So, to get me through the last few weeks (days?!) of winter, I'll be dreaming about these tropical images from our recent trip to Puerto Rico.
We're so close. SPRING!! Although it has been a mild winter compared to the avalanche that fell on Boston last year, I've recently had a few unpleasant run-ins with mother nature. One involved me, a cheap (borrowed) Captain America umbrella, wind gusts and a sleet storm. This of course led to the unavoidable onslaught of mockery from my fellow Bostonians and Cantabrigians on the way home ("Sweethaaaht, that umbrellahh is a piece of S*^t!!!")
So, to get me through the last few weeks (days?!) of winter, I'll be dreaming about these tropical images from our recent trip to Puerto Rico.
Las Casitas Village, Puerto Rico: Why These Resort-Apartments are Ideal for Families
Now that we have a baby, we take slightly different approach to traveling.
We travel slowly. We have to stick to some semblance of a schedule. We have more stuff. And we stand out because everyone loves (or hates, depending on circumstances) a baby. It used to be easy to relax wherever we were, but now it's challenging to find time to just do nothing. So when planning vacation, we now put a more value on convenience.
On a recent trip to Puerto Rico to visit family, we spent a few nights in Fajardo to get away from the city and enjoy the beach. Knowing how much time we'd spend in our rooms because of the baby's nap schedule, we sought out an apartment style accommodation - one with a kitchen where we could prep and store B's food and also a place we would enjoy while the baby slept.
We found the perfect place in Las Casitas Village in Fajardo. Puerto Rico. We had stayed at the neighboring/affiliate hotel, El Conquistador, last year before the baby arrived and very much enjoyed the cliff-side sea view and spectacular beach at Palomino Island.
This time, since we were traveling with an eight-month old and my grandmother, we opted for a two-bedroom ocean-front apartment. It was PERFECT!!!!
This place is an ideal option for families. Here is why:
Space & Kitchen: Our two-bedroom apartment had a large living area, three full bathrooms, and two patios - one overlooking the ocean and one over the garden. If you aren't a fan of direct sun (important with a baby) there was always a patio with shade. Also, one of the bathrooms had a stand-up shower which was ideal for my elderly grandmother who has trouble getting in and out of deep bathtubs.
Service: While the apartment amenities are convenient, equally important is that it's a resort. This means your apartment is cleaned every day, there is a concierge, butler and room service at your disposal, and you don't have to go far for a bite to eat, a drink, the pool or beach. Apartment rentals are great, but traveling with a baby is a lot of work so the last thing you want to worry about is cleaning or cooking. All of that is taken care of for you (if you want) at a resort-apartment.
The entrance to our casita. One advantage of the top floor unit is the view.
We spent most of our time on this HUGE balcony overlooking the ocean.
The light-filled living room was spacious and you could see the turquoise ocean from every corner.
The kitchen came fully-equipped so all we brought was food/drinks. Here is my grandmother, probably about to make a cafe con leche, which she drinks like water.
The master bedroom was huge and opened up to the ocean view balcony.
Balcony with a View: We spent most of our time on the ocean-view patio while B napped. It was stunning and so relaxing. We brought our own drinks & apps and enjoyed the warm ocean breeze. Better view than any restaurant in town!
The views from our oceanfront balcony - paradise in every direction!
We overlooked a (recent) shipwreck - see it there on the bottom right?
We set up B's crib in the massive en suite bathroom off the master because it was dark and quiet. We would hang out on the patio while he napped a few feet away. Hopefully this isn't a major parenting fail and you won't judge us harshly for putting the baby to sleep in the bathroom. He loved it!
We rolled him out for air every now and then :)
Early morning wake-ups aren't that bad when this sunrise is right outside your window. Here was the morning view from our patio.
Family Friendly without Chaos: Many families were vacationing at Las Casitas - especially parents with babies & toddlers. All of the families we encountered were well behaved and if a little one cried, the parents would whisk them out of the pool area to calm down - much appreciated by all! Guests and staff were all very considerate. It never felt crowded either. The eternity pool was popular, but always had available chairs. There is a second pool in the central courtyard - we had this pool to ourselves both times we visited!
A father and son enjoy the eternity pool.
We typically had the central pool to ourselves. It didn't have a sea view, but it was surrounded by gorgeous flowers in every color.
B is clearly a fan of swimming. That third pic was actually a squeal of delight thought it might seem otherwise!
Enjoying the view and likely pondering why anyone would buy an apartment on that tiny island in the distance with no land access. Why?!?
