The New San Juan, And Beyond

Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Travel Writer

For travelers seeking a dose of foreign-language exoticism close to home, I recently recommended Quebec City. But for those who could live without long winter shadows and the majesty of snowfall, another terrific early-winter option is Puerto Rico.

Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico is basking in a shiny new glow these days, with a rash of luxe new hotels sprouting up in San Juan, home to the Caribbean’s largest Jewish community, and on Vieques, the chic former military zone.

Puerto Rico’s average annual temperature is 80 degrees. The flight from New York is half as long and less than half as expensive as one to Europe. And despite the enticing Latin vibe and lovely colonial architecture of San Juan, Americans don’t need a passport to enter, as they do in most of the Caribbean.

The sweet spot for Puerto Rico travel is from now through mid-December, when the high season officially launches. Hurricane season — and the majority of the year’s rainfall — is all but over, and deals abound for both airfare and lodging.

The financial downside is that once you’re there, Puerto Rico can be pricey. It’s part of the United States, after all — which means that your dollars, your Amex and your English all work fine, but those nice new resorts don’t come cheap. Neither does the rental car you will all but certainly need if you choose to explore beyond your resort: Puerto Rican public transport leaves much to be desired. For a weekend getaway, if you base yourself in San Juan’s old quarter or the newly spruced-up Condado resort area, you can get away with taxis and strolling, as I did on my first visit to the island.

But if you’re staying longer, it would be a shame not to jump behind the wheel and find your own private beach, or your perfect hidden-away resort town. As I learned over time, Puerto Rico has legions of mainland fans who keep coming back year after year — and often it’s because they’ve realized just how much there is to discover on this spacious island, with its rainforests, surfer hideaways, and historic towns full of friendly locals.

For many people, the main question is where to fly into, and which areas of Puerto to explore. After all, travelers from New York have more options than ever: Delta, JetBlue and American all fly nonstop from JFK to the main airport in San Juan, Continental flies nonstop from Newark, and fares between Thanksgiving and the Christmas crunch average around $300 — a bargain by most standards.

In addition to the crop of recently opened resorts, San Juan these days is crowing over its new coliseum and convention center — the latter of which has helped raise the profile of its formerly sleepy neighborhood, Miramar.

Add to that several recently-opened galleries and arts centers, and the capital feels more cosmopolitan than ever. With a steady influx of visitors and settlers from the U.S. and around Latin America, neighborhoods like Miramar, once off the tourism radar, are gentrifying fast — and sophisticated cafés have largely replaced the seedy fast-food strips of yore along the upscale Condado waterfront.

Puerto Rico’s popular secondary destinations are welcoming more flights than in the past, giving New Yorkers lots of options. JetBlue flies nonstop to Aguadilla, gateway to the scenic, mountainous Northwest, with its spectacular beaches and cult-favorite beach towns like Rincon. Roundtrip tickets run about $250 in late November.

People who love history and culture might opt for Ponce, where JetBlue also flies nonstop for about $300. Lacking the urban intensity or the international feel of San Juan, Ponce, the territory’s second-largest city, is perhaps the best place to experience the distinctiveness of Puerto Rican culture.

Ponce is certainly visually splendid, its beautifully restored colonial center abundant in pastel charm. This is also Puerto Rico’s museum capital; in addition to a fine museum of art, there are also museums of architecture, history and even music.

An island itself, Puerto Rico has several islands of its own, which function as retreats for nature lovers. The best known of these is Vieques, which opened for tourist business in 2003 when its naval base closed and has seen its popularity mushroom among in-the-know Americans. It is a bit harder to get to from New York; Continental has the most flights from the New York area (direct from Newark, with one stop), and it will take effort to find a cheap flight, though they do exist.

For some people, the relative aloofness of Vieques is its chief allure. This is not for culture vultures; rather, it’s a largely unspoiled paradise of empty beaches, lush tropical forests, fresh fish off local boats and low-key, exclusive resorts. A particular draw is the island’s bioluminescent bay, a favorite of snorkelers.

Most travelers, however, spend some time in San Juan, which is also the heart of the Jewish community. The majority of Puerto Rico's estimated 2,000 Jews arrived after World War II - most of them Cubans fleeing to the American territory.

The community’s novelty notwithstanding, Puerto Rican Jewish life is more vibrant and diverse than in most of Latin America, let alone the Caribbean. San Juan has active synagogues to serve all the major denominations: Temple Sha’are Zedek is Conservative and the oldest of the three, Temple Beth Shalom is Reform, and the newer Congregation Shaarei Torah is Orthodox.

An excellent and very welcoming resource for Jewish visitors is the local Chabad center, which operates Congregation Shaarei Torah. Chabad’s website (www.chabadpuertorico.com) has comprehensive kosher information and even offers kosher meal delivery to hotels for Jewish travelers.

Old San Juan, top.  Above, El Morro, San Juan’s historic waterfront fortress.

Comments

My wife and I spent a few hours in San Juan while on a cruise in January. Although windy, the weather was fine. Sailing into the harbor, we felt like we were approaching a miniature San Francisco. Took free public trolley to Spanish castles after walking to the travel info office. Then we walked around the old town and stopped at a restaurant and then a bar, both frequented by locals. Got a free salsa lesson. Also saw a whole block of restaurants of varying types that looked promising. All were within walking distance of the docks. Looking forward to going back (for a week next time).
The Jewish communities are very friendly. On my vacation, I visited Temple Beth Shalom on a Saturday Morning. I met so many swell people from all walks of life. After services there was a pot luck lunch and then adult education. I was informed that a group from the temple even formed a cemetery committee and inauguarated a Jewish Cemetery in January 2008. That was great news and comfort for the members and jJews that was to stay warm. I told my family that if anything happens to me while on vacation, I was to be buried there. Puerto Rico is really great and has much to see and ennjoy.

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