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In Puerto Rico, Less Is So Much More

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By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 1, 2009

One morning in Puerto Rico, I woke up thinking that I was in Florida. After a quick meditation, I remembered that I was in San Juan.

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My mistake could not be blamed on too many rum cocktails or too much sun. The confusion was caused by my hotel, an agreeable yet generic resort that had identical twins in Miami, Nassau, Cancun -- basically any tropical destination with swaying palms, sugary sand and hordes of UV-ray seekers. So, for my next trip to the island, I decided to personalize the visit by staying at a parador, a style of lodging rooted in the land and locals, not a corporate boardroom with a foreign address and anonymous owners.

Paradores have different identities, depending on the country. In Spain, for example, King Alfonso XIII established the hostelries in 1928 as a way to protect endangered historical buildings and encourage tourism. A state-run company now oversees the nearly 100 properties housed in castles, fortresses, convents and other grand structures. By contrast, Puerto Rico's paradores are much more humble affairs: country inns and small hotels independently owned and managed by island residents, most often families.

"The paradores are tucked into the island and are more intimate than a big hotel," said Xiomara Cordero, an information specialist with the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. "A lot of Puerto Ricans would rather stay in a parador than a chain hotel, because they like feeling the comforts of home."

The U.S. commonwealth's official tourism office oversees the program, setting the criteria and spot-checking the properties. (Visitors dissatisfied with their stay can file a complaint with the agency.) The lodging must be outside the San Juan metro area, contain 15 to 75 rooms and have a restaurant on or near the premises. "I know that I will have a pool and a TV, and that it will be cozier, because there won't be as many people," said Cordero, who lives in the San Juan area and has overnighted in paradores.

On the Paradores of Puerto Rico Web site, an interactive map pinpoints the options, the majority of which huddle on the west coast, with a few scattered in the mountains and along the southeast coastline. I skimmed all 18 descriptions -- each one as unique as a fingerprint -- before settling on Hacienda Juanita in the hilly countryside and Villas del Mar Hau, near the big waves of the west.

* * *

The 21-room Hacienda Juanita snugs down in the central coffee-growing region, where snaking roads and vibrant green vistas make you swoon. The inn opened in 1834 as a coffee plantation and was named after the young wife of the Corsican owner. The plantation once covered 400 acres, tumbling almost into the town of Maricao, but its size has since shrunk to 24 acres. Despite the smaller scope, the romance of plantation life still blooms.

I arrived on a night darker than most: A severe afternoon storm had knocked out the electricity, including the street lights and the hotel's power. However, the lack of illumination only added adventure and intrigue to the sleepover. Maybe Juanita would materialize and join me for a cup of coffee? (The front office sells coffee beans.) The owner, who checked me in by candlelight, was not as tickled. Her husband, with whom she runs the hotel, was out of town. She took comfort in her Jack Russell terrier, who was barking at the shadows, and the fact that I was the last guest of the evening.

After unpacking by candlelight, I waved the flame around to get a sense of the second-level room -- sizable four-poster bed, antique paintings, rocking chair, large green shutters that swung wide open -- then headed over to the restaurant, Juanita's Big Country House.

Most of the buildings, such as the workers' barracks, were redone in the 1970s, when the plantation transformed into a parador. The one exception is the original owners' home, site of the dining room and a model of elegant simplicity. I walked through high-ceilinged rooms sprinkled with countrified furniture and coffee-making tools to a long porch overlooking the flora-choked valley. As I waited for my pastelon de papa (meatless potato pie, cooked via generator), I listened to the wind rustle unseen leaves and watched the candles flicker in a ghostly dance.

Before breakfast the next day, I set off for a short hike around the property. The muddy path sloped down into an overgrown Eden, with ferns as large as elephant ears and banana trees that had dropped their spoils during the storm. After greeting a worker clearing the brush with an intimidating machete, I arrived at a cluster of coffee plants. I plucked one bean and put it in my pocket. A little piece of Juanita was coming back with me.

* * *

Villas del Mar Hau was a dramatic change in style and scenery: The lush mountains gave way to a broken string of golden beaches, and the stately plantation was replaced by dollhouse cottages colored like jelly beans.

The property originated in 1960 as a second home for the Hau family and their visiting friends, and was later expanded by the eldest daughter, Myrna, to 42 beachfront bungalows. The dark-haired women in the main office all looked like sisters, and they advised me as if I were a close relative: The one-level cottages were darling, they agreed, but the second-story guest rooms have better views. Panorama always trumps cute.

The hotel has one of the latest check-in times I have ever encountered (5 p.m., though departing guests don't have to hand in their room keys until 2 p.m.), so while awaiting the official hour, I familiarized myself with my surroundings outside the town of Isabela. From serene Montanes Beach, which separates the villas from the sea, I followed the sandy strip to a rocky escarpment, scaled the pockmarked mound and landed at Jobos, one of Puerto Rico's ultimate surfing spots.

A weathered shack serves cheap food and beer, and from my bar stool overlooking the water, I watched the surfers float like bubbles on the waves and the children of Moondoggie chill on the sidelines. I met an older man in search of a cigarette, who shared with me a photo of himself and his wife of 50 years. I recognized the beach they were posing on -- the same one we were standing on half a century later -- even though the picture was faded and creased.

My room sat at the far end of the property, and I had to pass a field with horses, a pool and the white-picket-fenced bungalows to reach my ultramarine home for the evening. The decor felt a bit dated, as if it had been furnished by a retiree from Boca Raton, but I quieted the critic in me by taking it onto the spacious porch, where the thunderous waves drowned out any inner voices.

Once ensconced in my villa, I was reluctant to leave my front-row view, so I inched my way over to the inn's open-air restaurant, Olas y Arenas. The waitress brought over a whole fish, head and eyes still intact, as temptation, but I opted for a less graphic meal of mofongo (mashed plantains), rice and beans. The chef, Myrna's son, Herman, popped out of the kitchen, smiled at his sole diner, then slipped back in. As I neared my final bites, the staff, who earlier had been idly chatting at the bar, started moving tables around. They were setting up for a family event but told me there was no rush. Linger, they said, as long as you wish.

That night, drifting off to the crash of the surf outside my parador, I knew that I was in Puerto Rico, and that I would wake up there, too.

Hacienda Juanita (Carr 105, mile marker 23.5, Maricao, 787-838-2550, http://www.haciendajuanita.com) offers rates with or without meals. Room-only starts at $107 double, or from $149.80 double with breakfast and dinner. Rooms at Villas del Mar Hau (Route 466, mile marker 8.9, Isabela, 787-872-2045, http://www.hauhotelvillas.com) start at $90 double.

For more information on Puerto Rico's paradores, including a list of accommodations, see http://www.gotoparadores.com.


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