Special to the Tyler paper
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — I went to Puerto Rico in search of paradise.
Well, paradise for a six-months pregnant lady, her husband, and her 21-month-old son with a delightful case of the two-year molars.
What do I expect out of vacation? I like to travel to places where no one speaks English, the signs are unintelligible (oops, I thought this was the ladies bathroom), and I get to try food I’ve never heard of before.
Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, no passport is required for travel, U.S. currency is used in transactions, and no extra fees are added for flying with your “lap child.” The flight out of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport took four hours. We booked a flight-plus-hotel combo on a Sunday and left on a Wednesday. It doesn’t get any more spontaneous than that.
San Juan’s beaches are the stuff of turquoise Caribbean dreams. At night, the tree frogs sing in a volume and quantity that reminded me of cicadas, but more tropical, lilting. The sand is powdery soft, the water (usually) is calm, the palm trees high. Our son needed to see the beach for the first time, so why not here?
But I confess, I nearly ruined him on beaches for life. Picture a weeble wobble in a bikini, trying to hold up a toddler in a strong wave with undertow. My kid caught a wave in the face and I nearly fell. He was terrified. Parenting is full of moments like these, when you set out with the best intentions but then utterly fail.
Puerto Rico’s back story also is something that sets it apart from other tropical islands.
Christopher Columbus claimed Puerto Rico for Spain in 1493, and it remained under Spanish rule for about 400 years. Its capital, San Juan, is a true gem of the Caribbean, a blending of Spanish cities such as Barcelona, Spain, and newer U.S. cities such as New Orleans, but with Caribbean flare.
Established in 1521 by the Spanish, it is the oldest city under the U.S. flag, and Old San Juan, with its narrow cobblestone streets and charming architecture is worth exploring.
We went to Castillo de San Cristobal, one of two Spanish forts on the northernmost point of the island.
Its construction began in 1625 and spanned more than a century. Castillo de San Cristobal is in excellent shape and was used by the United States in World War II as a fort and lookout for German U-boats. “Pirates of the Caribbean” and the “Wizards of Waverly Place” filmed scenes here.
Puerto Rican cuisine also is a blending of Spanish and Caribbean influences. Puerto Rico is known for its beautiful paellas, roast suckling pig and mofongo, a fried plantain-based dish.
With a little one and massive pregnancy heartburn, I’m ashamed to say we tried very little of the Puerto Rican classics.
But, we ate breakfast at Abracadabra, a quirky restaurant with an Austin personality. The coffee here was divine; espresso served with very little milk and foam — a true cappuccino. I had the French toast, which used Texas toast and was topped with Nutella, bananas and maple syrup — a magical dish that I’m craving again.
Panaderia Espaņa, a spot on Highway 26, had a wonderful selection of pastries and fantastic breakfast sandwiches. They also made one of the prettiest paellas I’ve ever seen. Both of these locations were packed with locals, so you know they’re good.
For dinner, we enjoyed BLT Steak in the Ritz-Carlton. They had DVD players available upon request for young diners, and the restaurant gave out plenty of freebies such as freshly baked popovers and duck pate. The steak was delicious and the locally caught snapper was perfectly cooked and delicate.
We stayed at a swanky joint, the Ritz-Carlton. And it’s worth shelling out the extra cash for a junior suite if you’re traveling with your progeny. There were children absolutely everywhere — in a good way. The beautiful beach was right in front of the hotel and they provide cribs in the rooms upon request.
The hotel sets up water slides for the kids from 2 to 5 p.m. I gave my mini-me his first salsa lesson in the hotel bar thanks to a local band they’d hired. At the airport on the way home, I met other, exhausted parents, and they all lamented that they did not stay at the Ritz.
Puerto Rico also has the only rainforest under the U.S. flag — El Yunque. It’s about an hour from San Juan and has a number of hiking trails. One of these is a paved path that runs by a beautiful waterfall and a pool visitors can swim in. Overnight stays in the rainforest can be arranged with advance notice.
Is there any monkey business? Yes-ish. Primates are not native to Puerto Rico. However, several research monkeys did escape from facilities years ago and have become a scourge on the island, causing damage to local ecology and economy in southwestern Puerto Rico.
In the end, did I find paradise? Without a doubt, yes. I saw it at naptime when my son slept on my husband’s chest, peaceful and secure. Paradise is wherever the people we love are.
But great scenery helps.