By Annemarie Dooling for Yahoo! Travel
Even though you don’t need a passport to visit and the U.S. dollar is the official currency, Puerto Rico feels like another world — the ultimate beach getaway destination. Instead of just flying in for a quick weekend, here’s how to spend the best week of your life in Puerto Rico.
Lovely, relaxing Ocean Park Beach (Photo: Annemarie Dooling)
Airlines like JetBlue fly into Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport from many major continental U.S. cities on the regular. Once you arrive, grab one of the cabs waiting outside to drive you to your accommodations — an Airbnb in Ocean Park is a great choice. The residential neighborhood is filled with mini mansions overgrown with blooming vines and sparkling swimming pools, many of them available as vacation rentals. The best perk of the area, however, is the proximity to hidden gem Ocean Park Beach, a hot spot with locals, rarely visited by tourists. Spend the day getting acclimated to your new neighborhood’s supermarkets, vegetable markets, and flowered pathways, then drag your towels and drinks to the beach for a day of sun and surf.
Once you dry off, get changed for a 10-minute walk to dinner at Pamela’s at the Numero Uno Guest House. You can watch the sun slowly set with your toes in the sand at this cult-favorite restaurant, where you can order meals like ceviche and seared grouper. Herald in your vacation by sipping their custom cocktails while the beach becomes deserted and the moon grows big overhead.
A bio bay in Puerto Rico (Photo: Todd Van Hoosear/Flickr)
Sleep in today, because you’re going to need the energy. But when you’re finally ready to hop out of bed, head directly to nearby Kasalta bakery, a local institution that has served everyone from neighborhood teenagers to President Barack Obama. Early lunch options include sandwiches, like the delicious serrano jamon (ham) on crusty bread, or coffee and a thick, creamy pastry. Whatever you choose, all of the meals are large, so plan to share or bring home leftovers for a late-night snack.
While you’re in the area, stop by the Playero surf shop, which stocks everything you could want to wear on vacation, from men’s and women’s rash guard shirts for surfing to butter-soft hoodies emblazoned with the shop’s logo (The latter make great souvenirs.). You might also want to pick up some floaty key chains or camera covers for your next activity.
Puerto Rico is home to two of the world’s bioluminescent bays, areas filled with dinoflagellates, which create a glowing effect in the water. A tour company, like TripAdvisor’s Viator, can set you up with a kayaking excursion for that same evening, picking you up at a nearby popular landmark at sunset and driving you out to Fajardo, where the bio bay awaits. Once there, after a quick kayaking and safety lesson, each person in the group will jump into the water, climb aboard his or her own kayak, and form a queue to paddle into a dense thicket of mangroves. Try to laugh at yourself and not become too frustrated when you paddle into the tangle of the trees’ massive roots in the complete dark of night, because you’ll be handsomely rewarded on the other side with a shimmering, watery landscape. When you’re back on shore, grab a drink or a small bite at one of the nearby snack bars for the hourlong ride back toward Ocean Park.
After you’re changed and ready for a night out, take a taxi to the newly reopened Condado Vanderbilt hotel to enjoy a spectacular evening at its restaurant, 1919. The menu highlights locally sourced ingredients in global meals like a ricotta ravioli plate or entrées of rabbit and venison. Pick and choose your way through 1919’s delicious offerings, or try the four-course prix fixe menu with dessert to end your night on a sweet note.
A trail in El Yunque National Forest (Photo: Diego Cupolo/Flickr)
Now that you’ve whet your appetite for nature, rent a car in the center of Ocean Park for a trip to El Yunque National Forest. This park and all of the legends associated with it, are very important to the people of Puerto Rico, and it’s the only tropical rainforest in our U.S. park system. You’ll find 24 miles of hiking trails of various lengths within the green, mountainous terrain of the forest. The La Mina path is the short-and-sweet favorite, an easy and well-traveled jaunt, which passes La Mina Falls and offers views of both Yokahú Tower and El Yunque Peak. For a more difficult and less-crowded path, try Mount Britton, which ascends up the mountain to panoramic views of the landmarks down below, as well as the Caribbean Sea and neighboring islands. Don’t leave the forest without taking a minute to enjoy the sweet sounds of the little coqui frogs and the beautiful, tall stalks and tiny buds of the colorful iris plants along the hiking trails.
