- The Washington Times - Friday, February 11, 2005

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — I couldn’t take it anymore. Freezing temperatures, slipping and falling on icy sidewalks, and the snow — so much snow. I had had enough of wintry New York and was starting to take the weather personally, as if it were out to get me. I was ready to move back to sunny Arizona.

My husband suggested that maybe, just maybe, I needed a little break. So we decided to head somewhere warm — although we couldn’t take off more than a long weekend from work. No matter. It was a vacation emergency.

We had been to Puerto Rico once before and had loved it. So I bought the tickets, called the hotel and packed our bags. We took a flight after work on a Friday and arrived in San Juan at 1 a.m. We were set to return to New York on Tuesday. I was determined to use our three days to relax in the sun, swim in the ocean and feel like we were far away from any hustle or bustle.

San Juan turned out to be the perfect weekend getaway from a cold U.S. city. Airfares can be shockingly low, and affordable flights can be found from several East Coast cities.

You can find relatively inexpensive accommodations and relatively uncrowded beaches.

There’s also a certain exotic quotient — you feel as if you’ve visited a foreign country, but without the passport hassles, money exchanges or even the need for different stamps on your postcards.

Our bed-and-breakfast boasted that it was a 10-minute taxi ride from the airport, something that made my husband very suspicious. How nice could it be, he asked, if it’s that close?

As the taxi pulled into the gated neighborhood of Ocean Park, his fears were put to rest. We rolled by mansions, some Spanish-style with tile roofs and stucco walls, others more modern, all lovely — but well-fortified with iron bars and concrete walls to protect against burglars.

As we rolled up to the Hosteria del Mar, we were greeted by a splish-splashing fountain, trees decorated with sparkling white lights and the brain-cleansing smell of salt air. The hotel was on the beach. Not near it. On it. The lobby was breezy, with clay tiles and cozy woodwork.

Our room was simple, with an air conditioner we promptly turned off, opting instead to open the window and door to the patio overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Changing out of my wool pants, coat and turtleneck was like transforming myself into a different animal. I wanted to burn my heavy clothes.

Falling asleep to the sound of crashing waves, I felt as if I had exhaled for the first time in months. I felt lighter, younger, happier.

In the morning, our hotel choice was validated with the view from the balcony, bordered by palm trees framing the golden sand below and the turquoise sea. We saw nothing but water, sky and sand.

We chose Ocean Park because we didn’t want to do anything except relax or go anywhere except the beach. The neighborhood is not touristy.

The beachgoers seemed to be mostly locals from the fancy gated homes, walking their dogs in the morning, jogging after work, chatting with neighbors.

Each of our three mornings was the same: breakfast, then beach.

The breakfast at Hosteria del Mar perfectly fit our mood: simple. Fresh crusty white bread, butter, tasty preserves, papaya and mango juice and fabulous Puerto Rican coffee.

At the beach, my husband swam for hours, rested, then swam more. I sat on the hotel’s chaise lounges on the sand, ordered numerous (and nonalcoholic because I was pregnant) frozen fruit drinks of mango, papaya and pineapple, and read a book. Then I swam. No other activities were necessary.

Our other meals at the hotel’s restaurant were a nice culinary contrast to the fried food and rice and beans we had eaten on our previous trip to Puerto Rico.

These meals, although expensive, were a mix of Latin and Asian cuisine, including macrobiotic and vegetarian options. The house specialty drink, the uvatini, is a martini with freshly squeezed grape juice. Meals can be taken inside or on the deck with ocean views.

On our last night, we walked down the beach to another bed-and-breakfast, the creatively named the Numero Uno Guest House, to dine at its restaurant, Pamela’s, which serves fabulous Caribbean fusion cuisine.

An online article claimed the restaurant is actor Benecio del Torro’s favorite in San Juan. After eating there, I could believe it.

We did venture by cab into Old San Juan one afternoon, but we soon realized that on previous visits we had seen most of the historic sites, such as the forts and churches dating to Spanish colonial times. The bustling cobblestone streets weren’t fitting in with our relaxation plans; we should have stayed at the beach.

Yet after another day in the sun and surf, we did feel ready to do something. We rented a car (very easily with hotel help) and headed to one of the island’s gems, El Yunque, the rain forest.

Getting there was fast and easy. The scenery transformed rapidly from the palm-dotted coast into hazy mountains covered in lush tropical vegetation. We stopped in a little village at the base of the mountains to buy pastries, then continued along the road into the dense greenery. It rained. It stopped. We parked and climbed a slick stone path to a tower atop a hill.

At first, we were in the clouds, surrounded by the smoky white mist. Then a breeze picked up and the clouds blew away, revealing green hills covered in palm trees.

In the distance, we could see the ocean, dotted with ferries heading to the islands of Vieques and Culebra. We ate our pastries and listened for coqui, the tiny tree frog that is a symbol of Puerto Rico. We could hear the chirping from the branches of nearby trees covered in giant leaves.

We hiked to one of the park’s many waterfalls. We were hot and sweaty when we found what we were seeking, and we dove in — on the advice of a friend, we had worn our swimsuits under our shorts and T-shirts. It felt like Fantasy Island: the beautiful clear water, the roaring waterfall, and me and my husband feeling as if we were the only people on Earth. Most visitors took a look and walked on by, those fools. It was a dream.

From the rain forest, we started our journey home to New York. We drove to Old San Juan for a final meal, dropped the car at the airport and checked in for our flight home.

“New York City?” the ticket agent said. “You must like the cold.”

I felt like crying — and did in the cab home from the New York airport.

Maybe it was a tease. Maybe we should have stuck out the cold and not tried to delude ourselves with a quick trip to paradise. “How could I return to such hideous, evil weather?” I thought as we whizzed by dirty, gray, half-melted snow piles along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

It turns out the trip had longer-lasting effects than I had imagined, however. In my childbirth class months later, we had to practice relaxation exercises, and the San Juan trip was the sole inspiration for the images for my “comfortable place.” I focused on the view from our hotel’s patio, the palm trees framing the breaking blue-and-white waves, the sky clear and sun-filled.

I wonder if Puerto Rico will be as relaxing with a baby along for the trip.

• • •

Hosteria del Mar: Calle Tapia 1, Ocean Park, San Juan. Phone: 787/727-3302 or 800/448-8355. Rates: $89 to $279 nightly, December through April; air conditioning and breakfast included.

Numero Uno Guest House: 1 Santa Ana St., Ocean Park, San Juan; www.numero1guesthouse.com or 866/726-5010 or 787/726-5010. Rates: $115 to $265 nightly, December through April; air conditioning and breakfast included.

El Yunque: Also known as the Caribbean National Forest. From San Juan, take Route 3 past the signs for Rio Grande until the sign for Palmer-El Yunque on the right. Turn right, follow signs for Route 191 through the village of Palmer. Take Route 191 south until the signs for the Caribbean National Forest. Many hotels can arrange taxis to El Yunque or recommend tour bus trips. For more information, visit www.southernregion.fs.fed.us/caribbean.

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