Fly to Puerto Rico on numerous airlines with service from the U.S. to Luis Munoz Marin International Airport (SJU). The airport is a major hub that connects to destinations across the Caribbean. gotopuertorico.com
Stay at the four-star Hotel El Convento, a restored and converted convent that dates back to the 17th century. You will stay in the same rooms that once housed Carmelite nuns. El Picoteo, the tapas restaurant, is one of the best in the city, elconvento.com. The El San Juan Hotel & Casino, set on 15 acres fronting Isla Verde Beach, has rooms facing the ocean or the rainforest, two pools, eight restaurants, tennis courts, water sports, and easy access to Old San Juan, elsanjuanhotel.com. In Condado, At Wind Chimes Inn is an attractive boutique hotel in a restored Spanish villa. atwindchimesinn.com
Eat traditional Puerto Rican cooking prepared as only a grand- mother can at Ajili- mojili, in San Juan’s Condado area. Once seated in the plantation-style restaurant, ask your waiter — who will be dressed as a jíbaro, or country person — to start you off with some fritters, known as surtido. Try the yautía dumplings and mofongo, a casserole of plantains and meat or seafood, hdmdesigns.com/ajili. At Rosalinda’s, a hot spot for locals on the northwest coast, great for big groups and famous for passion-fruit margaritas. Their portions (and prices) target surf bums. Mexican food is the specialty, 787-890-5531. Also on the northwest coast at Ocean Front, the patio seating over the water and a welcome sea breeze make this restaurant a favorite for evening cocktails. For food, start with the aranitas (fried-plantain appetizer), then bite into the seafood mofongo dish and follow it with fresh coconut flan. 787-872-0444
Paddle through Vieques’ Puerto Mosquito. Tiny bioluminescent dinoflagellates twinkle with every ripple in the water. On a moon- less night, you might even catch the outline of a grouper as it darts by. For the ultimate experience, get in the warm water and make a bioluminescent “snow angel” (see images of the bay here).
Walk the Old City. It’s an architectural delight (and a World Heritage Site) framed by two imposing structures: San Felipe del Morro – built in 1539, the oldest fortress still standing in the New World – and San Cristóbal, begun in 1634. Between them is a grid of narrow cobbled streets lined with pastel-colored houses adorned with wood balconies. Don’t miss La Fortaleza, the governor’s mansion; La Alcadia (city hall); San Jose Church, one of the few Gothic-style cathedrals in the Caribbean; El Convento Dominicano, a former convent that is now a cultural center; and Casa Blanca, built to house the family of Puerto Rico’s Spanish discoverer, Ponce de León.
Hit the beach. San Juan has terrific beaches. The balnearios, such as El Escambrón, in Puerta de Tierra, and Carolina, in Isla Verde, have showers, lifeguards, gazebos, and parking – but locals head for Isla Verde Beach. Backed by a strip of residential buildings and hotels (many of the latter have ocean-facing outdoor bars), Isla Verde Beach is the real San Juan scene. You can rent chairs and umbrellas, and when it’s time for a bite, check out Ciao Mediterranean Café, which has live music on the weekends in summer.
Drink rum at the largest rum distillery in the world, the one operated by Bacardi on the outskirts of San Juan. Built in the 1950s, it can produce 100,000 gallons of spirits a day – more than 200 million cases a year. To get the low-down on all that booze, take the 45-minute tour, which will lead you past the distillery, the bottling plant, and the museum, known as the “Cathedral of Rum.” Suggestion: Leave the rental car behind so that you can sample safely.
See El Yunque’s vast rainforest (28,000 acres), a treasure trove of towering trees, ferns, orchids, exotic birds (including the rare Puerto Rico parrot), and countless coquis, the tiny tree frog whose piercing call is a nightly lullaby for Puerto Ricans. A network of trails laces the park, including a relatively easy path to the often cloud-shrouded summit of El Yunque Peak. For a more relaxed outing, make the 30-minute trek through a fern gully to the cool pools of La Mina Falls.
Snorkel at Shacks Beach. It’s called Shacks, which is odd because alongside this public beach are dreamy oceanfront homes. A reef keeps the surfbreak well offshore and offers a chance to see lots of turtles, octopus and even manatees in protected waters. Off Culebra’s Flamenco Beach, find hawksbill turtles, squid and angel- fish among the fingers of reef. islands.com/snorkel
Hike the San Sebastian watefall trail. This waterfall is a bit of a secret, so ask around San Sebastian city for directions. A short hike downhill leads to the first waterfall. Upstream from there, you’ll find a second waterfall, where a rope swing beckons.
Surf at Hobos on the northwest coast. Beachside outfitters offer surfing lessons in this protected cove that helps minimize paddling. The waves roll in with ease, the water is warm and the bottom is sandy. If you’ve ever had thoughts about surfing, this is the place to start.
Enjoy the sunsets at Wilderness Beach. The small, uninhabited island you’ll see offshore to the west is Desecheo. It’s highly protected. Locals claim its only residents are monkeys once used in scientific tests.
Learn more at gotopuertorico.com.