiful tiled floors, ornate wooden furniture and inviting archways. The large centre courtyard includes a restaurant and bar. There's a pretty rooftop pool and a lush little park, the city's second oldest, in front.

Across the street is San Juan Cathedral, built in 1521, and rebuilt 20 years later after it was destroyed by a hurricane. It's the oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere.

A short walk along a cobblestone street takes guests to the harbour and the sculpture of La Rogativa. It famously portrays a bishop leading a prayer procession of women. Legend has it that in April of 1797 this torch-carrying group prompted British naval troops to abandon a planned invasion, thinking the night-time marchers to be Spanish reinforcements.

El Convento is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, and the Historic Hotels of America, and not surprising, is the designated "official guest house" of the Puerto Rican government for visiting dignitaries.

NEED TO KNOW

-- For travel info, contact the Puerto Rico Tourism Company at seepuertorico.com.

-- From Toronto West Jet flies direct to San Juan year-round. Air Canada flies direct to San Juan seasonally.


Videos

Photos