Peace & Quiet: Another advantage to staying at Las Casitas was that we avoided the corporate crowd. Resorts in desirable warm destinations often book large corporate groups this time of year. Las Casitas Village was void of the corporate crowd and mainly full of families and couples on vacation. However, lots of action was available a short walk away at the resort if desired.
Palomino Island: Palomino Island is the resort's private island and the location of its white sandy beach. Ferries run every 30 minutes, and this is included in your stay at the main resort or the Casitas. Palomino is GREAT for kids. The water on the side of the island facing the mainland is calm, there is a restaurant on-site and lots of activities for older kids (mini golf, bags/cornhole, giant chess, basketball, sandbox, horseback riding, kayaking).
Our spot on Palomino Island
One of the many reasons why I like this beach for kids is the gentle tide.
Missing that turquoise water already...
Nani's first game of bags (or cornhole depending on where you live). B was cheering her on!
The beach-side mini golf course - a new addition to the island.
On the ferry ride back to the resort we saw our casita in the distance (the blue one on the top of the hill!)
Access to El Conquistador: As previously mentioned, another benefit of Las Casitas is that you have access to the main resort pools, restaurants, golf course, shops and other amenities. Each apartment at Las Casitas has 'butler' service. If you aren't up for the walk, you can call up and they'll drive you over tot the main resort in a van or golf cart. B particularly loved meeting this talking parrot that said "Hola". B is learning how to speak (in two languages) and the talking parrot is bound to confuse him even more!
This place was so beautiful. I'll include some more pictures of the grounds in my next post!
January is the time of year when people inquire about tropical vacation ideas. For those of us in the Boston area - and despite record warmth so far - we are particularly antsy for a winter escape plan as we fear another blizzard scenario like the one that kept us shut-in for months last year (although I think many secretly enjoyed it!).
Most of our readers are from the US, so they are typically looking for something in the western hemisphere, ideally a short flight away. Therefore, we've listed 10 of our favorite warm weather getaways that are relatively easy to reach from the US. No red-eye required (though maybe for West Coasters), and minimal (if any) time zone change, so you can start enjoying your vacation the minute your feet hit the sand!
For the Diver: Caye Caulker, Belize
Also good for: friends, backpackers, solo travelers
"Go Slow" is the island motto and for good reason. This tiny island has no paved roads or cars, and the only way around is by foot, bike or golf cart. It's a 45 minute ferry ride from Belize City and is situated in the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef - the second largest barrier reef in the world. It was here that we dove with sharks, dolphins, turtles and green moray eels. There are no wide, expansive beaches on this caye, but jump off any pier to swim, take a short boat ride out to the reef for a snorkel or stroll over to the The Split for a cold drink and watch the spectacular sunset over the ocean. Finally, Caye Caulker is an ideal launching pad from which to visit the Blue Hole, one of the top dive sites on every diver's bucket list. Interested? Read more here.
Also good for: families
Surfers from all over the US flock to Rincon each winter to enjoy the big waves, warm water and laid-back vibe. Instead of long white sand beaches common in the northeast of Puerto Rico, Rincon is comprised of several little coves. Here you can find many quirky, locally owned hotels or house rentals and there are plenty of little beach bars and restaurants to provide fuel for the grueling work-out that is surfing. Many families also love Rincon for the home rentals and safe, laid-back atmosphere. Read more about Rincon here.
Also good for: couples, friends
The beach surrounding Tulum is one of the most beautiful we've ever seen. It's your quintessential Caribbean paradise - white sand, turquoise water, crashing waves, tall palm trees and fresh margaritas (best we've had anywhere in the world!). It offers something for everyone - sun, snorkeling, parties, culture, and adventure. Here you can sleep on the beach all day or, for those of us who like a little adventure, there are plenty of fun things to do nearby - diving, fishing, ruins, cenote snorkeling (highly recommended!), and zip lining. And let's not forget that it's home to the best food in the world. Read more about the Riviera Maya here.
If you want guaranteed sunshine, white sand beaches and calm turquoise water then look no further than Aruba. Prices spike in the winter because perfect weather is 99.9% guaranteed on this desert island. There isn't much to do here except sunbathe, swim, snorkel, shop, eat and drink. Direct flights can be found from most cities on the East Coast. Eagle Beach also ranks in our Top 5 Beaches in the World. And this is why it's a perfect long weekend winter getaway. Read more about Aruba here.
Also good for: families with older kids
Located a three-hour drive from San Jose, this symmetrical volcano is encircled by jungle, rivers, lakes and a wide variety of flora and fauna. Until 2010, Arenal was Costa Rica's most active volcano, regularly spewing lava while villagers and tourists watched from a safe distance. Although it has recently entered a resting phase, it is still a tremendous natural attraction worth visiting. This region offers so many unique activities - white water rafting, volcano hikes, zip lining, canyoneering, waterfalls, nature walks and natural hot springs. Read more about Arenal, Costa Rica here.
