The invitation came as a surprise. A wedding ... on the beach in Puerto Rico ... and we were invited! I imagined it to be another Caribbean island largely devoted to tourism, but because of its ties to the U.S., heavily overlaid with American culture. I couldn't have been more wrong.
Yes, like the other islands, it is hot, and it is beautiful, both in the lush, mountainous interior and along the beach-dotted coasts. But, San Juan is a modern, prosperous city with a smart business district, enormous cruise-ship port (the largest home-based cruise port in the world), gracious residential areas of lovely villa-style homes and smart beach-front apartment buildings reminiscent of coastal Florida.
I was surprised to find the atmosphere more Spanish/Caribbean than American. Yes, there are good (and busy) highways around and across the island, and there are shopping malls, the ubiquitous fast-food outlets and U.S. television stations. There's excellent health care, a resident symphony orchestra (with a reputation as one of the pre-eminent orchestras of the Americas), casinos, golf courses and luxurious hotels and resorts.
But you hear Spanish spoken more often than English, although many locals are bilingual and happy to engage visitors in a conversation on their relationship - and future - with the U.S. and their strong desire to keep their island identity.
The island houses an astonishing number of excellent museums, galleries and artists. Festivals are plentiful and varied; they celebrate dozens of patron saints, the Three Kings, Columbus, freedom from slavery, dance and music of all kinds, including ten days of classical music every June to honour the island's most famous resident - cellist Pablo Casals - who also warrants a lovely museum in the Old Town.
We arrived on 6 January, efficiently picked up our rental car and were soon on our way out of San Juan, using the Tourism Company map to our beach destination. We had chosen to stay at a parador close to the town of Isabela in the north-west corner of the island, close to the beach house of our friend's future in-laws, the location of the wedding. We made good progress along highway 22, but thirsty, diverted to a village. It was large, but the stores were closed and the village virtually empty. As it was a Tuesday we were confused, but continued on our way until we saw a gas station. "Big holiday," was the answer to our question. "Dia de Reyes ... Three King's Day." Ahh ... 6 January, an Orthodox Christmas celebration.
Back on the highway, an enormous procession winding its way along this major road, many on donkeys and the island's unique trotting horses, other playing musical instruments, many dressed as one of the kings and all accompanying a large Nativity float. Epiphany celebrations are a big part of the Christmas festival here, a time when Puerto Ricans go caroling and celebrate in processions called trullas. Most families wait until this holiday to exchange gifts. Children traditionally place straw and bowls of water under their beds for the camels of the Three Kings, tired and hungry from their long journey. Some place food and drinks for the travellers under their Christmas trees which aren't dismantled until 15 January. In the morning, the children find the offerings have disappeared with gifts left in their place. There follows a day of celebration, visiting and feasting similar to Christmas Day. No wonder we couldn't find a grocery store open!
Soon, we received a warm welcome at our parador, Villas del Mar Hau, a low-key, property, our beach cottage under the casuarina pines overlooking a quiet, protected, sandy beach in one corner of Playa Montones.
In a flash, we were into our flip-flops and enjoying a beer on the beach and looking forward to our dinner in the property's open-air restaurant overlooking the beach. The beach is protected by a large coral outcrop which creates a little lagoon, safe for swimming and relaxing (no waves), especially good for children.
For a change of pace, we discovered Villa Montaña Resort by walking about a mile west along the wild and largely-deserted Montones beach. This is a more manicured
and luxurious property and hence, more expensive, but very attractive and we loved the romantic terrace restaurant and the excellent food here.
In Puerto Rico, the guide books tell of wonderful bird-watching, mountain eco-lodges, the Guánica Dry Tropical Forest (a UN World Biosphere Reserve), massive cave complexes, protected rain forest parks and many coastal nature preserves, as well as opportunities for golf and all manner of water sports. I did cover two of the island's highlights: a trip to Ponce for its outstanding art gallery and a stay in San Juan.
