I’ve always loved everything about Puerto Rico. The endless beaches. The vibrant culture. The visceral energy. The passionate people. Rooted in rich history and pulsing with intoxicating rhythms that beat on long after the sun goes down, this 100-by-35-mile archipelago floating in the Caribbean Sea exudes charm and resilience, even in the aftermath of devastating storms and in the midst of a global pandemic.
Years ago, when my husband and I lived in the Virgin Islands during our carefree, kid-free twenties that were spent working hard on the weekdays (I was the writer and copy editor at the only weekly newspaper on St. John and my husband worked at the island’s only architecture firm) and playing just as hard on the weekends, we would escape to Puerto Rico for a long weekend every now and then. Getting to Puerto Rico was quick and relatively cheap — we’d buzz across the 75 nautical miles separating St. John and Puerto Rico on a choppy two-hour ferry ride or a half-hour seaplane ride (a nail-biting experience that feels like flying in a cramped minivan with wings that takes off and lands on the water).
RELATED: Dreaming of a Virgin Islands Vacation?
We’d spend the weekend hiking through El Yunque National Forest — the only tropical rainforest in the national forest system — marveling at giant ferns and wild orchids and watching waterfalls rage after an island rainstorm. Other times, we’d catch a ferry to Culebra or Vieques, two pristine, sleepy islands off Puerto Rico’s shores, where days are best spent lounging on some of the most breathtaking beaches in the entire Caribbean.
Until I did the math, it was hard to believe 15 years had lapsed since we last set foot on Puerto Rico’s windswept, sun-kissed shores. In June, feeling the newfound freedom of being fully vaccinated and searching for somewhere to escape for our anniversary without our kids for the first time in nearly a year and a half, we discovered Puerto Rico had just announced newly eased protocols for fully-vaccinated U.S. travelers.
I’ll always jump at the chance to be back in the islands, but Puerto Rico proved to be the perfect place for our first post-vaccinated, sans-kids escape — and remains every bit as magical as we remembered.
Ease of travel
No, it’s not as quick and easy as hopping on a ferry or seaplane, but as far as Caribbean travel during a pandemic is concerned, Puerto Rico has made the process just about as seamless as possible. Puerto Rico is now allowing fully-vaccinated domestic travelers to forego a COVID-19 test ahead of their travel — instead, they upload their vaccination cards to the Puerto Rico Health Department’s online portal and receive a QR code to present at the airport upon arrival. It was an incredibly simple process that made traveling to the U.S. overseas territory stress-free. Getting to the island is about to become even easier for Austinites starting in October, when American Airlines will offer daily nonstop service from Austin to San Juan. Along with the newly eased protocols for fully-vaccinated travelers, Puerto Rico has also loosened other restrictions established at the onset of the pandemic, including lifting the island-wide curfew and reopening its beaches for recreational use.
As of July 1, Puerto Rico reached a 73 percent vaccination rate, ranking sixth on vaccination rates in the United States and 11th globally. But remember to check local government restrictions and COVID-19 safety measures before you go and wear your masks — masks are still required indoors for everyone, including those who are fully-vaccinated, and we remained masked-up just like the locals inside hotels, restaurants and on crowded streets where social distancing wasn’t possible.
Staying by the sea
To me, there’s no dreamier way to wake up — or fall asleep — than to the sights and sounds of the ocean. Because we’d already explored much of the island, we wanted to do something we rarely do when we travel: take it slow and savor our time by the sea. We stayed in the oceanfront neighborhood of Condado, San Juan’s most luxurious district brimming with trendy hotels, restaurants, bars and shops and bordered by golden Atlantic-facing beaches, and split our time between two beachfront hotels perfect for doing exactly that.
Our first two nights were spent at Condado Ocean Club — an adults-only beachfront boutique hotel boasting 96 bright white, beach-inspired rooms featuring splashes of sea foam green and turquoise blue and dramatic floor-to-ceiling ocean views. We stayed in a serene oceanfront balcony room, where we woke to sunrises over the sparkling sea as we sipped our morning coffee, watched glowing sunsets fade with flutes of bubbly in hand, and fell asleep listening to the sounds of the waves crashing onto the shoreline below. Beneath our balcony, an inviting infinity pool flanked by chic cabanas and a lively poolside bar beckoned us to relax in the ocean breeze with a piña colada in hand — while I’m not generally one for sweet rum drinks, I can assure you there’s no better spot to sip this cool, creamy concoction that originated in Puerto Rico than on the island’s golden shores.
The hotel is also home to one of Condado’s trendiest new restaurants, SOCIAL, where we dined al fresco on the oceanfront terrace on chef-driven, locally-inspired dishes like salmon carpaccio with fried capers and papaya salad, Puerto Rican empanadas with a rum glaze and pan-seared halibut with pickled shallots and lemongrass caviar.
