The Magnificent 11: Puerto Rico, Coast to Coast

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By Carolyn Spencer Brown
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 14, 2001

Those who've only visited the casinos and high-rise resorts of Puerto Rico have a lot to learn about the rest of the island. On a week-long drive, we discovered retro '50s-style beaches, an award-winning spa, a Galapagos-like preserve, a romantic luxury retreat we didn't want to leave . . . and more.

1 Old San Juan

Walking along cobblestone-lined Calle Cristo, where artisans' studios and designer boutiques sit beside pizza bistros and cafes, and restored colonial-era town houses are painted rose, yellow and lavender, it's easy to forget you're in Puerto Rico. Old San Juan feels like a slice of Europe. And yet, just a few blocks away, Fortaleza Street, with its never-ending crawl of cars, no-name shoe stores and hotter-than-hot restaurants and social clubs, is distinctly Puerto Rican.

Old San Juan is in direct opposition to the bigger, much more urban main city, with its pricey high-rise condos, gambling casinos and chichi art museums. It's just seven square blocks, but what an intriguing pedigree. It was founded in the early 16th century by the Spanish and qualifies for a litany of "oldests," including oldest capital city to fly the American flag. La Fortaleza, built in 1540, is the world's oldest executive mansion in continual use; it's now home to Puerto Rico's governor.

The blend of all this history with the city's international cuisine, green public plazas, street music, fairs, bodegas and crowded streets is what makes this ancient place such an unforgettable destination. The only thing Old San Juan, which is built on a bluff, doesn't have is beaches. Perhaps that, and the lack of high rises, is why this part of the city successfully treads the fine line between museum and living, breathing place.

San Juan is Puerto Rico's biggest urban center, with hotels, museums and beaches. Old San Juan is a hearty walk from downtown and the beaches, or catch a taxi or bus. Info: 800-443-0266, www.prtourism.com.

2 Bahia Beach Plantation

It might seem a bit odd to build a golf course in the shadow of El Yunque, Puerto Rico's mammoth rain forest (because it rains a lot), but it just means that duffers who head to the public, 18-hole Bahia Beach Plantation should bring an umbrella. Carved out of a coconut grove, Bahia Beach isn't Puerto Rico's most prestigious golf course, but it's definitely the most beautiful. There's something wonderfully exotic about playing a course where you are looking at palm trees and sea birds, and watching an iguana walk across the green.

Golf was introduced in Puerto Rico in the 1930s, and today, more than half of its 16 courses are of championship caliber, enough so that some call the island "Scotland in the Sun." Most are attached to resorts, such as the Hyatt El Dorado and the Westin Rio Mar.

While no frills are connected to Bahia Beach, there is one special amenity: a private-access beach. Fortunately left alone by the course designer, it's a two-mile, crescent-shape beauty lined with palms. Facilities, including a snack bar and restrooms, are on the course.

Bahia Beach Plantation, 16 miles east of San Juan off Route 187, is open daily. Full-day golf fee with cart is $80. Info: 787-256-5600, www.golfbahia.com. Other golf courses are nearby, including the Westin Rio Mar's River Course, designed by Greg Norman. Info: 787-888-1401, www.westin.com.

3 El Yunque


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© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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