Also good for: Solo travelers (go on an organized cultural tour)
Cuba has become a hot destination ever since the US relaxed its travel restrictions to the island nation. This destination holds a special place in my heart since I have family that lives here. However, even if it didn't have a personal meaning, I'd find it fascinating. One could spend a full week in Havana enjoying the culture, history, artwork and music. As long as you remember that this is an island of limited means (don't expect the same level of service as elsewhere in the Caribbean) and really try to get to know the people, you will have an extraordinary experience. Also there is little/no internet so you will have a perfect excuse to disconnect from the virtual world for a little while and remember what it's like to be 100% present. Read more about Cuba here.
Also good for: culture seekers; friends
Now that JetBlue flies directly to Cartagena from many major US hubs, it's easy to discover the colorful culture of Colombia. The cobblestone streets, flower-covered buildings, and ocean sunsets make this city perfect for couples looking for a romantic getaway. Cartagena is full of boutique courtyard-style hotels that are surprisingly quiet, even though they are in the midst of the lively old city. Soak in the Spanish Colonial decor (obsessed!), enjoy the huge variety of fresh fruit drinks (guanabana is my favorite) and if you are a seafood lover like me, sample all the ceviche you can. Read more about Cartagena here.
Also good for: couples
Puerto Rico is super easy for those of us on the East Coast and in the Midwest US. Last year, Chris and I went to Fajardo and stayed at El Conquistador. Both of us agreed that it was an ideal destination for families since it has something for everyone. Its private island, Palomino, has a calm beach (a must for young kids), restaurant, horseback riding, hiking trails, outdoor games, and sea kayaks. The main hotel has a water park, several pools, incredible views, a variety of restaurants, golf, and a host of indoor facilities that we didn't have time to try. Nearby is the rainforest and beautiful Luquillo Beach if you are looking for a change of scenery. There are also several great restaurants close to the property. Also consider going to nearby islands Vieques (I hear the W is amazing) or Culebra for a more remote beach getaway. Read more about the Fajardo area here.
Also good for: couples; families; people seeking solitude
Offering tall green hills, serene turquoise water and soft white sand, Tortola and neighboring Virgin Gorda are the poster children of the Caribbean. The Caribbean Sea is very flat here despite consistent winds, making it an ideal place for sailing. The BVIs are a bit more difficult to get to than some of the other destinations on this list since you typically have to fly there via St. Thomas or San Juan, or arrive via boat. However, if you have a full week, considering renting a sailboat and captain for a few days to explore all the remote beaches, islands and reefs. We stayed on land and while VERY quiet, there is lots of fun to be had at the marina bars in the evening, especially if you are there for the full moon party at Bombas on Tortola or Jost Van Dyke's Soggy Dollar Bar.
Also good for: friends, couples
If you're seeking a fun weekend complete with spa retreats, fabulous parties, amazing restaurants and beach time then look no further than Miami. This city has a huge variety of fantastic hotels to choose from and its art deco architecture will motivate any weary winter traveler to get dolled up for a night on the town. Read more about our weekend in Miami here.
Baby's First Trip to Puerto Rico
We took B on his first flight a few weeks ago - to visit our family in Puerto Rico! While we were extremely excited to introduce B to his family, the trip was also bittersweet because it was our first time there since the passing of my grandfather two months earlier. Needless to say, his absence was incredibly difficult, but the baby smiled and laughed non-stop, filling all of our hearts with joy. It was very much needed and B reveled in all the attention and love!
The center of attention
B loves his bisabuela!
Our travel style has changed quite a bit with a three month old. Long gone are the jungle hikes, surf lessons and late nights out in Old San Juan. However, one thing remains the same - beach time! We happily spent many afternoons enjoying the island's best features - white sand and turquoise water. In September, the water in San Juan is still calm, clear and very warm. The only nuisance is that it's the beginning of jellyfish season (Sept-Nov), which we somehow never knew before. AFTER we dipped B's toes in the sea, Chris went for a swim and came back with his first jellyfish sting. It was minor and disappeared within an hour but we were very glad the jelly missed the little guy!
Here are some shots from Isla Verde and Luquillo beaches:
Lovely day at Luquillo beach
Like father, like son
Good Eats & Old San Juan
One day we ventured out to central Puerto Rico where we finally ate roast pig at a traditional lechonera (read more about that excursion here). And of course, on another day, we had to stroll through Old San Juan and grab a mallorca and cafe con leche at Cafe Mallorca (YUM!). We also stopped by our wedding venue - Casa de Espana - for a quick trip down memory lane.