Via fast highways from San Juan or Arecibo, it's easy to reach Ponce, the second biggest city in Puerto Rico on the south coast. I long wanted to visit the Museo de Arte de Ponce, home of the sumptuous art collection of former governor of Puerto Rico, don Luis A. Ferré, and his wife, doña Lorencita Ferré with the reputation of largest and most impressive art collection in the Caribbean, a claim only the National Fine Arts Museum in Havana could come close to matching. The Ferrés have assembled a remarkable collection of over 3,000 works by European and American artists - Rubens, El Greco, Velàzquez, Murillo, van Dyck, Delacroix, Tissot, Makovski, Gainsborough and others, including the work chosen as the gallery's symbol - Lord Frederick Leighton's Flaming June - popular as a framed poster the world over.
In 1959, the collection was donated to the State, and in 1965, American architect, Edward Durell Stone, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed a new building for the collection. Today, 3,000 works of art, including a fine selection of Puerto Rican and Latin American art, are housed here and close to 100,000 visitors enjoy it every year.
Ponce was named after Juan Ponce de León, a shipmate of Christopher Columbus and the island's first governor, a prosperous trading post through the 19th century, in fierce competition with Puerto Rico's 'rich port' of San Juan. Aristocratic families beautified the city with lavish homes and fine municipal buildings while encouraging - and importing - art, music and literature from Europe. History played Ponce a bad hand: the American invasion, hurricanes, an earthquake, the Great Depression and a politically-motivated massacre in 1935 left the city diminished and on the 'once-grand-but-now-shabby' side. However, it's a lively place with a charming Old Town and other good museums.
If you have time, visit the mansion of the Serralleés family of Ponce who built their vast fortune on rum. It is estimated that the mansion is worth around $25 million.
For San Juan, from my guidebook, we chose to stay At Wind Chimes Inn. This boutique hotel is set behind high walls in a residential district just a block from fashionable Condado Beach and Ocean Park.
We had one day to explore. After driving around for a short while looking at the fancy residential areas, Condado Beach, the cruise ship port and all the big hotels, we headed for Old San Juan. To do this fine UNESCO World Heritage city justice, the historic streets, architecture, museums, galleries, cathedrals and chapels, Fort and City Walls, patios and plazas, monuments, cemetery, art stores (yes, many of them real ones ... not just tourist stuff), famous old hotels and oh such cool restaurants - you need far more than a day.
We enjoyed a delicious, late lunch in the courtyard of La Ostra Cosa where the entertaining owner, Alberto Nazaru, would not let us order from the menu. He studied us, asked a few questions and said, "Leave everything to me." Rum punches 'of the house' were produced, followed by a selection of dishes to share: chorizo sausages, salad, scallops, calamari, crab, shrimps and so on. It was memorable, especially as the late hour meant we had the courtyard to ourselves and halfway through our lunch, we laughed at a downpour of tropical rain as we sat cozily under the canopy.
In Old San Juan, there is an extraordinary property that overlooks the city and the ocean from the North Wall. It's called The Gallery Inn and is a labyrinthine 18th century home turned into a luxurious and somewhat eccentric 22-room inn full of art, antiques, music, birds, lush courtyards, trickling fountains and memorable rooms. Even if you don't stay here, drop in for a drink or a candlelit dinner and take a look around.
If you like a little history and culture with your sun and sports, this is the island. You can lie on the beach, play golf or go bird-watching in the morning, gaze at an El Greco in the afternoon, wander through the streets of an ancient colonial city to a
restaurant with a stunning décor early in the evening and then enjoy a classical music performance or dance the night away to a Latin beat. You can stay in some of the best hotels in the Caribbean or settle for a homey parador or eco-lodge on the beach or in the mountains.
On advice of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, we rented our car from L&M Car Rental, who have nine locations around the island. They are efficient. They have a counter inside the airport in San Juan and a shuttle service to their nearby car park, or arrangements can be made for complimentary transportation from your hotel to other rental locations. They can be reached toll-free from Canada at 1 800 666 0807, fax: 787 791 6104, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org,
www.lmcarrental.com Our compact cost $39 per day and gas was about 35¢ per litre. The island is 100 miles long and 35 wide; it is circled and criss-crossed by several major highways (a few tolls ... usually under a dollar) but there are many spectacular rural roads to be explored, many of them cutting through the mountains. The island is renowned for its flora and birds and there are dozens of natural reserves on the coast and in the interior.
Flights direct from Canada to San Juan are increasing, no doubt with the cruise passenger in mind. If you plan to cruise out of Puerto Rico, add some days to explore the island.
Ann Wallace is editor of The Travel Society Magazine
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/