WELCOME to the United States of America,” says a groundsman as I land on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, introducing me to the first of many contradictions here. The island is, I find, a cocktail of the tropical Caribbean, American high rise (it is a commonwealth of the USA) all mixed with a huge dash of Latino. And, it turns out, big lashings of rum.
Puerto Rico is located at what is known as the “gateway to the Caribbean”, just 1,000 miles south east of Miami, and is where Caribbean verve meets Uncle Sam. Puerto Ricans drive big American cars and gesticulate like Spaniards. And they can all dance.
Bizarrely, Bruce Forsyth was on the welcome committee to greet the first British Airways flight to the island for 20 years. Married to a Puerto Rican, he has a holiday home here where he spends several months a year and extols the virtues of the island’s beaches and golf courses – even its discount shopping malls where he proudly claims to have bought the jacket he is wearing from Macy’s for $100.
Looking for something strictly more authentic, I head to Old San Juan, one of the oldest towns in the Americas.
Old San Juan’s blue cobblestone streets lead us through a capsule of Spanish colonial charm: The Murro fort which juts out over the Atlantic was built in 1528 and is the oldest Spanish fort in the New World. We stop for lunch and local rum in the inner courtyard of El Convento.
There’s no avoiding rum here. We find it tastes best in the island’s signature cocktail Pina Colada, said to have been invented at San Juan’s Caribe Hilton hotel, which opened its doors in 1949, the first Hilton to open outside the USA.
THE RUM DIARIES
October 2011 will see the launch of the long-in-development film The Rum Diary. Based on the book The Rum Diaries by Hunter S Thompson (of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) it stars Johnny Depp as journalist Paul Kemp, who gets frustrated with New York and moves to Puerto Rico to write for a local newspaper in the late 1950s at a time when the Americans had fallen out of love with Cuba. The book, which was published in 1998, 40 years after it was written, is a thinly veiled autobiography of Hunter S’s own louche lifestyle on the island, which he spent drinking rum for breakfast and gate crashing press lunches.
We relive Hunters’ rum-soaked lifestyle of the late 50s in the bars and cafes of old San Juan in the likes of the crusty bohemian El Batey and other bars on Calle Del Cristo and Fortezala.
Later, the sound of salsa thumps from almost every doorway. Although the debate still rages as to who invented the salsa, the Cubans or the New York Puerto Ricans, (Nuyoricans) there’s no getting away from it in the streets of Old san Juan, and it’s impossible to leave without giving it a go.
“If you can walk you can dance,” says Raffi, the salsa instructor, although he looks sceptical as our group shuffles in. The salsa dance is, in essence, no more than a step forward and a step back, with a rock in between. Raffi teaches salsa to anyone and everyone from judges and accountants to tourists, and he claims it can change lives. In our case, we leave with slightly more rhythm than we arrived with and head downstairs to see how it should be done as dozens of gyrating bodies hit the floor at the famous Nuyorican café, tucked in an alleyway off San Francisco Street.
Days later I am reminded of Raffi and his fancy footwork when I encounter the wild horses on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. The huge-eyed palomino horses have skinny legs and a prancing gait and they can be seen sashaying down the roads all over the island. Vieques is the quintessential Caribbean island. Although it was a US military base until 2003, the beaches still have that untouched feel and some, such as the aptly named “Secret Beach” are almost impossible to find. At Esperanza, a stretch of tiny shabby chic guest houses and cosy bars and restaurants in front of the beach, we learn that Lord of the Flies was filmed here in the 1960s. Duffy’s is a simple, old “Caribbean as it used to be” establishment with a laid-back lifestyle and good food and at The Amapola Inn the proprietor makes us a local drink called Bili and serves us lobster enchiladas fit to blast the taste buds away.
The most psychedelic experience on the island proves to be a night in one of Puerto Rico’s bioluminescent bays.
There are only about 12 in the world and Puerto Rico has three of them. The bays are home to large colonies of dinoflagellates that light up like fireflies and produce incredible glowing waters. At Mosquito Bay in Vieques our party disappears one by one into the inky bay. When we move in the water, the water glows like fire. I lift my arm from the water and find it covered in Christmas card-like glitter. Sadly it runs off again immediately.
To recover I head for the newly opened W Retreat & Spa, Vieques (www. wvieques.com). The W has white beaches and lush landscapes and it boasts the biggest rooms in Puerto Rico. Designed to be “airy and whimsical”, its rustic elegance combines pure and recycled materials and avant-garde furniture imported from Italy. “The Caribbean unplugged” is how the manager Jonathan Heath described it to me, explaining its slightly different take on tropical luxury
Helped by Mr. la Vida Loca himself, Ricky Martin, who officially came out last year, Puerto Rico is one of a handful of Caribbean islands that is gay friendly, and W Retreat & Spa even hosts a gay and lesbian short film festival each May. And so, you ask, what doesn’t Puerto Rico have? Very little, is the answer.
TO DO, EAT AND STAY
DO: Hike to the 28,000-acre El Yunque rainforest in the Luquillo Mountains in eastern Puerto Rico. It’s the only rainforest in the US National Forest system, with miles and miles of trails, rainwater streams, waterfalls and natural pools.
Puerto Rico is host to world class surfing contests and surfing spots can be found on the west coast and some northern beaches. The marine life here attracts divers from around the world.
Eat: Old San Juan’s South Fortoleza Street (SoFo) has some of the islands best restaurants, such as the Parrot Club and tantra. SoFo’s Culinary week takes place in June. Budatai offers a fusion of Latin and Asian cuisine and great mojitos topped with champagne. www.budatai.com
Stay: Old San Juan: Gran hotel El Convento is a historic hotel loved by the stars and the only Small Luxury Hotel of the World on the island. Great sunset from the 5th floor. www.elconvento.com
The Gallery Inn is a quirky rambling 18th century hotel and full of charm. www.the galleryinn.com
GETTING THERE | NEED TO KNOW
Fly: The island is newly accessible to UK tourists as British Airways has added Puerto Rico to its portfolio of Caribbean destinations with flights from Gatwick to San Juan. A Boeing 777 serves the route twice weekly, with stops in Antigua.
Know: Puerto Rico is the smallest of the Greater Antilles island group which includes Cuba, Jamaica and Hispaniola.
General information: Puerto Rico is GMT -4 hours. Customs & Passport: Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States. UK visitors will need a valid electronic passport to travel, and to apply for an ESTA.
Language: Both Spanish and English are the island's official languages. English is widely spoken, especially in San Juan.
Climate: Year-round tropical climate with average temperatures between 70F-80F.
Currency: U.S. dollar
BA offers seven nights at the 5* Conrad San Juan Condado Plaza from £1,139 per person. Prices include return BA flights from London Gatwick and accommodation. Offers change according to availability so please check ba.com/puertorico or call 0844 4930758 to find out the latest deals.