Yes, it’s the weekend and there’s always some quirky travel item. This one, from London’s Mirror, offers reporter Clinton Manning’s description of his visit to Puerto Rico under the guidance of British TV personality Bruce Forsyth (recently knighted) and his wife, former Miss Puerto Rico and Miss World Wilnelia Merced.
IT’S not often you get met at the airport by showbiz royalty.
But TV legend Sir Bruce Forsyth wasn’t in Puerto Rico to greet just any flight. The twinkle-toed octogenarian and his wife Wilnelia were welcoming British Airways’ first flight to San Juan. But after spending a short time in the couple’s company it soon became clear that this wasn’t strictly just business for Bruce.
He pitched up to sing the praises of a place he fell in love with more than 30 years ago, and where he spends three or four months of every year. “It’s a hidden gem,” he gushed. “I don’t know why more Brits don’t come here.
“It’s got everything, the weather, the beaches, the golf… and of course the women,” he adds, throwing an admiring glance towards former Miss World Wilnelia. Despite their 30-year age gap, 20 minutes’ banter over some bubbly is enough to understand how Wilnelia was seduced by this old-school charmer.
Why he worships Wilnelia is equally obvious. But what made him fall for her country as well? The conversation turns to food and someone in the party asks him if he has a favourite dish?
“Of course he has, he married her,” I quip – instantly wondering if I’ve overstepped the mark. But Bruce isn’t offended: “Very good, very quick,” he laughs, patting me on the shoulder before continuing his patter. He sings the praises of his favourite shopping centre, Plaza Las Americas, where, he says, you can buy a jacket for $100 that would cost three times as much in London (the price is right). But this vast, three-storey shopping mall, which houses branches of Sears, Macys, Gap and Foot Locker is both the beauty and the beast of Puerto Rico. While there is no language barrier and it boasts most modern amenities, the “Island of Enchantment” is in danger of being swamped.
I realise I am risking Bruce’s wrath by being critical but much of San Juan looks more like mid-town America, with drive-in branches of Wendy’s and KFC and Hilton hotels, than the Caribbean.
Travel a little further and scratch beneath the surface however, and there are still some treats and treasures. Take the El Yunque National Rain Forest where you can see 1,000-year-old trees and tropical birds such as the coqui amid the lush landscape which has remained largely unchanged for generations. Take a picnic and try one of around 10 different trails or climb Yokahu Tower for a 360-degree treetop vista.
Another high point was wandering the quaint, blue cobbled streets of the San Juan’s old town which are lined with villas, bars, hotels and cafes in Caribbean colours. One bar, Barrachina, has a plaque outside claiming it was where the Pina Colada was created, by the Spaniard Don Ramon Portas Mingot in 1963.
This is disputed however, with the Beachcomber Bar at San Juan’s Caribe Hilton also laying claim to the cocktail some nine years earlier. I can’t resolve the dispute for you but, after extensive research, can verify that both mix wonderful versions of the rum, pineapple and coconut concoction.
The other thing to drink in Puerto Rico is coffee, particularly the morning after a night on the Pina Coladas. The best I had was in the palm-filled inner courtyard of Hotel El Convento, on one side of a charming square in the heart of Old San Juan.
This converted 17th century convent would also make a romantic base for exploring the delights of the old town. Some rooms overlook the square, while others have a view of the harbour, where the cruise ships dock.
Also overlooking the ocean and worth a visit is the Fuerta San Felipe del Morro, the largest fort in the Caribbean with wonderful views of the rugged coastline.Ah, yes, the coast.
No trip to the Caribbean would be complete without exploring the beaches. It’s fair to say that the sandy stretches of Puerto Rico’s coastline are not the most golden or glamorous in the region. But what they lack in sophistication is, to some extent, made up for by the lack of crowds and a simplicity that leaves you feeling closer to nature. This was certainly true, and not in a good way, when we visited Palomino Island. The only private beach on Puerto Rico is a 10-minute water taxi ride from the El Conquistador Resort.
It offers a range of water sports as well as the chance to explore the island on the ponies that give it its name. I took a kayak and paddled to a deserted island supposedly used by Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz for filming the new movie Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
But on my return my sense of adventure faded a little when a three-foot iguana got just a bit too close for comfort. One of the best things about Puerto Rico is that you don’t have to stay in Puerto Rico. It is an ideal springboard for a trip to one of the British Virgin Islands such as Tortola or Sandy Cay. I opted for Vieques, the largest of Puerto Rico’s Spanish Virgin Islands, where Lord of the Flies was filmed. The 20-minute hop in Seaborne Airlines’ nine-seater propeller plance was an adventure in itself. Passengers as well as every item of luggage are weighed and the seating plans devised to balance the load.
If it sounds precarious, fears vanish soon after take-off as you’re treated to a pilot’s-eye view of the shimmering sea and stunning coves. The flight cost £70 but I later discovered I could have gone by ferry for just £2.50. Vieques is 21 miles long and five miles wide. That makes it about the same size as Manhattan – but the two are worlds apart. Vieques is largely undeveloped mainly due to decades of use by the US Navy. Their unexploded bombs also explain why some parts of the islands remain out of bounds to tourists.
I stayed at the chic W Retreat & Spa, full of the toned and tanned, where a half-litre bottle of mineral water will set you back $6. The hotel is beautifully designed and the food, developed by French chef Alain Ducasse, truly mouth-watering.
But the highlight of my stay was a trip to Bio-Bay. If there is one thing to do in Vieques it is a night-time dive into this water wonderland. Zillions of micro organisms light up the lagoon when the water is disturbed, so as you swim your silhouette starts to sparkle and glow.
On the way back fish zipped through the water like flashing fireworks. Sadly it was impossible to photograph but the pictures in my head will remain for a long time to come – a kind of Brucie bonus.