Cafe Mallorca with Nani
The Casa de Espana courtyard: We were married here just over seven years ago.
Dancing at the Mall
It would't be a proper visit with my grandmother without a trip to the mall. Although she is in her mid-80's she still exercises regularly (she was a physical education teacher after all). She takes zumba classes at the local mall and one day I joined in the fun.
We've got our uniforms on and are ready for Zumba at the mall! I had to borrow pants from Nani. No shorts allowed at this shin-dig. These are proper ladies - all class.
At least a hundred ladies dancing zumba at the mall. The teacher was super engaging and his students adored him!
Taking a break at the brand new Mall of San Juan.
We spent the rest of our time hanging out around the house, watching the beautiful sunsets and enjoying each other's company.
My favorite backyard view:)
A quick sun shower in the backyard. The island has been suffering from severe drought so the rain was welcome!
The Flamboyant tree boasts my favorite colors.
Check out the color of these leaves outside my grandmother's bathroom window.
The sunsets were fabulous as usual. Until next time Puerto Rico!
On Labor Day, we traveled with our family to Guavate, home of the lechon highway. Guavate is a mountain town in central Puerto Rico, whose twisty main road weaves through the jungle amidst a great many "lechoneras". Lechon is the Puerto Rican term for roast whole pig on a spit. It's traditionally cooked up on weekends and served for lunch, or for as long as it happens to last. It is typically accompanied by dance floors/halls with loud music and copious amounts of alcohol. We have been meaning to partake of this local tradition for years, and finally got our chance thanks to Eva's uncle & aunt!
First, a tip - no bread is served at most lechonaras, but nothing goes with roast pig like a loaf of pan sobao, which is the most delightful hunk of bread on the face of the planet. Forget about France and Italy, Puerto Rico holds the bread crown in our book. On our list of to-do's: secure the recipe for this doughy goodness and attempt to recreate the magic back home. You can find pan sobao at most local bakeries around the island. Normally this bread does not make it to its final destination because Eva devours it in the car on the way. Amazingly, this time she managed to control herself amidst the aroma of four loaves of freshly baked pan sobao wafting throughout the car.
Next it was off to Guavate, about a 30 minute drive south of San Juan. Taking the main highway through Caguas, take the Guavate exit and follow the winding road up the mountain through the jungle. You'll soon begin to spot lechon joints dotting both sides of the road. These places get going on Saturday and Sunday around lunch time, which is when you'll want to visit if you are up for a party. As it was Labor Day when we went, many of the lechoneras were closed and the crowds were minmal. However, a choice few remained open. We popped into Lechonera Los Pinos for our porky smorgasbord, a photograph of which is shown below.
Here's a snapshot of the unfortunate ungulate of the day, or what was left of him when we got there. Unfortunate for him but lucky for us, because he was tasty.
Waiting in line for some roast pig:
The next picture shows a sampling of our fare. On the top is a type of yuca root with onions, butter and garlic. Yum. The bottom left plate includes batatas (Puerto Rican yam) and some sausage made fresh from the pig. They also have blood sausage which is more traditional, but we didn't indulge. Finally, on the bottom right is what we came for: two pounds of barbecued lechon, including the crispy skins which might be the best part!
The lechoneras are super casual and very family friendly. B loved it...
...but that could have been because of all the attention he was getting from his aunt, uncle, cousin and great-grandma:
With full bellies, we departed Los Pinos and strolled up the road to El Rancho lechonera, home to what appeared to be the area's largest dance hall and kinkiest of lechon art. The picture below shows the road heading up to El Rancho. We're told that this is typically backed up for miles on a normal weekend day, so be prepared! El Rancho is both on the left and right side of the road, with two large dance halls and, of course, a massive lechon pit.
Behind the main restaurant is bridge that crosses a small stream and leads to small huts, each with its own table and chairs.
In front of El Rancho with Nani:
These signs of pig waitresses serving pig reminded me of the guinea pig joint in Peru with the guinea pig wearing a chef's hat (as seen in my first Culinary Delights installment).
So next time you are in Puerto Rico and in the mood for some tasty barbecue, do like the locals do and take the trip down to Guavate on a Saturday or Sunday for a lechon lunch. And with that I'll leave you with one final piece of lechon art:
Since I wrote about El Conquistador Resort and Fajardo, Puerto Rico in January, four different groups of friends have booked a trip to the resort. Some were looking for a couples getaway while others vacationed with family. Traveling from home bases of Boston, DC and Chicago, they all had one thing in common: wanting to escape the frigid winter! I'll admit, I was drooling over their Facebook photos of paradise, wishing I was back there instead of buried under three feet of snow.
