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April 23, 2014

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Destination: SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico

A weekend in sunny San Juan

By KRISTEN DE GROOT -- Associated Press


A woman takes a morning walk in Ocean Park Beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Herminio Rodriguez)

I couldn't take it anymore. Freezing temperatures, slipping and falling on icy sidewalks, and the snow. There was just so much snow. I'd had enough of wintry New York and was starting to take the weather personally, like it was out to get me. I was ready to move back to sunny Arizona.

My husband suggested that maybe, just maybe, I needed a little break. So we decided to head somewhere warm -- even though we couldn't take off more than a long weekend from work. No matter. It was a vacation emergency.

We'd been to Puerto Rico once before and loved it. So I bought the tickets, called the hotel and packed our bags. We took a flight after work on a Friday and arrived in San Juan at 1 a.m. We were set to return to New York on Tuesday; I was determined to use our three days to relax in the sun, swim in the ocean and feel like we were far away from any hustle or bustle.

San Juan turned out to be the perfect weekend getaway from a cold U.S. city. Airfares from New York City can be shockingly low, and affordable flights can also be found from Philadelphia, Boston and other places. You can find relatively inexpensive accommodations and relatively uncrowded beaches. There's also a certain exotic quotient -- you feel like you've visited a foreign country, but without the passport hassles, money exchanges or even the need for different stamps on your postcards.

Our bed-and-breakfast boasted that it was a 10-minute taxi ride from the airport, something that made my husband very suspicious. How nice could it be, he said, if it's that close?

As the taxi pulled into the gated neighborhood of Ocean Park, his fears were put to rest. We rolled by mansions, some Spanish-style with tile roofs and stucco walls, others more modern, but all lovely -- though well-fortified with iron bars and concrete walls to protect against burglars.

As we rolled up to the Hosteria del Mar, we were greeted by a splish-splashing fountain, trees decorated with sparkling white lights and the brain-cleansing smell of salt air. The hotel was on the beach. Not near it. On it. The lobby was breezy, with clay tiles and cozy woodwork. Our room was simple, with an air conditioner we promptly turned off, opting instead to open the window and door to the patio overlooking the Atlantic. Changing out of my wool pants, coat and turtleneck was like transforming myself into a different animal. I wanted to light my heavy clothes on fire.

Falling asleep to the sound of crashing waves, I felt like I'd exhaled for the first time in months. I felt lighter, younger, happier.

In the morning, our hotel choice was validated with the view from the balcony, bordered by palm trees framing the golden sand below and the turquoise sea. We saw nothing but water, sky and sand.


Uvatini, a drink made of crushed grape and vodka, is seen at Hosteria del Mar Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Herminio Rodriguez)

We chose Ocean Park because we didn't want to do anything except relax or go anywhere except the beach. The neighborhood is not touristy. The beachgoers seemed to be mostly locals from the fancy gated homes, walking their dogs in the morning, jogging after work, chatting with neighbors.

Each of our three mornings was the same: breakfast, then beach.

The breakfast at Hosteria del Mar perfectly fit our mood: simple. Crusty, fresh white bread, butter, tasty preserves, papaya and mango juice and fabulous Puerto Rican coffee.

At the beach, my husband swam for hours, rested, then swam more. I sat on the hotel's chaise lounges situated on the sand, ordered numerous (and non-alcoholic, since I was pregnant) frozen fruit drinks of mango, papaya and pineapple, and read a book. Then I swam. No other activities were necessary.

Our other meals at the hotel's restaurant were a nice culinary contrast to the fried food and rice and beans we'd eaten on our previous trip to Puerto Rico. These meals -- although expensive -- were a mix of Latin and Asian cuisine, including macrobiotic and vegetarian options. The house specialty drink, the uvatini, was a martini with freshly squeezed grape juice. Meals can be taken inside or on the deck with the ocean views.


