Vista from El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System.
  • Vista from El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System.
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A San Juan beach.

A San Juan beach.

Puerto Rico offers a better travel experience than Hawaii - it is more accessible to visitors, more wildly beautiful, friendlier, less expensive, and has a rhythmic undercurrent that is infectious, lively, delicious and mindbending.

San Juan's airport looks like a World War II airbase, but inside, the facility is sleek, modernized, well appointed. The Atlantic Beach Hotel is not fancy, but clean. It's on the beach with an ocean view, including a beach restaurant/bar. We wander along Avenida Ashford, sitting at large windows on the beach as we eat our tasty meals. Our drive to Arecibo on the north coast ends with a BBQ lunch, then south to Utuado.

Casa Grande swimming pool, surrounding jungle...

Casa Grande swimming pool, surrounding jungle...

Casa Grande is a magical collection of about 20 cabins/cottages sporting balconies, porches and hammocks. Situated between two lakes winding through mountain valleys, it is surrounded by bright green, super lush forest – a hodgepodge of trees, vines, flowers, ground cover and ferns. Large fruit trees, laden with tropical fruit, are all over the property. There's also a yoga center, an indoor/outdoor comedor for meals and massage rooms.

...and hammock.

...and hammock.

Heavy showers strike in the afternoon, and afterwards a rainbow spans half the horizon. Layers of mist float along the mountainsides, settling into indentations to cloak the scene in more mystery. At night, some houselights along the roads come on to give an indication where the roads are. It's not as hot here, but the humidity has sweat oozing out of my forehead. Note to self: do not keep hearing aid batteries or cough drops in pockets - they self-destruct due to moisture. If you want to get even wetter, jump into the beautiful pool surrounded by flowers.

The birds, coquis and roosters serenade us. And the food – chef Pedro Rivera Rosa serves organic, fascinating breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets. Examples: local greens with ginger and sesame seeds, japanese salad, poke salmon, maspostiao black beans with plantains, chicken banana curry, churrasco steak with tamarind, mahi with passionfruit.

In Ponce we stay at a stylish, comfortable Holiday Inn and enjoy delicious seafood dinners close by the ocean’s edge. We explore the mountainous panorama north of Ponce, complete with forests, lakes, waterfalls and spectacular views of the coast and Cordillera Central. At one of the higher mountaintops, Halina finds a half-grown German Shepherd pup that is very friendly and attentive to us. After she treats “Bela” to some leftovers, the grateful pup jumps into our car and settles down on the floor of the backseat. Se we adopt a Puerto Rican pet for 3 days. She behaves perfectly at the Holiday Inn, waiting until she is let outside through our ground level patio to do her business.

After lunch at Lola’s, we leave Ponce with our temporary pet and head towards the Yunque - a cool, mountainous, subtropical rainforest, with an extensive network of hiking trails, picnic facilities, paved trails and tour bus parking.

About 85 miles and two heavy rainfalls later, we find the Rio Sabana area, near the top of a mountain, and Nelson’s Country Home. For $65, we have a two-bedroom house to ourselves, and the view from the wraparound balcony is 20–30 miles of rainforest (top).

Naguabo harbor.

Naguabo harbor.

On our way to Fajardo, in Naguabo, a seaport with brightly colored houses climbing up the hillsides, we find El Makito Restaurante, on the second floor. (First floor = parking lot.) Inside seating is air conditioned, but outside balcony seating faces the ocean, with a refreshing breeze. The garlic criollo seafood platter includes a grouper fillet, large pieces of lobster, conch, octopus – enough to fill both of us.

The El Conquistador Resort, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, is huge, including a golf course, restaurants, shops, over 1,000 rooms, water park, boat docks, and its own island. Speedy motorboats take guests to/from the island every 30 minutes.

El Conquistador Resort.

El Conquistador Resort.

The room has a full-on ocean view, including a balcony. The resort cost is our highest Puerto Rico lodging (a $170/night special), but worth it. Three swimming pools are large, comfortable water temp, and not crowded.

Conquistador’s Palomino Island has light-almond sandy beaches, shade provided by numerous coconut palms. But beware of falling coconuts – a coconut fell and narrowly missed Halina’s head. Is this the Atlantic or the Caribbean? In any case, the water is clear, warm, and salty. Kimodo dragons wander around the beach.

Resort breakfast prices are reasonable, and portions are large. For dinner, we go off property to La Estacion, with a fun set-up of picnic tables and other off-the-wall furniture, papaya salad, baby back ribs, fish and special drinks. Further along is Costa Mia restaurant, across the street from the beach, with tasty grouper and pea salad.

Overall, the resort is classy, well designed, with many activities, large rooms, friendly, helpful staff, heavenly beds, tropical landscaping and artwork.

Siesta Allegre patio.

Siesta Allegre patio.

We leave El Conquistador at noon, and travel to the Hacienda Siesta Alegre in Rio Grande, a hand-built, husband-and-wife-owned bed and breakfast. The pictures bring to mind a Disney-like creation of old Spanish architecture, fake-y but near perfect. When we arrive, Marta shows us our room. The air conditioning unit, lights, bidet and Jacuzzi bath tub contrast with the antique mosquito net bed, desk, armoire and other furnishings, as well as the arched wood frame windows and wood beam ceilings. Marta shows us the main house where we will have breakfast. Imagine a building with palm trees growing through the roof, supported by massive square wooden columns. The wall-less building has a large fireplace, kitchen and bar, pool table. Surrounding patios with overhead trellises are covered with bougainvillea. The owners are building a large fish pool and will raise fish to feed their guests.

Another view.

Another view.

All of this is surrounded by luscious trees and plants and populated by chickens, ducks, geese, horses and dogs.

As I stand at a railing in the main house, I feel like I’m standing starboard on a pirate ship (with the floating roof as sails)... or on the balcony of a forest plantation.

The breakfast includes Puerto Rican coffee, passionfruit juice, fresh strawberries, blueberries, starfruit, raspberries, grapes, scrambled eggs (from their chickens), a pile of bacon, savory ground beef with plantains, and French rolls. After breakfast, we head to the airport with a ton of delicious memories.

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