Since Chris and I only spent a few nights at El Conquistador, I followed up with a few of these folks after their trips to gather additional feedback on the resort and Fajardo. Most importantly, everyone had a great time and enjoyed the sunshine, calm water and warm breezes of the island.
Here are a few tips I found particularly helpful:
Transportation to and from El Conquistador
The most common question I received from readers was "what is the best way to get there?". The distance from San Juan Airport to El Conquistador is 55km (34 miles) and will take anywhere from 40-60 minutes driving, depending on traffic. My recommendation was to rent a car if you could get a cheap rate at the San Juan airport (<$35/day) and self park at the hotel ($15/day). I recommend this ONLY for short stays and if the traveler plans on exploring the area. If you are going for a full week and plan to stay at the resort, it may be more economical to take the shuttle because $15/day for parking can add up. You can rent a car for a day at a time at the resort.
My friend Meg stayed at the Casitas Village with her husband and if you book a room or apartment at the Casitas Village, parking is included in the rate. They took the shuttle, but if she were to do it again, they would have rented a car, mainly because the taxis were overpriced and they enjoyed leaving the resort for meals.
On the flip side, Elizabeth recommends taking the shuttle. She was traveling with her mother and young son and found the shuttle to be much more economical than renting a car as she was staying there for a week and parking would have added up. The shuttle costs $78 per adult and $58 per child round trip. If you are a family of two adults and two kids, they cut the rate to $200 round trip. This means that families that consist of two adults and one kid pay MORE ($214) than families with two adults and two kids ($200). A little bizarre, but she successfully negotiated the policy with the concierge ahead of time and got the rate for $200 round trip. She said the airport transfer was very easy - they were met at baggage claim and driven directly to the resort.
She also rented a four door Jeep on-site for 24 hours in order to see the rainforest and to go out to dinner one night which was far more economical than paying for the hotel sponsored rainforest tour.
Like Meg, Elizabeth acknowledged that the hotel's taxi service was overpriced but considering that the dinners in Fajardo were half the price of the food at the resort and far better quality, it was was worth the extra expense.
[Pictured Above] La Casitas Village not only has fantastic views but the parking is free!
[Pictured Below] Elizabeth's beautiful view from El Yunque rainforest. Worth a visit on a sunny day!
Best Restaurants in Fajardo
In my "Things to do in Fajardo" post, I highly recommended eating at La Estacion and it turned out to be a favorite of these visitors too! The only caveat is to call ahead to make sure they are open the night you plan on going to dinner. Since these travelers spent more nights there than Chris & I did, they were lucky enough to sample the other restaurants in Fajardo. Here were their favorites:
[Pictured Above] While everyone agreed the best food is in town, the resort's Stingray Cafe served decent food with a nice view of the marina. Elizabeth shared this pretty shot of the marina at sunset.
Tips for Kids at El Conquistador
El Conquistador has many amenities, and the water park was a big hit with kids! It turns out that the water park has some of the best views at the resort and it also boasts a lovely infinity pool. One tip was that the water park can be exhausting and spending an entire day there is not necessary. If you go after 1:30pm you'll pay a significantly lower rate and still get a full 4 hours of play time.
Also, the sun is really strong in Puerto Rico and a few of the fairer travelers got burned, even after applying really strong sun screen. Remember to bring long-sleeved sun/swim shirts and hats for the kids. They are not going to want to sit in the shade with a water park, pool and beach at their disposal!
Special Events at El Conquistador
Another tip I found particularly helpful was to call ahead about special events at the resort. One friend said there was a corporate conference going on at the resort while she and her husband were there on vacation. I've never had to deal with this before, but I can only imagine how uncomfortable it might be to walk amongst people networking in business suits while sporting a swim suit. This couple spent most of their trip on the beach at Palomino Island and tried their best to avoid the main resort common areas.
Favorite Part of the Resort & Fajardo
I asked about everyone's favorite part of the trip. Here were their answers, in no particular order:
[Pictured Above] Palomino Island was a traveler favorite. No surprises here!
Book a Package Deal Through A Wholesale Club
This was a new tip for me, since I don't belong to a wholesale club. However, these clubs have many travel benefits and Elizabeth booked her family's flights and stay at the hotel as a package through BJs travel site, saving thousands of dollars. Note, you must be a BJs member to book travel through their site.
