With glamorous resorts, ramped-up cuisine and high adventure, this no-passport-needed Caribbean isle has new allure for U.S. tourists.
Not since the Cuban exodus precipitated by the rise of Fidel Castro has Puerto Rico been so flush. In the late 1950s and early '60s, hotels and casinos fled Havana for San Juan, setting up gleaming resorts on capitalist-friendly shores.
Over time, islands from the Bahamas to Aruba turned travelers' heads with newer resorts and more exotic settings. But Puerto Rico always had a few trump cards in its hand — namely, the convenience of flying to the Caribbean's largest airport, the no-passport-required policy (Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth) and the use of the U.S. dollar.
Developers have doubled down on those assets, betting time-pressed travelers want tropical escapes faster and easier than ever before and giving us reasons to reconsider Puerto Rico.
Earlier this year, Southwest Airlines began offering year-round, nonstop service between Baltimore and San Juan, making the trip quicker — and cheaper — than ever before. What you'll find there may surprise you.
1. Resorts on par with the world's best retreats
Puerto Rico's best-known resorts cluster around San Juan, offering a Miami Beach-style mix of urban glamour and poolside indolence. But a spate of new hotels scattered along the north coast specialize in tropical immersion well away from the often-maddening crowds.
The high-profile Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve (ritzcarlton.com), opened last winter on 1,400 acres including a series of scalloped beaches, a golf course and a restaurant from chef Jose Andres. Royal Isabela (royalisabela.com), a resort and golf club 50 miles west of San Juan, recently opened 20 one-bedroom casitas, the first accommodations on the property. The lush St. Regis Bahia Beach (stregisbahiabeach.com), just 16 miles east of the airport, is most immersive, a nearly 500-acre setting of waterways behind two miles of private beach in view of the El Yunque rainforest preserve. Management ensures you won't miss the city, with amenities including a spa with outdoor massage pavilions, seven miles of trails, kayak tours and a restaurant from chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
2. More than pork and plantains
In the past, Puerto Rican food meant fast and fried. While islanders love fried plantains, a more advanced culinary culture has ascended here in the past few years.
Chef Wilo Benet put Puerto Rican cuisine — something he describes as "rustic, double-starched and full of flavor" -— on the map with a cookbook and guest spots on Bravo's "Top Chef" and "Top Chef Masters." His Picayo (wilobenet.com) in the upscale Condado neighborhood of San Juan — the neighborhood for dining -— introduced local flavors to fine dining.
In his wake came a stream of foodie neighbors, including Jam Rum Bar + Bistro Moderne (facebook.com/jamrumbarbistro) and the seafood-focused Perla (perlarestaurant.com). The new 1919 restaurant (1919restaurant.com) in the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel offers contemporary, market-focused dishes — think scallops in citrus-dashi broth with local bok choy — from Juan Jose Cuevas, who returns to the island after stints with Alain Ducasse and, most recently, Dan Barber of Blue Hill in New York's Hudson Valley.
For even more authentic flavor, The Old San Juan farmers' market is open on Saturdays with fresh local offerings, some of them organic, from a dozen or so vendors. And you won't want to miss a local favorite: cafe con leche. Try Caficultura, where the baristas like to show off their artistic skills.
3. Beyond the beach, adventure awaits
Culture and history seekers will enjoy El Morro, a historic Spanish colonial fort and village at the heart of San Juan. There's also the Cathedral of San Juan Batista, the city's second-oldest building.
But for anyone willing to get out and explore more actively, Puerto Rico has gone to extremes to thrill visitors. "La Bestia" (The Beast) zip line offers a bird's-eye view of Toro Verde Nature Park near Orocovis in a harness that straps you up horizontally to fly like Superman (ziplinetourspr.com).
The west coast of the island near Rincon has become a magnet for surfers. Take a lesson with 787 Surf School (surf787.com). The Rio Camuy cave system in the northwest offers underground caving tours in Karst Country. Rappel down to underground lakes with Aventuras Tierra Adentro (aventuraspr.com).
4. Getting around is no problem
Though one of the larger islands, Puerto Rico is still only about 110 miles by 40 miles, an area that says "conquest" to road-trippers.
Old San Juan can be congested, but motorists will find decent roads throughout most of the island, including those in the Cordillera Mountains, a central range with peaks up to nearly 4,400 feet splitting the island north and south (here the biggest hazards are stray chickens on the road and scofflaw drivers who ignore stop signs).
Whether for day trips around San Juan or farther-flung destinations, rental cars offer easy access to hidden beaches and highland forests. For a street catering to pedestrians, check out the cobblestone-lined Calle del Crisot near Pigeon Park. It offers shopping, dining and souvenirs, among other delights.
5. Sure, you can splurge, but you can also save
The Caribbean is a notoriously expensive region in which to travel. The price of flying in food, gas and building supplies gets tucked into seemingly every purchase. But Puerto Rico remains budget-friendly.
Sure, luxury resorts are on the rise, but so are stylish, affordable hotels like Olive (oliveboutiquehotel.com) in San Juan.
Street food goes to the beach at Luquillo on the north shore, the place to try fried plantains and roast pork.
A visit to the Ballaja Barracks, a former military headquarters, provides a lesson in Spanish architecture. Hikes in El Yunque National Forest (fs.usda.gov/elyunque), just an hour from San Juan, are a free and glorious way to look for the island's famous coqui frog.