Long Weekend in Puerto Rico - February 2006
It's All My Fault

OK, I’ll admit it. Though not widely advertised, I did travel to the Caribbean over President's Weekend in February. So if you’re wondering why you got 2 feet of snow dumped on you, it’s because the Weather Gods conspired, once again, to attempt to bring weather difficulties to my travels.

Fortunately for me, for a change, the Weather Gods did not have my itinerary quite right. So, instead of delaying my departure or challenging my return home, the heavy snow fell smack in the middle of my long weekend in Puerto Rico. My non-stop BWI-SJU flights on American were smooth and on time both ways. Undoubtedly, the little dance of glee I danced while watching the Weather Channel – as I realized I would miss the snow as I lay poolside sipping a mango daiquiri – will cost me on my next trip, but I’ll pay the piper when the time comes.

But speaking of those flights, I can’t say I’ve had more violations of my personal space than I did on the southbound flight. Being seated in an exit row, at least the fixed armrests kept the rear end of the guy next to me contained within his seat – but that didn’t stop his arms and shoulders from getting comfortable in my seat. Then, when I came back from the lavatory, the guy behind me had stretched his legs so far in front of him that his feet were sticking out from under my seat – he eventually moved them. But that didn’t stop him from later putting his hooves up on my armrest. But the ultimate insult came while I snoozed – a state the guy in front of me took advantage of by putting his briefcase under the seat in front of me! I “inadvertently” gave it a nudge with my foot, and he moved it … but come on!!

Tennis Anyone?

Rick and I typically take a long weekend in the spring to go play tennis somewhere warmer than home. This year, because of his work demands, our only choice was to take our tennis trip in February – which really limits the places we can go to have guaranteed warm weather for outdoor play. With FF miles at our disposal, as well as an early morning non-stop flight to Puerto Rico, we decided to head there; as it turned out, the non-stop flight got us to Puerto Rico much more efficiently than our usual Hilton Head or Kiawah jaunts, which require 2 flights.

While large resort hotels are not usually our style in the Caribbean, good tennis facilities tend to be limited to large resorts. I had initially booked a room at the Sheraton in Palmas del Mar, as well as the Hilton Beach Resort in Ponce, but neither of those resorts excited me. With a little encouragement, I decided to try bidding for a room on Priceline. Armed with research that indicated that I would get one of my first two choices if I did so, I landed a room at the El Conquistador resort near Fajardo for an obscenely low rate and we were on our way.

As tennis goes, El Conquistador’s facilities were great. The resort has 3 Har-Tru courts and 4 hard courts, half of which are lighted for nighttime play. The courts are impeccably maintained and beautifully sited with views of the sea and El Yunque on 3 sides. Court time goes for $25/hour, which is pretty much the going rate at resorts and clubs of this caliber. Note, however, that the pro shop is a golf pro shop, so besides balls and loaner racquets, don’t expect to find much in the way of tennis gear. Lessons are available. With sunny weather every day – highs in the low 80s, though humid -- we played tennis daily.

Transportation Challenges

We rented a car from Hertz, thinking we’d be using it to go off-resort for meals, as well as to tour El Yunque. It turned out that we never left the resort until checking out, but it was worth having the car for our last day, as we went to San Juan (Isla Verde) for a late lunch, and then strolled around Old San Juan before returning to the airport.

Let’s just say that driving in Puerto Rico is an adventure. The drive to El Conquistador, though only 35 miles, is riddled with stoplights and … er … inventive driving, so that it takes well over an hour during non-rush hours. I’ve never seen the “zipper” used as creatively as I did here. On the mainland, I’ve seen the zipper used when two lanes of cars merge into one. In Puerto Rico, cars turning left into oncoming traffic employ the technique rather than stopping to wait for an opening; similarly, cars turning right on red don’t actually wait for an opening either. Judging from the lack of angry horns and finger gestures, this is the way it’s done.

Meanwhile, the roads are a bit rough, and so it wasn’t surprising to see a large sinkhole on Highway 26 in San Juan shut traffic down to a trickle. Lanes of traffic start and end without warning. Very few roads are marked in English – since P.R. is a U.S. territory, I’d expected a little more English. Luckily, I was able to brush off enough high school Spanish to get us around, though I did find myself scrambling to try to remember whether izquierda was right or left! Once I figured it out, we were in good shape.

More vexing were the transportation challenges at El Conquistador. The hotel is sited on a spectacular cliffside peninsula with the Caribbean Sea on 3 sides and the El Yunque rain forest (perpetually shrouded in rain clouds) to the west. The main amenities of the hotel are on the cliff top – including the lobby, rooms in Las Brisas and Las Vistas complexes, many restaurants, common areas, several pools, bars, casino, shops, spa, golf and tennis, etc. Las Olas Village is the next level down – down 3 floors via elevator, then a walk along a open-sided shopping promenade, and then halfway down a funicular (there is a pair of funicular railcars, but only one of them stops at Las Olas). Some rooms require further stair climbs/descents once arriving at the funicular stop. At the bottom of the funicular (or two separate elevator trips from Las Olas) is the Marina Village, with more restaurants and shops, rooms, and the ferry to Palomino Island (the “private” island where El Con’s beach is located). The common areas of El Con are extremely attractive and generally well-maintained; the views alone are worth the price of admission.