Remember, Resort Fees Apply
Many hotels in Puerto Rico charge a daily resort fee. El Conquistador's is 18% of the room rate so make sure you incorporate this into your total cost, as it can add up! Often times when you are booking via a third party (ie travel agent or travel aggregator site) they don't include the resort fee in the advertised price. Instead it's in the fine print and many folks are surprised upon arrival or checkout at the resort.
Thanks so much to those who sent in feedback from your trip!!!
I recently wrote about our wonderful getaway to El Conquistador resort in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. One of the highlights of staying at this resort is access to their private island called Palomino Island. During our visit to the island we noticed that part of the beach was fenced off and, being the curious person that I am, I wandered beyond fence to see what was afoot. I was surprised to find a full crew working on a serious set design, complete with a truckload of lighting, a stage and sound equipment. They were also building wooden pyres in the shape of a symbol that I couldn't place at the time.
Something major was happening on little Palomino Island.
I took a picture of the crew working on the set from the ferry.
I asked one of the island employees about the set and he grinned, ear to ear, and said that he could only tell me that it was a private corporate event. I remember thinking, "What corporation has an event like this on a beautiful island?" Because I seriously might consider working there.
Well, it turns out I'm not quite qualified to work at this particular event because it's the set of the first ever Victoria's Secret fashion show (to be televised on Feb 26th). After we left the island, we found out via Instagram, that just two days after our departure, El Conquistador and Palomino Island were chock-full of supermodels from around the world. Chris almost choked on the lime-drenched olives he was eating when I told him!
Some dude on Instagram used the #palominoisland hashtag and posted this picture of Adriana Lima on the beach:
Maroon 5 and Juanes were both performing at the event so we missed the chance to see Adam Levine zipping around the island in his fancy boat:
It's really Adam's loss, because no one moves more like Jagger than my husband. If Adam saw these dance moves, he would have most definitely cast Chris in his next video!
While I've never watched a Victoria's Secret fashion show before, I'm going to try to tune in this year to see the final outcome of the set!
In my last post, I shared our wonderful experience at El Conquistador in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. While one can certainly park oneself at the resort and never leave, there are lots of activities, local restaurants and attractions in the area that are worth checking out. Here are a few suggestions:
1) Morning Hike: El Yunque Rainforest
If you have any interest in hiking, waterfalls, sweeping views and wildlife, then El Yunque is not to be missed. Fajardo is an ideal base camp for a visit to the rainforest given its proximity. I recommend heading out early in the morning on a clear day. Be sure to wear sneakers or hiking shoes and a bathing suit under your clothing in case you want to cool off in one of the waterfalls! Follow one of the many trails to find waterfalls, a plethora of flora, sweeping views of the island and, if you are lucky, exotic birds. Visit Yokahu Tower for panoramic views of the island, followed by a dip in La Mina falls. You can also see El Yunque on horseback or via mountain bike.
After your hike, drive directly toward the coast and enjoy peaceful Luquillo Beach. Here you will find a large palm-dotted white sand beach with calm, clear water. They have a changing/shower facility and a bunch of little food shacks where you can get lunch.
View from one of the lookout towers in El Yunque
2) Underwater Adventure: Snorkel Icacos Island
Icacos island is not far from El Conquistador's private island (Palomino Island), however Icacos boasts a nice reef for snorkeling. Book a catamaran tour that leaves from Fajardo for a half day of snorkeling. While we didn't visit Icacos on our last trip, we have been several times either on a catamaran tour or on a friend's boat. The beach is pristine, the water is clear and I remember seeing a lot of colorful fish and coral here. One tip is to swim to the outer reef which is a bit further away from where all the boats stop. Here you can see much prettier coral and a larger variety of sea life like octopus and sting rays.
3) Outdoor Dining: El Estacion
This restaurant is a must if you are staying in Fajardo. A former executive chef from NYC partnered with a local and transformed an old gas station into a charming and eclectic indoor/outdoor dining experience. We didn't make reservations, but didn't mind waiting 45 minutes for our table at the bar where we enjoyed a couple of cocktails and the smell from the outdoor bbq. We'd read that they were famous for their lechon (roasted pig) but found out that they only make it on Sundays and we would only be in Fajardo mid-week. We quickly got over this miss once we looked at the menu. We had a delicious appetizer of chorizo pinchos with manchego cheese followed by a main course of seafood mofongo (me) and bbq pork spare ribs (Chris). Everything was delicious and I'd say this was the best mofongo I've had on the island. There was a high seafood to plantain ratio which ensured that the meal was not too dry (a common problem with mofongo). Some day we'll be back for their lechon on Sunday!
