A Puerto Rico Family Vacation

By Lisa Tucker McElroy

I’m watching my two daughters standing on the bow of a 50-foot wooden sailboat, helping the crew raise the sails. It’s a perfect, sunny day in the waters off of Puerto Rico, and we’re sailing over some mostly-undiscovered coral reefs, keeping an eye out for turtles and dolphins. Remarkably, the girls haven't asked me all day whether they can play Nintendo or listen to their iPods – they’re too enchanted by the sun, the surf, and the sea creatures just below us in the turquoise waters. My best friend and I are lounging behind them with frosty drinks, relaxing before we hit the waves with our snorkels. Yes, we’re having the time of our lives on a friends and family vacation in beautiful Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico has become a Caribbean destination of choice, particularly for families who live on the East Coast. It’s easy to catch a direct flight, you don’t need a passport, and fares are very reasonable. What’s more, Puerto Rico is home to tons of family friendly resorts, historical sites, and white sand beaches. Kids love the warm water, and adults love the stretchable dollar. In short, as I found on this great girls getaway, there’s no place like this American island for a quick affordable romp in the sun.

We on the mainland tend to think of Puerto Rico as a tiny island, but it’s bigger than many think. The western end of the island is quieter but home to lovely beaches, the middle of the island is home to San Juan and the rainforest, and the eastern end boasts the tiny and lovely outlying islands of Vieques and Culebra. There’s too much to do in the one week we have for fun, so we have to pick and choose.

First stop? San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico and home to its international airport. Flying here from our Philadelphia home takes only three hours, and we decide to leave on an early morning flight so we can hit the beach by lunchtime. It turns out to be a great choice – even though my daughters grumble when I drag them out of bed at 5:00 a.m., they sleep on the plane and then scramble to get in their bathing suits the second we hit our room at the San Juan Marriott and Stellaris Casino.

Right in the heart of the shopping district and on a pristine beach, there’s no question that the Marriott is the place to stay. Our room is large and comfortable, and my friend and I can’t get enough of sitting out on our balcony to look out over the pool. The pool area has a water slide and fountains for littler kids, plus a swim up bar where bigger kids can grab a burger (a Marriott specialty) on their own. My kids love the virgin daiquiris, and I let them indulge- after all, we’re on vacation!

At night, we head to Old San Juan to check out the cobblestone streets and the tiny restaurants featuring Puerto Rican cuisine. It’s here that my girls become addicted – and I use the word seriously – to pinchos, a Puerto Rican version of chicken kebabs wrapped in a pita like bread. For the rest of the trip, I’ll have to block out the begging – there are pincho stands on pretty much every corner of the every street on the island, much like hot dog vendors in New York. Still, I figure, grilled chicken is a lot healthier than a hot dog, and I make a mental note to recreate this new favorite at home.

After two relaxing days at the Marriott, where the girls build sand castles and swim up to the bar too many times to count (making them sleep awfully well to the sound of the ocean waves at night – I could get used to this), we rent a car and head to the northeastern shore of the island and the town of Dorado. Dorado’s small, with little nightlife to offer, but the authentic food and culture make it a great destination for families who want to get to know the real Puerto Rico.

We stay at the Embassy Suites, a modern, mellow hotel right on the water. The kids make tons of friends in the pool area – several of the families we meet got a great deal on a last-minute vacation – and enjoy having their own sleeping space in the large and comfortable suites. Their favorite part? The huge full breakfast offered in the lobby, complete with Puerto Rican pastries and fresh fruit. My friend and I can’t get enough of the coffee and buy some to take home when we explore the town.

Then it’s off to Vieques, the charming Jimmy buffet-esque island off the eastern coast of the main island. We have two choices: an expensive puddle jumper flight or a cheap (think $1.50/person) and quick ferry ride. We opt for the ferry, and even though we’re told that it can be less than reliable, especially in tourist season, we have no issues at all. It’s clean, comfortable, and spacious, and we actually end up chatting with a bunch of other tourists, many of whom return to Vieques year after year because of its quirky charm.

Once off the ferry, it’s a short taxi ride to Casa de Tortuga, the tiny but friendly guest house we’ve chosen right off the Malecon, or waterfront. I’ve looked at photos on the web, but it’s even better in person – our room, called “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere,” is actually a full apartment, complete with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, and a living room. The owner shows us the barbecue grill and tells us to feel free to pick fruit off the many fruit trees. We do, and relax by the pretty in-ground pool while the girls make up silly dives.

In the evening, we walk the half-block to the waterfront for one of the most dramatic sunsets I’ve ever seen, then eat fresh seafood and molten chocolate lava cake at one of the dozens of open air restaurants. The girls fall in love – both with the many street dogs (when you ask what breed, the locals shrug and say, “Vieques dog”) and the zillions of jewelry artisans who are selling their goods along the street. We all choose sea glass necklaces for souvenirs we’ll wear far longer than the typical T-shirts.

After a day spent lounging on the perfect (and mostly deserted) beaches, it’s time for one of the great reasons to visit Vieques: the bioluminescent bay. Although several of these exist around the world, the one on Vieques is considered the best – it has the highest concentration of glow-in-the-dark plankton, and it’s unspoiled by gas-powered boats. We kayak in after dark with a group of about 20, then jump off our kayaks into the water. Because it’s a moonless night (the best time to go), we look like ghosts swimming through the water as the dinoflagellates stick to our skin. It’s hard to get the girls out of the water – they’re having that much fun – but we head back to our cozy apartment and hit the hay so we can head out in the morning. www.abessnorkeling.com

It’s a good thing we do, because the next morning brings probably the best part of our trip: a day sail on the Erin Go Bragh III, the wooden sailboat the girls love so much. The girls take the wheel to steer the boat, except when they’re snorkeling and taking underwater photos. The steak and salad the owner serves are so good that my kids even eat them with no complaints! It’s a day to remember – and not just because the photos are the best we’ll take on the trip.

Heading home, we agree: Puerto Rico’s the perfect spot for an all-girl friends and family vacation. See you next year, Puerto Rico!

If You Go:

· Rent a car. A lot of the best destinations on the island are outside of the cities; driving is easy and direct.

· Take lots of bug spray and sunscreen. Despite my best efforts, the kids came home with many bug bites and peeling noses. The sun is direct, and without a breeze, the mosquitos may attack.

· Visit the rainforest. Although our time on the island was too short to make it there, the El Yunque rainforest makes for a terrific day trip.

· Check the moon calendar. For the bio bay on Vieques (and there’s another in Fajardo, but it’s not as good), the best time to go is when the moon is in its crescent stage. The less moonlight, the better you’re able to see the bioluminescence. For this reason, we scheduled our trip for the week the moon waned.

· Sample the local cuisine. My kids fell in love with pinchos, but there are lots of other Puerto Rican delicacies to try – and adults should not miss the Bacardi Rum made right on the island.

· Split your time between bigger resorts and smaller, more intimate properties. Part of our fun was getting to know the locals on Vieques, something we probably couldn’t have done had we stayed at a larger, more impersonal property. On the other hand, the big resorts like the Marriott and the Embassy Suites offered great service and tons of amenities.

· Look for deals. You’ll be surprised how reasonable flights to Puerto Rico can be, especially if your dates are flexible.

Lisa Tucker McElroy is an attorney, writer, law professor, and mom. Lisa is the author of nine children's books, and she regularly publishes articles and essays about travel, marriage, parenting and family in national magazines such as Parenting, Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, FamilyFun, Cooking with Paula Deen, and Golf Vacations. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two travel-loving daughters.

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