Just steps down the avenue from Condado Ocean Club, we rested our heads at La Concha Resort for the second part of our stay. Originally built in 1958, this sprawling beachfront property has been reimagined with a $220 million investment that captures Condado’s Latino-chic lifestyle and buzzing social scene throughout its 478 guest rooms and suites, four dazzling pools, bustling Casino del Mar, and half a dozen restaurants and waterfront bars serving up drinks day and night. From our sleek ocean-facing room on the top floor, we were positioned to soak in those same sweeping sea vistas, and we never had to venture beyond the resort for breakfasts or dinners, enjoying brunch with bubbles and beach views at the Loft Beachfront and tapas like the spicy seared tuna and croquetas de Bacalao with cilantro aioli for dinner downstairs at Solera, the tropical terraced restaurant sandwiched between the resort’s pools and Condado Beach.
History, nature and beaches
Puerto Rico has nearly 300 miles of coastline, just as many beaches and more things to do than you can fit in one trip. From Condado, it’s an easy day trip to El Yunque National Forest, which sprawls across nearly 30,000 acres of rugged Sierra de Luquillo, where you can spend the day hiking through the rainforest trails and splashing in natural pools beneath rushing waterfalls. Or take an overnight trip to experience the glow-in-the-dark splendor of one of Puerto Rico’s brilliant bioluminescent bays like the Laguna Grande in Fajardo, just over an hour from San Juan, where tiny organisms sparkle and glow when stimulated by movement in the water — Puerto Rico has three of the world’s five ecosystems where the concentration of planktons is high enough to be considered bioluminescent bays.
On this trip, we didn’t even rent a car and still found plenty to discover in San Juan. Most days started with a walk along Condado Beach. One morning, we walked from Condado Ocean Club and another morning we borrowed beach cruiser bikes from La Concha Resort to head to Old San Juan, about 3.5 miles (or 7 miles roundtrip) from the hotels. We wandered the hilly, narrow cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, lined with pastel buildings and Spanish architecture.
We also toured past Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a citadel perched at the top of Old San Juan built over 250 years from 1539 until 1790 until becoming a six-level fortress that once protected the island from seafaring attackers. It’s part of San Juan National Historic Site of defense, which also encompasses Castillo San Cristóbal, most of the city walls, the San Juan Gate and Fort San Juan de la Cruz just across the entrance to the bay, and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983. For lunch, we took a seat on the rooftop “chinchorro” of La Verguenza in Old San Juan, refueling with Puerto Rican tacos and mofongos rellenos — mashed plantains stuffed with your choice of proteins like pork, steak or octopus. You can stick around to experience the nightlife that unfolds in the bars after dark, but we headed back by late afternoon, cooling off from the hot sun with a swim at Playa El Escambrón, a calm beach protected by coral reefs and lined by golden sand and towering palm trees.
Pampering in paradise
On our 17th anniversary, I had one wish: to have a day so relaxing that it would make up for the many stressful ones experienced over the past year. I don’t think we could have planned a more pampering day in all of Puerto Rico than the one we experienced at Condado Vanderbilt Hotel. This century-old property originally built in 1919 by Frederick William Vanderbilt drips with the kind of sophistication that gives nod to its opulent past when it was once considered San Juan’s social epicenter and was frequented by European and Hollywood royalty. We began our anniversary morning with rejuvenating couples’ massages at the hotel’s spa sanctuary followed by a day spent lounging poolside in a private cabana, complete with a private butler and champagne.
RELATED: The Soaking Life: A Baker’s Dozen of the Best Historic Spas around the World
After the most relaxing day I can remember, we headed to dinner at the hotel’s elegant 1919 Restaurant, undoubtedly the most distinguished and delicious fine dining experience unfolding on Condado’s shores. Here Michelin-starred Puerto Rican native chef Juan Jose Cuevas creates an unforgettable dining experience you’ll remember for years to come, and each course is complemented with the perfect wine pairing selected by the restaurant’s sommelier, Luis A. Simoes. A few standouts included a tuna crudo featuring local white beans, octopus and Osetra caviar, which Simoes paired with Laurent Perrier champagne; a ricotta ravioli with shaved black truffles and parmesan cream sipped with a luscious white wine from the Loire Valley; a melt-in-your-mouth Ora King salmon perfectly paired with a glass of Belle Glos pinot noir; and the roasted duck breast savored with a chianti classico from Tuscany.
After the most tranquil day and memorable dinner, we had every intention of turning in for the night. But on our stroll back to our hotel, the energy was palpable — the beach was buzzing with locals spread out on blankets in the sand and dancing to the salsa and reggaeton music thumping from the beachfront hotels. On June 23, which happens to be our anniversary, Puerto Ricans celebrate la Noche de San Juan — the eve of the feast day for Saint John the Baptist — with a festive holiday that unfolds on the island’s beaches two days before the summer solstice. At the stroke of midnight, it’s tradition to fall backward into the ocean between three and up to a dozen times to rid the coming year of all negativity.
We had every reason to head back to our hotel –– we were full of food and wine, a couple of decades past our spontaneous island-living days, and had an early travel day ahead of us. But that’s the thing about Puerto Rico: The island has a way of wrapping you into its beautiful rhythms. And so, to mark our seventeenth anniversary since wedding on the shores of nearby St. John, we plunged into the sea alongside the Puerto Ricans in celebration of Noche de San Juan. Holding hands on the stroke of midnight, we fell backward into the cool, moonlight-kissed waves, closing our eyes as the salty water washed over our faces and hoping that the coming year would be free of the negativity that dominated the past year and filled with more magical moments like this one.