We had a bellman take our suitcase down to our room in Las Olas – it was worth the tip we gave him, since he effectively gave us a tour of the property and we could have wandered around aimlessly for hours trying to find our room. Las Olas hugs the cliff and forms a semi-circle around its own pool. The fitness center, as well as a cantina, are located on this level. However, the cantina was closed.

The resort’s spectacular site is also its greatest downfall. Nothing happens quickly here (though I note that all the staff we encountered were polite and generally friendly), and that is largely a function of how long it takes to get anywhere. Without a restaurant or bar on the Las Olas level, and without a minibar or fridge or ice machine, getting a soda means waiting for the funicular to go up, or taking two separate elevators down. I shudder to think how much greater our bar tab would have been had the cantina been open, but at the same time, it’s a little annoying to find bottled water or a Diet Coke so far, far away.

The “Private” Island

Our room had an ocean view with a balcony. The room, while large, bright and generally comfortable, was very dated and worn – supposedly renovations are in the works. But that worn room couldn’t take away from the essential pleasures of being in the Caribbean: the warm sun, the startling blue of the sea, the luxuriously slow pace, and the promise of a beach.

Nevertheless, El Con’s cliffside setting means that the only way to get beach time is to take the resort’s free ferry to “private” Palomino Island offshore. Since the resort has over 900 (!) rooms, going to the beach means spending quality time with HUNDREDS of your closest friends in lounges lined up in endless rows along the beach front. In order to discourage the local population from using the island and attempt to preserve the exclusive ambience (ha!) of the “private” island, resort guests get wristbands when they board the ferry, and only room charges are allowed at the bar, restaurant and water sports shack – but that didn’t stop dozens of local pleasure craft from anchoring stern-to the beach (some, in a large raft, right at the edge of the designated swimming area). Of course, the locals have every right to do that, and I daresay I preferred the music pumping out of their stereos to the music pumping out of the resort’s sound system at what appeared to be a team building event on the island.

In order to get away from the hordes, Rick and I rented a Hobie and sailed across to tiny, uninhabited Palominito island. It’s a sweet little cay, ringed with white sand and reefs, and crowned with some vegetation and a handful of palms. Alas, the sand is jagged with coral and shell fragments, and as alluring as it was to us, it was equally alluring to the local pleasure boaters. As I observed before, the locals have as much – if not more – right to be there as we did, and I had no objection to their being there; in fact, I had to giggle a bit at the possibility that the residents were poking their fingers in the eye of the pretense of a private island – it just doesn’t fly, and they’re keeping everyone honest. I mostly provide these observations as a matter of information – don’t assume that the “private” island experience is secluded or peaceful.

Palomino Island is far from being unique in the noise level – the entire resort is a noisy place. Music blares out of the stereo at the pool in Las Olas, and there is music playing at every restaurant. El Con is also a family-friendly place, so the kids add their own din. The funicular runs 24 hours a day (except for our last day, when they shut down the car that stopped at Las Olas for maintenance), which comes with its own noise. General maintenance (pressure washing) is noisy, as is the HVAC plant. Much to my relief, none of this drowned out one of my favorite sounds – the tree frogs (coqui) at night.

As large a resort as El Conquistador is, many people – like we turned out to be – never leave the place (we actually had intended to do a kayak tour of a nearby bioluminescent bay on our last night – a Sunday – only to find out, as we tried to reserve it, that no tours go out on Sunday). That meant we were a voluntarily captive audience for the dining. In many of the reviews of the resort we’d read before going, much has been made of the price of eating, but we didn’t find it out of line with similar resort experiences. What we did find was that the food at the casual dining restaurants was generally mediocre and, while priced less than the fine dining spots, was not an especially good value for the quality of food. The fine dining, on the other hand, we found to be quite good and comparably priced to similar experiences in the Baltimore/DC area. We had excellent dinners at Stingray Café (seafood) and Isabela’s (steak). Reservations are recommended, and there is an expectation that guests will dress up for the nicer dining spots (and most did – it was actually quite nice). Sadly, none of the restaurants served Puerto Rican food.

You Can Check Out, But …

Yes, you CAN leave. And when we did, we drove to San Juan for a lunch of the Cuban/Puerto Rican food we’ve been craving at Metropol in Isla Verde. Then we headed to Old San Juan to soak up some real (albeit somewhat cruise-ship-i-fied) Puerto Rican history and culture. For while El Conquistador is firmly planted on Puerto Rican soil, but for the accents of the staff, the experience is decidedly generic.

Yet, despite some complaints about El Con, we had a generally favorably experience. We were basically looking for some good tennis facilities, and some warm weather. To the extent we got to swim in the Caribbean Sea, go for a sail in February, sneak in some rum drinks on a “school” night, and get away to de islands, if only for a long weekend, it’s all a bonus.