Sun, sand and fun

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Guard tower and battlements on the San Cristobal fortress still guarding the San Juan Harbor after more than five centuries.Photos by Bob & Sandy Nesoff
Guard tower and battlements on the San Cristobal fortress still guarding the San Juan Harbor after more than five centuries.

Puerto Rico has become one of the premier holiday and vacation destinations for millions of U.S. Mainlanders.  Flights to the Caribbean island are frequent with a host of options and because it is part and parcel of the United States, entering, leaving and currency are not a problem.

Flights from the three New York/New Jersey area airports provide a wide range of options.  This trip out we were fortunate to fly one of our favorite airlines, JetBlue with a schedule from JFK and Newark.

JetBlue, which began not so many years ago as a small, regional airline, has grown into an international carrier that never lost sight of the need to respect passengers and provide service.

Landing in San Juan is somewhat akin to looking down at New York City.  The Puerto Rican capital is a major, humming city with freeways that are always heavily traveled.  Fortunately on this visit our hotel, the Verdanza, was literally within sight of Luis Munoz Marin International Airport, a large and modern facility.

Popular with both business and recreational clientele, the Verdanza is so well constructed that noise from the landing and departing flights were not heard at all.  A member of Summit Hotels & Resorts, the hotel features eateries ranging from Chinese to the contemporary Eighty 20 Bistro and the hotels signature Coladas, the first authentic Puerto Rican eatery to become a signature restaurant for a major hotel on the island.

Michael Jordan would feel right at home and comfortable in the Verdanza with its extra long beds with select rooms offering beds that are 84 inches long and several that are 96 inches, far bigger than the industry average.  www.verdanzahotel.com.

Not far from the Verdanza is a new and uniquely exclusive boutique hotel, the O:live.  While rooms there would not even fit the huge beds at Verdanza and showers are in the bedroom, they are all artfully appointed.

The true attraction here is the hotel’s rooftop private club, the O:live.  The views of San Juan and the waterfront are spectacular at night.  In the Condado section, O:live is the first private rooftop club in the city and has rapidly become “the place” for San Juan’s glitterati. www.oliveboutiquehotel.com.

After picking us up at the airport and depositing us at the Verdanza, Micah returned to take our small group on a tour of the city, including the fortress at San Cristobal and the more well-known El Morro.  These solid and foreboding battlements are a testament even today as to why the San Juan harbor was virtually impregnable to attack.

While many who visit Puerto Rico choose to remain in the San Juan area, those in the know will also reserve some time on the opposite side of the island in Ponce.  Our Rico Sun Tours driver, Micah, was absolutely Johnny on the spot and was a font of information and trivia about his city.

Accommodations at the Ponce Hilton were definitely on the luxurious side as was the huge, 75-acre property.  The championship quality golf course is world famous and a major attraction for visitors from around the world.

One side trip was of great interest despite the location’s name.  We were headed to Isla Caja de Muertos, which translates to Island of the Box of the Dead…more commonly called “Coffin Island.”

There was no pirate legend or ghost story behind the island’s name.  It simply looked to the locals like a coffin.  The park is pristine with white sand beaches and covered picnic tables.  There are water activities ranging from swimming and snorkeling to kayaking.  The equipment was provided by ACAMPA Nature Ventures, www.acampapr.com. Or e-mail at info@acampapr.com.

The staff accompanied the group to the island and has got to be listed as one of the friendliest and most accommodating professionals to be found anywhere.  Lunch was prepared on the dock in a relaxing atmosphere.

Ponce’s art museum is world class, designed by Edward Durrell Stone, the mastermind behind New York’s famed Museum of Modern Art.  The museum offers more than 1,000 paintings and some 400 unique sculptures with works by Velasquez, Rubens, and Gainsborough.

Shopping in Ponce’s downtown district provides everything from kitschy souvenirs to quality clothing.  While liquor is available here and in local supermarkets, you are better off making those purchases at the airport where the prices are roughly the same.  Remember, you cannot take bottles of liquor through TSA security as it will be confiscated and wind up at the dinner table of some security agent.

As Puerto Rico is part of the United States there is no duty on purchases and no worries about currency conversion.  While Spanish is the official language of the island, virtually everyone speaks fluent English. For information on all that Puerto Rico has to offer, go to www.seepuertorico.com.