4) Night Kayak: Bioluminescent Bay
Puerto Rico has three bioluminescent bays, one of which is La Laguna Grande in Fajardo. These lagoons contain millions of micro-organisms that illuminate at night seconds after agitated. When your kayak or paddle glides through the water, the dark liquid illuminates for an instant. We visited years ago and they allowed us to swim in the lagoon which was frightening at first since you are basically swimming in a dark abyss. But fear changes to delight after seeing the water light up around your body! We also exchanged a lot of laughs trying to get back into our kayak from the water! Not easy, and definitely NOT graceful:) One tip - the darker the night, the better, so try to go when there is no moon out.
I don't have a picture from our bio bay trip but I found this image on TripAdvisor and thought it was the most accurate in capturing what we saw on our adventure. Some of the pictures online show a massive glowing blue bay which is not at all like the real thing.
5) Discover a Hidden Beach: Playa Medio Mundo in Ceiba
We heard there was a hidden white sand beach in the nearby town of Ceiba so we went exploring one afternoon after a day on Palomino Island. Playa Medio Mundo is not the easiest beach to locate but we eventually managed to find it. First you have to drive to Playa Los Machos which might be the saddest little beach in Puerto Rico. Drive to the end of the abandoned beach parking lot and park. You'll see a forest of mangrove trees with a path. The path looks wicked sketchy and I was hesitant to go on, but Chris went without a care in the world. I followed him with a fallen tree branch in hand just in case there were any wild animals lurking in the woods (ie hungry, abandoned dogs). About a five minute walk down the path, we were at Playa Medio Mundo. Unfortunately for us, we arrived at the wrong time of day. The sun was setting behind the mangroves casting a huge shadow on the beach and the tide was high which meant little to no visible dry sand. It was dissapointing. We considering coming back in the morning when the sun would be shining on the white sand but opted to go back to beautiful Palomino! Honestly, this might not be worth the 20 minute drive out of the way if you're here at the wrong time, but if you aren't staying at El Conquistador or if you are passing by, it's probably worth checking out.
Walking back through the mangrove covered path that connects Playa Los Machos to Playa Media del Mundo.
Hidden beach: Playa Medio Mundo at the wrong time of day (high tide and late afternoon). I think it would be much prettier in the morning!
Since much of the northeast is buried under snow right now, I thought it would be nice to post some images that contrast with the white blur outside many windows today. Prepare for a quick mental escape to paradise!
Chris and I visited sunny Puerto Rico in mid January for post-Christmas celebrations with family. Mid-week, we spent few days in Fajardo at El Conquistador resort. Many years ago we had lunch here and vowed to return for a stay at the hotel. It was finally time to try it out!
Overall, we absolutely loved this resort. The grounds and 360 degree views were incredible. One side of the resort faces the ocean, with Palomino island in the distance. The other side overlooks the rainforest, with the hills of El Yunque serving as a backdrop against the setting sun. STUNNING!
Bienvenidos! A tropical golf course with views of El Yunque welcomes you to El Conquistador.
Magnificent pools with cliff side views.
View of the Casitas and the Caribbean sea from our room.
There are several small nooks all over the resort. This one had a small pool with a clear view of Palomino Island.
The resort is decorated with tropical bonsai trees, artwork and sculptures by famous Puerto Rican artist Botello. Visit his gallery in Old San Juan where you are likely to meet his son.
If you are interested in visiting El Conquistador, here a few things to keep in mind:
When To Visit & Families
We visited during a lull - mid-week and right after school holiday breaks were over. This meant the place was not fully booked and we often had entire areas to ourselves. Highly recommend it if you can swing it!
It's very family friendly. There are multiple pools, kid-friendly restaurants, a built-in scavenger hunt around the grounds and even a water park. We didn't see many families given our timing, but this place would be a phenomenal family getaway.
There is no direct beach access from the main hotel grounds. The resort is situated on a cliff and there is a small marina below. Fear not! They have a ferry that takes guests to Palomino Island, the resort's private island, which is less than 10 minutes away. This island boasts one of the best beaches in PR. One side of the island features white sand, calm water, and full amenities - a decent restaurant, two bars, bathrooms, shops and games. You can also hike the small hill in the center of the island to a secluded cove on the far side, or rent horses for a quick tour. Depending on weather and sea conditions, you can rent kayaks and paddle over to Palominito (Little Palomino) which is a tiny beach island across the reef. We loved hanging out on this beach all day and the sunset ride back to the hotel was spectacular!
The white sand of Palomino Island - El Conquistador's semi-private island (locals with private boats may be visiting).
Chris found some shade under the palm trees. A perfect spot to nap, read and sip on a frozen drink.
The south side of the island has stronger waves and a pretty expansive reef.