Hosteria del Mar Hotel in San Juan. (AP Photo/Herminio Rodriguez)

On our last night, we walked down the beach to another bed and breakfast -- creatively named the Numero Uno Guest House -- to dine at its restaurant, Pamela's, which serves fabulous Caribbean fusion cuisine. An online article claimed the restaurant was actor Benecio del Torro's favorite in San Juan. After eating there, I could believe it.

We did venture one afternoon by cab into Old San Juan, but soon realized we had seen most of the historic sites -- which include forts and churches dating back to Spanish colonial times -- on previous visits. The bustling cobblestone streets weren't fitting in with our relaxation plans; we should have stayed at the beach.

But after another day in the sun and surf, we did feel ready to do something. So we rented a car (very easily with hotel help) and headed to one of the island's gems -- the rainforest, El Yunque.

Getting there was fast and easy. The scenery transformed rapidly from the palm-dotted coast into hazy mountains covered in lush tropical vegetation. We stopped in a little village at the base of the mountains to buy pastries, then continued along the road into the dense greenery. It rained. It stopped. We parked and climbed a slick stone path to a tower atop a hill. At first, we were in the clouds, surrounded by the smoky white mist. Then a breeze picked up and the clouds blew away, revealing green hills covered in palm trees. In the distance, we could see the ocean, dotted with ferries heading to the islands of Vieques and Culebra.

We ate our pastries and listened for coqui, the tiny tree frog that is a symbol of Puerto Rico. We could hear the chirping from the branches of nearby trees covered in giant leaves.

We hiked to one of the park's many waterfalls. We were hot and sweaty when we found what we were looking for, and at the advice of a friend, we had worn our swimsuits under our shorts and T-shirts and dove in. It felt like Fantasy Island -- the beautiful clear water, the roaring waterfall, and me and my husband feeling like we were the only people on earth. Most visitors took a look and walked on by, those fools. It was a dream.

From the rainforest, we started our journey home to New York. We drove to Old San Juan for a final meal, dropped the car at the airport and checked in for our flight home.

"New York City?" said the ticket agent. "You must like the cold."

I felt like crying, and did in the cab home from JFK airport.

Maybe it was a tease. Maybe we should have stuck out the cold and not tried to delude ourselves with a quick trip to paradise. "How could I return to such hideous, evil weather?" I thought as we whizzed by dirty, gray, half-melted snow piles along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

But it turns out the trip had longer-lasting effects than I had imagined. In my childbirth class months later, we had to practice relaxation exercises and the San Juan trip was the sole inspiration for the images for my "comfortable place." I focused on the view from our hotel's patio, the palm trees framing the breaking blue-and-white waves, the sky clear and sun-filled.

I wonder if Puerto Rico will be as relaxing with a baby along for the trip.

If You Go...

HOSTERIA DEL MAR: Calle Tapia 1, Ocean Park, San Juan. Phone: (787) 727-3302 or (800) 448-8355. Rates: $89 to $279 nightly, December through April; air-conditioning and breakfast included.

NUMERO UNO GUEST HOUSE: 1 Santa Ana Street, Ocean Park, San Juan; www.numero1guesthouse.com or (866) 726-5010 or (787) 726-5010. Rates: $115 to $265 nightly, December through April; air conditioning and breakfast included.

EL YUNQUE: Also known as the Caribbean National Forest. From San Juan, take PR 3 past the signs for Rio Grande until sign for "Palmer-El Yunque" on the right. Turn right, follow signs for PR 191 through village of Palmer. Take PR 191 south until signs for Caribbean National Forest. Many hotels can arrange taxis to El Yunque or recommend tour bus trips. For more information, visit www.southernregion.fs.fed.us/caribbean/ .

Toronto / Camaguey 297$ tx 209$
Toronto / Panama 397$ tx 201$
Toronto / Puerto Plata 209$ tx 319$
Vancouver / Puerto Plata 404$
Calgary / Puerto Vallarta 386$


















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