Sometimes Puerto Rico feels like a Caribbean island, other times more like America's 51st state. Hit the beaches, historic town squares or the tropical rainforest: It's the Caribbean. Drive around on its elaborate highway systems, and it's an all-American adventure.
Start your trip at a tropical resort
The Wyndham Rio Mar Resort and Spa in the town of Rio Grande has its own beach, golf courses (designed by Greg Norman and Tom and George Fazio), high-end restaurants (the mofongo at Marbella's and the swordfish on a bed of mofongo at La Estancia are oh so good), 11 tennis courts, the Mandara Spa and complimentary guided nature walks. It's a stones throw from the El Yunque Rainforest, which can be explored on guided ATV tours. Hacienda Carablí hosts the tours, and their grill's tender skirt steak is simply the best. After lounging on the beach, golfing and eating take a scenic island drive.
Driving across the center of Puerto Rico and the mountains is cool
Go north on local Route 3 from the Rio Grande, get on Highway 66, to Route 26, headed into San Juan. Make a loop turn into Route 22 through a tunnel and follow signs for Caguas and Route 18. As you drive past Puerto Rico's biggest mall, Plaza Los Americas, to Route 52 -- this is when the fun begins.
Stay on Route 52, past Caguas, towards the first destination, the south coast city of Ponce, Puerto Rico's second largest. The divided, two- and three-lane highway that ascends up the island's central mountain range, Cordillera Central, has magnificent vistas, like those you'd see in Northern California's Napa Valley. High hills, small mountains and deep valleys stream by as you drive the most sophisticated, well-maintained highway system in the Caribbean. No pot holes, no cracks. Plug your iPod into the car's audio system and blast your favorite tunes; music and the panoramas are an intoxicating sensory mix.
Ponce is a vision of old Puerto Rico
When the mountainous drive segues into flat lands that look straight out of Texas, and huge red letters sprawled across the horizon spell out P-O-N-C-E, you know you've arrived. Head to the centre of town, the historic district with its pastel-colored buildings and the town square Plaza de las Delicias, established in 1670.
The red and black striped firehouse Parque de Bomba, built in 1883 for a volunteer fire fighters' brigade, is the city's most famous tourist site. Check out the Ponce Cathedral, the statue of prominent poet Luis Muñoz Rivera, the octagonal Lions Fountain, a statue of composer Juan Morel Campos and Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral. If you spend the night, try the century old Hotel Meliá Ponce, it's walking distance to restaurants, Museo de Arte de Ponce, El Museo Castillo Serralles and Museum of the History of Ponce.
Drive the Southwest and Western coasts from calm to raging waters
Head out of Ponce, south towards Route 2 and take that highway towards the southwest tip of the island and the calmer Caribbean Sea. Explore the Boquerón Rain Forest and visit Combate Beach, located at the end of Route 3301; it's a thin beach with placid waters and bars and restaurants. Balneario Boquerón is a smaller beach, not quite as attractive, and the water is not crystal clear, but it's far more placid then the Atlantic Ocean. If you are a bird-watcher, check out the local and migratory birds at the Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge.
Route 2 continues up the west coast, with glimpses of the sea. Pass through the town of Mayaguez and take a right on to Route 115 headed towards the quaint, 240 year-old beach town of Rincon, which is hidden by verdant hills and blessed with a string of beaches along eight miles of coastland. Think Malibu, Big Sur or Hawaii, only much more intimate. The vibe is mellow, people stream along the streets with surfboards under their arms.
Built 1893, by the Spanish colonial government and rebuilt in 1921, the Punta Higuero Lighthouse, its El Faro park and walkways along the cliffs offer views of surfers, whales, with Domes Beach to the right and Indicators Beach to the left. Look for the whale-shaped beach sign on your way to the Lighthouse Park and pull into the dirt parking lot next to the Calypso Café (watch the sunset from here and drink the local beer, Medalla). Just past the bushes you will see a hidden shore populated with surfers looking for the next wave. Domes Beach is named for the dome of the old nuclear plant that is being converted into a science center and museum; this is a great place for whale watching, surfing and quiet beach walks.
If you want to spend the night in Rincon, for sheer elegance, try the Horned Dorset or Tres Sirenas Beachfront Inn. Restaurants include Ode to the Elephant (Thai), Pools (sushi), Shipwreck (burgers, fish) and The English Rose (brunch).
Bargain hunting at a discount mall in Barceloneta
Head back to Route 115, take it through the northwest city of Aguadilla back to Route 2 which heads east. After the town of Arecibo, the road becomes a stellar highway, some of it on stilts over deep ravines. Within minutes you will see the sign for the Barceloneta Mall. The pale blue, orange and pink pastel colored buildings feign traditional Puerto Rican architecture and house Adidas, Nike, Ann Taylor, Gap, Michael Kors, Coach, Ralph Lauren and more. Shop until you drop and find gems, like clothes, sports gear, leather goods and house wares at cheap prices. Besides eying the merchandise, the mall offers a great opportunity to see locals from the region and get a good feel for the Puerto Rican working-class life that is hard to fathom from a lounge chair at a beach.
Heading back to San Juan
On Route 2, it's 42 miles back to San Juan. If you take this trip in one day, start in the morning around 7 a.m. and you'll get back to Rio Grande 14 hours later, in time for a late dinner. Or spend a night in San Juan's tourist area, Condado, where restaurants (taste the whole wheat bread pudding at the Pure & Natural Juice Bar) and hotels with casinos line Ashford Avenue. The Conrad San Juan Condado Plaza has boutique styled rooms over-looking the Atlantic Ocean and a slim beach that looks on to the newly expanded bridge Puente Dos Hermanos, which leads to Old San Juan. The bridge is just another gorgeous monument to the island's first-rate infrastructure that's the envy of the Caribbean.
Visit travel writer Dwight Brown at www.DwightBrownInk.com.