Balmy breezes, turquoise blue sea, swaying palm trees and a laid-back lifestyle are only a few of Puerto Rico's charms. There are also colonial towns, museums, natural wonders, great food and a chance for the active set to learn new skills. This was my second trip to Puerto Rico, and this time I decided to concentrate on trying out a couple of new sports and investigating some of the island's distinctive food and drink options.
My time in Puerto Rico was short, so I decided to start out in San Juan, then head down the Atlantic coast to Villa Montana Beach, a secluded beachside property near Isabela, for the remainder of the trip.
Old San Juan is an enchanting area filled with colorful colonial-style buildings, sculptures galore and a passel of cafes, restaurants and boutiques. Since it was morning, my first stop was at Cafe Cialitos for a cup of Puerto Rico's finest coffee.
The 100 percent Arabica coffee (a delicious, deep-scented espresso) here is so good, in fact, that it was recently voted the second-best coffee on the island by the Puerto Rico Coffee Fair. Naturally the coffee is freshly brewed, but there's more. The beans are harvested at owner Joaquin Pastor Gonzalez's family's coffee plantation, which was started by his grandfather more than 60 years ago. Once the beans reach the cafe, they are roasted and ground in the back room.
Not only is the coffee rich, dark, strong and fabulous, but the cafe's ambience is warm and cozy. I could easily have tucked into a comfy upholstered chair at one of the window-front tables and spent the morning perusing one of the English-language newspapers, but time was short, so I hit the road.
After a laid-back first day in Old San Juan, it was time to get some exercise while learning a new sport. I set off for Ocean Park beach and kiteboarding lessons.
At 15 Knots Kiteboarding School Juan Carlos Morales has been teaching the sport he loves since 2008. The idea is that the kiteboarder can harness the power of the wind with a large controllable power kite and be propelled across the water at thrilling speeds while standing on a kiteboard, which looks like a small surfboard. I was a little dubious about my being able to pull this off, but I was game to give it a try.
First we tried controlling the kite on the beach -- not as easy as the instructors made it look. Then we were strapped into harnesses, outfitted with life jackets and directed toward the water. Two students and an instructor lay flat on the board with the head person having control of the kite. Being pulled through the water by the power of the kite was quite exhilarating, even though we never did actually stand on a board. It turns out that only those who opt for a second day of instruction will graduate to riding the kiteboard in a standing position.
After a day in the sun wrestling with a kiteboard, I was ready for a relaxing evening that include some tasty Caribbean food and drink. For the ultimate au courant San Juan dining experience, locals recommended the ultra-stylish Water Beach Club in the Isla Verde area of San Juan. Their rooftop restaurant, Mist, is currently one of swankiest and trendiest hot spots for both locals and tourists to meet and mingle in San Juan. The lighting is subdued and sexy, and there are indoor and outdoor venues, both with stunning panoramic city and ocean views.
Sipping on one of Mist's signature cocktails, an alcohol-infused fruit drink that included coconut, I drank in the views of nighttime San Juan. Instead of a formal dinner, I snacked on small plates of Island-Italian-Spanish-fusion creations called "Socializers." These are ideal for sharing, and all the ingredients are locally grown. My personal favorite was the petit lamb sliders with tzatziki sauce and cucumbers. A DJ was spinning music, and the vibe was just what I was looking for: hip and happening.
It was gray and rainy when I picked up the rental car and took off for Isabela on the northern part of the island. I had planned two stops along the way, the first being an underground tour of Camuy Caves Park, definitely a good wet-weather option. Formed by the flow of the Camuy River, this is one of the largest systems of caverns in the Western Hemisphere.
Following this underground adventure I drove to my second stop, the Arecibo Observatory. I checked out the world's largest single-dish radio telescope, and then it was time for some serious food. It was still gloomy, but the rain had stopped, so I dined on a huge, just-caught Caribbean lobster at a beachside restaurant before heading for my hotel.
Far from the hustle and bustle of San Juan, the Villa Montana Beach Resort is a 35-acre enclave situated on three miles of beachfront. It was dark when I arrived, so it wasn't until morning that I could fully appreciated the lush tropical surroundings.
I had a gourmet breakfast in the hotel's beachfront restaurant, I was off on another adventure, stand-up paddleboarding lessons.
I met Jose from Aquatica Dive and Surf at the Rio Guajataca beach. He explained that standup paddleboarding can be as easy or challenging as you like. For novices like me, learning on a calm river rather a turbulent sea seemed a wise choice.
He gave me a little instruction, and then I mounted the board and began paddling down the river. As long as there is no turbulence, all that is required for this sport is a good sense of balance and enough upper-body strength to paddle, making it fun for almost everyone.
My last athletic pursuit of the trip was to have been a sunset horseback ride on the beach. Driving rain and gusty winds made it abundantly clear that there would be no sunset, and I had no interest in riding a horse in a storm. Alas, I was forced to spend my last night in Puerto Rico in the hotel's open-sided beachfront bar sipping a chilled chardonnay and watching the stormy sea.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information on Puerto Rico: www.seepuertorico.com
Ellen Clark is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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