You can visit several high points on the island by foot or via horseback.
View of Palominito (Little Palomino) from the look out point.
We hiked about 15 minutes to this little beach on the west side of the island. Not great for swimming but pretty nonetheless.
Lunch at the restaurant was surprisingly good. We both liked this churrasco sandwich the best. The restaurant only accepts credit cards or room credit - no ned to bring cash!
The water on the beach near the jetty was probably best. We both swam laps up and down the beach.
As the sun started to set on the mainland, behind the mountains it cast this beautiful orange glow over Palomino.
It started to cool off a bit as the sun set so we walked towards the rocks and watched all the iguanas and little lizards scurry in and out of the brush.
Sunset before heading back to the hotel. This was our view the entire ferry ride back to El Conquistador. Stunning!
Las Casitas & Group Travel
If you are traveling with a large group, consider renting one of the casitas situated along the cliffs. These are beautiful small apartments perfect for families. The casitas have their own small pool and restaurant areas which may be a better option during busy weeks at the resort.
Cliffside casitas at El Conquistador: It would be fun to rent these apartments with a group of friends or family!
They come in various sizes and colors. Some face the ocean while others face the rainforest.
When you stay at the casitas, you get access to private pool areas including this infinity pool. The casitas are also closest to the golf course club house and driving range.
We stayed in one of the main buildings facing the ocean which made for spectacular views. When we visited, an ocean view didn't cost much more than a jungle view room. However, if the cost difference is significant, I think a jungle view room would be very nice since the sun sets in that direction, casting a golden light over the mountains and impeccable golf course.
Sunrise view from our room.
We had a juliet balcony off our room which allowed for a lovely breeze. Here we are before dinner one night, looking over the sea and a few casitas.
Incredible sunrise view from our room. Below is the veranda which is one option for wedding receptions and other events.
I only have two tiny negatives about this resort. First, our bathroom was really dated. We got over this pretty quickly (we've stayed in MUCH worse) but if you are at all particular about your room, this could be an issue. Second, it can get very windy in the mountains which makes sitting outside a little chilly, even if it's sunny. This was only an issue for us one day - the other two days were vey calm. Bring a windbreaker just in case!
It can get very windy cliffside. Check out those palm trees!
Overall, I'd highly recommend this hotel to couples, families or groups of friends looking for a relaxing getaway. If you are traveling without kids, try and schedule your trip for "low season" dates (avoid common school vacations, Christmas and summer) otherwise I can see this place being mobbed by kids.
Also, I think this resort would make for a fantastic destination wedding venue. They have options for big or small weddings and your guests can stay together in the casitas village. It would be so much fun!
It's easy to get here. Fly into San Juan, rent a car at the airport and follow these directions. The drive out here will take about an hour and self parking is $15/day for guests. The car will give you lots of flexibility if you want to explore the rainforest or other nearby beaches and go out at night. If you don't want to rent a car, the hotel can schedule an airport transfer.
In my next post, I'll write about places to eat and things to do in the Fajardo area!
Happy New Year! I hope everyone enjoyed ringing in 2015 and look back on 2014 with happy memories. I certainly do!
Chris and I spent much of 2014 adjusting to a more stationary life after our trip around the world. We weren't traveling to an exotic locale every day, but we managed to find new adventures both near and far. 2014 brought us to Miami, a Caribbean Cruise (through a polar vortex), Austin, the Outer Banks, Nantucket, Maine, Vermont, Costa Rica, NYC, Jamestown RI, and several trips to see family in Puerto Rico.
In 2015, we'll be focused on making some exciting investments in our future - all of which will be revealed and (hopefully) celebrated in good time. Although much of our time and resources will be dedicated to these new projects, we will still find time to travel. In fact, we already have two trips planned this winter - a family visit to San Juan, Puerto Rico (including a quick jaunt to Fajardo) and a weekend in Quebec, Canada for their annual winter carnival. Here is a preview of the adventures ahead (and of future BV blog entries!):
Although, it has technically only been winter for a week I am already sick of the cold weather here in Boston. Chris and I are escaping the sub-zero temps and heading to PR to for a post-Christmas celebration with family.
Can't wait to see these faces (and more) soon!
Since we'll be there for over a week, we plan to spend a few days in Fajardo at the El Conquistador Resort. Hopefully the weather will co-operate and we'll see some of the pristine east coast beaches in all their white-sand glory.
Palomino Island Beach near Farjardo, Puerto Rico
Playa Medio Mundo in Ceiba, Puerto Rico (Photo credit: puertoricodaytrips.com)
Eva has been traveling for 15+ years, including an 8 month journey around the world.