My wife and I are not resort-vacation types. We like trips where you visit cultural landmarks, go to museums, and learn the history of a place. We don’t do cruises. Too many days at the beach can feel claustrophobic. But this last year was particularly busy and we were in need of a serious rest.

So we decided to break our usual mold and do something rejuvenating. In that spirit, we lined up something of a luxury vacation to Puerto Rico for the week before Christmas. We usually try to pinch pennies (as well as experience ‘the real thing’) and so we typically stay in mom-and-pop bed and breakfasts. But this time we decided to stay in the Marriott with its in-house casino, huge outdoor pool, and direct access to the beach. This turned out to be a pretty good call. The hotel is located in the Condado region of San Juan (viz. the area packed with expensive hotels) and is very close to a host of nice restaurants, bars, and so on. The amenities were what you’d expect and the beach is terrific. But more on all that shortly.

We landed on Monday and, after checking in, hungrily went to a divey restaurant near the hotel. We ate mofongo and tostones–two classic Puerto Rican dishes–and drank Medalla, the local beer. Stuffed, we went to lounge on the beach. There are apparently varieties of beaches in PR, including a white sand one which is about an hour by boat off the east coast of the island, but we wanted to be lazy and just stay at our beach. The water was kinda rough, but warm, and the beach itself was only sort of crowded. Christmas time is high season in PR, but we didn’t find anything too packed. But we’re New Yorkers, so our sense of that may be a bit off.

After a delightful afternoon nap, we walked to a snazzy restaurant in Condado called Jam. It’s the less pricey place by one of the hottest chefs in PR (his other place , Marmalade is supposed to be great; he trained with Gordon Ramsey). On Mondays, food is 50% off at Jam. The drinks were spectacular (we had a particularly good coconut mojito) and the food was good–basically modern riffs on local favorites like churrasco. People in PR are generally very nice, and when the waiters noticed that our service was particularly slow, the restaurant compensated us by taking 50% off our drinks. So that was OK; we weren’t in any rush and we had fun nonetheless.

Tuesday was our designated Old San Juan day. OSJ is like the historical part of PR and not far from our hotel. The streets are lined with colorful houses and its really worth aimlessly walking around for a while. There’s a cute trolley that will cart you around it too, but we opted for the exercise.

The only way to get to OSJ, though, was either a $15 cab or a local bus for 75 cents. It’s funny: Things in PR are either pretty expensive ($25 entrees/$15 cabs) or dirt cheap ($3 sandwiches). There wasn’t much in between. Anyway, the bus doesn’t keep a schedule so we caught a cab with some other tourists and made it into town. When we first got in, we ate a late breakfast at a cool coffee shop called Cafecultura. We drank terrific PR coffee and ate mallorcas, which are these delicious little sandwiches on sweet bread. You can get it just with butter, or with other toppings like ham and cheese. Any way you get them is good.

Fueled up, we walked around one of OSJ’s two fortresses, which are really the highlight of the town. The fortresses were initially built by the Spanish after its discovery by Ponce de Leon. During the age of exploration, PR was considered an entryway into the New World with all of its riches, so it was heavily fortified and attacked several times by, among others, the Dutch and the British. The fortresses were beautiful and there were great views of the ocean from their heights. There’s about a mile long walk along the ocean from the first to the second fortress and it took several hours to trek around both.

But we were soaked. Why you ask? PR is known for having about the same weather conditions year long–that is, overcast and about 83 degrees. It gets sunny at several points throughout the day, but it also rains in a kind of funny way periodically too. All of a sudden, it’ll get gray and there will be a fine mist everywhere. And then it’ll stop. Tuesday was particular rainy and we were without umbrellas. Somewhat tired and wanting to dry off, we caught the bus back to the hotel. And we napped.

We had heard that there was a really great restaurant called Jose Enrique not far from us that had been praised by, among others, Eric Ripert. But it required walking through a pretty rough looking neighborhood. We braved it and rewarded ourselves with a bottle of wine at dinner. The food was very tasty, but at this point we realized two things about PR restaurants: (a) almost everything is fried and (b) the service isn’t very good. The special of the day was a whole fried fish–yum, but my heart can’t take it. And at least two tables that got there after we arrived were served before we even ordered. So you have to push a bit to get served, which isn’t our thing. But enough venting. We weren’t deterred and we caught a cab home.

Wednesday was adventure day. We rented a car and drove to El Yunque, the National Rain Forest. El Yunque is a huge mountain, named after an Indian god, surrounded by lush rainforest. The deal is that you basically drive up the side of the mountain stopping along the way at designated places with trails and sights. You can get a tour that will tell you about stuff, but we recommend just doing it yourself.  It’s pretty easy to navigate and we saw a cool waterfall, hiked an awesome trail, and swam in another waterfall.  Pretty amazing.

We then drove to Luquillo, a beach town not far from El Yunque, and had lunch at their famous kiosks. As you drive up to the town, there’s a
host of kiosks along the side of the road that serve all manners of fried goodies, snacks, and drinks. The shops look sort of scary from the road, but the food is yummy, if bad for you. To give you an idea, we shared a drink in a whole coconut and ate fried turnovers that you can eat while you walk.

That night, we took a kayaking tour of the famous bioluminescent bay off the coast near Fejardo. This is a must do in PR. You kayak out to the bay at night and there are little microorganisms in the water that light up when you perturb them. It’s beautiful and haunting. Set that up in advance if you can though because it’s super popular.

Exhausted, we drove back to Condado and at dinner at a Spanish restaurant walking distance from the hotel called Bar Gitano. It’s owned by Lee Trevino, a chef we saw on Top Chef Masters, and the food was good (including a more than passable seafood paella). The mojitos and sangria were magical.

On Thursday, we rested as we had planned to do. We lounged on the beach, ate junky hotel food, sat in the jacuzzi, swam in the choppy ocean, read our books, and did things like that. Vacation is good. After a luxurious nap, we went back into Old San Juan at night for dinner. We ate the the kitschy Parrot Club, a throwback to those tropical clubs of the 50’s. The food wasn’t great, but it wasn’t too expensive. We then wandered around hoping to find people salsa dancing or something, but the town was quiet–it was a Thursday night after all and apparently the locals don’t come into town during the week. So we went to bed somewhat early, exhausted from a short week of relaxing.

Since it was the week leading up to Christmas, everything had funny holiday decorations on it, even though the sun was shining and everything has that tropical Caribbean vibe. It was a bit surreal, but exactly what we needed.