If you’re not too tired, be sure to take a detour on your way home: The very best barbecue joints in all of Puerto Rico happen to live along route Highway 184 in Guavate, also known as the Pork Highway. You’ll smell the eateries before you see them, so be ready to pull off at exit 32 of Highway 52, and keep your eyes peeled. Here, you’ll find rows of restaurants and stands known locally as lechoneras, where you can eat thick slabs of pork with crispy, brown skin, along with heaping plates of rice, beans, and vegetables. The most famous of the lechoneras is El Rancho Original; try its mofongo (a fried plantain-based dish) — it’s a delicious way to end the night.
Rincón (Photo: mihir samel/Flickr)
It’s a good thing you’ve still got that rental car, because today is the day to take a road trip to Rincón, where you’ll be working on your tan (or covering yourself in sunblock). The beaches in Rincón are infamous hot spots for surfers, including Domes Beach, which is also a great location for scavenging beautiful shells, and Tres Palmas, a place for more experienced surfers only, as it sees surges as high as 25 feet. Tres Palmas is also a great snorkeling spot in the summer months.
After catching some rays, you’ll need to cool off. Rum is a way of life in Puerto Rico, and Ron del Barrilito is the drink of choice for locals. On the way back from Rincón, spend an afternoon visiting the Hacienda Santa Ana, in Bayamón, where the Fernández family has been distilling Puerto Rico’s favorite rum since 1880. Though the home isn’t set up for full tours (like the kind you might get around the Bacardi factory), if the family is around, someone will be happy to show you around. Pick up some souvenir bottles here, but remember that you can also grab a few bottles at the very elaborate airport rum shop on your way home.
Colorful Old San Juan (Photo: Thinkstock)
Staying in Ocean Park is relaxing, but now it’s time to head into the city. Pack your bags, and switch digs for a stay at the gorgeous and historic El Convento hotel. This boutique has a storied history as a former convent, and many of the original details remain within the rooms and hallways of the building today. The courtyard is a great place to have a bite or a drink, and it’s also perfect for people-watching the who’s who in Old San Juan.
Spend the afternoon shopping along the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan for unique and luxury items. Olé Curiosidades on Calle Fortaleza is the spot for custom-fit Panama hats, and its shop is also stuffed to the brim with old leather-bound books and hand-drawn postcards. Hand-carved santos (religious saint figurines) are indicative of the strong Catholic culture on the island; the best can be found at the Chapel of Christ the Savior on Calle del Cristo. Plaza Las Américas, the largest shopping arena in San Juan, has more than 200 stores, including BCBG, Kiehl’s, and Armani Exchange, so you’ll find whatever it is you’re looking for.
While you’re in the area, stop in at Castillo San Felipe del Morro for a self-guided walking tour of the fort. Even if you’re not a history buff, the stories will put Puerto Rico into perspective for you, and after walking past 42 feet of structured city walls, you’ll leave with a new appreciation of military architecture. End your night and kick off your weekend with a nightcap at the Parrot Club, just a few blocks away from el Morro, a colorful watering hole popular with both visitors and tourists alike for its tangy mojitos.
Condado Beach (Photo: Anjum Malkana/Flickr)
Craving another day by the ocean as your vacation begins to come to a close? The beaches of Condado, particularly the one surrounding the Hilton Caribe, fit the bill. Plus, legend has it this hotel is the birthplace of the piña colada — and you can taste the original recipe. A little farther down the beach, the La Concha resort sits directly in front of another gorgeous stretch of sand with optimal people-watching. Spend the entire day being lazy and basking in the sun. Once you get hungry, make a reservation at Perla, the shell-shaped restaurant sitting in an infinity pool at the top of La Concha, with panoramic views of the surrounding beach. The Condado Vanderbilt, directly next door, has a great bar, where you can finish off the night: Vanderbilt Court is a stretch of plush seating in front of expansive ocean views with an eclectic cocktail menu that includes vintage wines, cognac, custom martinis, and even high-end cigars.
Cafeteria Mallorca (Photo: sfchef/Flickr)
It might be time to go home, but you can’t leave Puerto Rico without having brunch, so before you finish packing, take a walk down to Cafeteria Mallorca for its namesake pastry. This sugary, flaky baked good pairs well with a strong cup of coffee. If you don’t like sweets in the morning, you can try the cocina criolla (local cooking) breakfast. Finally, do one last souvenir sweep at The Poet’s Passage, a coffee shop and art house where you can walk in on poetry readings or pick up a book from a local poet. You can also find paintings, sculptures, and other artworks, as well as locally brewed coffee and beer to take home.
Head back to the hotel, and grab your bags. The cab back to the airport from Old San Juan will take about 20 minutes (longer during rush hour). Have a safe flight home!