Puerto Rico: More Exotic Than You Think

Taking the Kids
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on December 6, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: Eileen Ogintz, family travel, Puerto Rico, Taking the Kids.

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Thank goodness for the glow sticks!

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It's pitch black and we are kayaking through red mangroves, trying to dodge the roots. The glow sticks on each kayak and on the backs of our life jackets are our only light.

We are in Puerto Rico on our way to the bioluminescent Bay Laguna Grande at Las Croabas, Fajardo—one of only three bioluminescent bays on the island, according to our GSI Adventures guide, Joel. Who says Puerto Rico is only about sun and surf?

This bay is home to a large colony—more than a million—of dinoflagellates that light up, producing the glowing waters. We let water slide through our hands and it glows. Crazy!

"So cool!" says my kayak partner Kate Boyce, here from Syracuse, New York, to celebrate her mom's 60th birthday and her sister's 30th. "Girl's trip," Kate said happily, adding they wouldn't let their dad come. I was here on a girls' getaway, too, with two of my oldest friends. We met two other moms from Seattle for their annual getaway.

By the end of our excursion, we are soaked and chilled but glad for the unique adventure. After a quick shower at our casita nearby at The El Conquistador Resort, we head down the road for an authentic Puerto Rican meal at the well-known Pasion por el Fogon. We feast on Asopaito de camarones—delicious delicate soup, fresh conch salad, fresh snapper and Mofango, which is green plantains fried and mashed, molded in a bowl and then stuffed with whatever you like—chicken, fish, seafood—and covered by a tomato-based sauce. We drink homemade Sangria and toast old friends and a terrific vacation day.

You're missing a lot if you ignore easy-to-reach Puerto Rico in favor of more exotic islands. And you're still in the United States here—Puerto Rico, of course, is a U.S. territory—yet you have the opportunity to explore a rich culture that dates back more than five centuries. (The kids will love exploring Castillo San Felipe del Moro Fort in Old San Juan. And they can practice their Spanish in a place where everyone is friendly ... but also speaks English.)

Take your pick of places to stay, from the 23 small family-owned Paradores to the historic Hotel El Convento, built in a centuries-old convent in the heart of Old San Juan, to family and budget-friendly resorts like the Wyndham Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa with the rain forest on one side and the beach on the other. (Check out rates starting at $99 a night. Call 800-474-6627 and mention the DIS88 rate.)

"Five minutes of serenity," says Maria Arocho, sitting poolside at the Wyndham as her three boys played happily in the water, glad for a place her family could afford. The Arochos, who live in Puerto Rico, had checked in for a weekend. "We come for the pools and room service," she said.

Many families, meanwhile, return again and again to the deluxe 750-room El Conquistador Resort that reminds me of a cruise ship on land with its own Coqui Water Park. Coqui offers water slides and a lazy river, a private offshore island, the Caribbean's largest spa (moonlight yoga, anyone?), Camp Coqui, golf and tennis, a casino, 14 restaurants and even its own excursions operation that can send you kayaking on the bioluminescent bay or out fishing. (Ask about the Coqui Water Park package, which includes airport transfers and breakfasts.)

If you're traveling with grandparents (or girlfriends), consider Las Casitas—a resort within the El Conquistador resort offering 157 villas with killer views, pools, restaurant and butler service. I love that the resort will stock your kitchen for you for just a $25 stocking fee, or have the chef cook for you.

"There is so much to do we haven't even left the resort," said Brian Keenan, vacationing with his family. The Keenans, in fact, had to persuade the kids to leave the pools to head 10 minutes offshore to the resort's Palomino Island for snorkeling, mini golf, jet skiing and horseback riding.

Wherever you stay, there are no worries if it rains. Explore Rio Camuy Cave Park, one of the world's largest underground cave systems, tour Old San Juan's historic sites or head to El Yunque rain forest, like we did, the only rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System and a U.S. World Biosphere Reserve.

Our guide, Wilfredo O'Neill, tells us the 28,000 acres attract more than a million visitors a year who come for the chance to swim under a waterfall, picnic and hike miles of trails amid 1,000 species of plants and animals. (There are no poisonous snakes, we're glad to hear.) Listen for the tiny tree frogs with voices as large as opera singers. Tell the kids the tiny frogs don't drink water but soak it up through their skin. Eleven of the 16 species unique to Puerto Rico can be found in this rain forest along with 1,000-year-old trees, flowers and tropical birds.

Back at the El Conquistador, kids snap photos of the beautiful blue parrots that grace the lobby—Biggles and Giggles—before racing to the pools. Their biggest decision of the day? Which pool to choose.

There was just one downside to my weekend here—it was way too short.

I need another day at the beach.

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