Puerto Rico's Charming Country Inns

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From cool hills to sunny beaches, the parador system serves up Borinquen's diversity at mighty nice prices

Where do Caribbean islanders go when they're stressed out? In Puerto Rico, the answer is a parador, one of a network of 24 government-certified inns that offer simple but quality lodgings, often in historic buildings or beautiful natural settings. Room rates are right (usually around $85), while in-house restaurants are generally pricier ($15-$20 an entree). Most inns offer half- or full-board plans, however, which bring the total cost down to about $120 a night (quite convenient, given the scarcity of eateries in remote corners of the island). For the most part there is no high or low season, rather weeknights and weekends, when locals flood the paradores; visit during the week and you can save as much as 25 percent. The paradores serve up the best of Borinquen, from fine beaches and watersports to hiking in romantic mountains; all are fabulous year-round, as sea breezes keep the beaches pleasant during the slow summer season (watch out for hurricanes June through November, though), and the cool hills are neither too hot in summer nor too cold in winter. Most of all, though, the inns offer a different and less synthetic kind of Caribbean holiday away from Coppertone-smeared crowds.

Here, then, is a roundup of five shining stars of Puerto Rico's paradores.

The Northeast: Powdery strands and rainy mountains

The Fajardo Inn, 52 Parcela Beltran, Puerto Real, Fajardo; 787/860-6000, fax 787/860-5063

Perched on a hill over the port of Fajardo about an hour east of San Juan, this modern parador commands dramatic views over the Atlantic coast on one side and the mountains of El Yunque rain forest on the other. It's not as posh as El Conquistador just across the road, but for a fraction of the price you get a luxe, Mediterranean resortlike experience with balustrades, grand staircases, and gorgeous rooms with all the amenities and killer views. The pool overlooking the hill and ocean is a trip in itself, and the front desk will set up snorkel and diving expeditions. Area attractions include the magical rain forest, the superb beaches at Luquillo, the island's oldest lighthouse at El Faro nature reserve, and the sleepy offshore islands of Vieques and Culebra, accessible from the nearby ferry terminal. Doubles here run $85 to $95; if you can live without a phone or view, you'll pay $60 by staying in the smaller original inn. There's no meal plan, unfortunately, and the in-house restaurant is fairly exorbitant; there is, however, a reasonable tapas menu starting at about $4. For nearby eats, feast at the spiffy New York Steak and Buffet (Rt. 3, 44.9 km; 787/860-5528), with a choice of some 80 dishes plus soups, ice cream, and coffee for $5.99 at lunch and $7.99 at dinner; kids eat for $3.99 and seniors get 10 percent off; or, for typical Cantonese meals priced from $3.50 to $7, try China Garden (Rt. 3, 44.9 km; 787/633-5419).

The Southeast: Sugar mills and awesome hills

Palmas de Lucia, Rts. 901 and 9911, Camino Nuevo, Yabucoa; 800/981-7575

Way at the eastern end of the Ruta Panoramica (a network of winding roads stretching from Mayaguez in the west to Yabucoa in the east and offering some of the island's best views), this knockout four-year-old greets you with an updated riff on Old San Juan's architecture just steps from the sand at Lucia Beach. Inside the main building, rooms sport exposed beams, shuttered balconies, and other cozy touches; beyond the sparkling pool, the rest of the 29 units are more mod in style but equally crisp and charming. All have phone, A/C, TV, and private bath, and there's even a basketball court. Doubles run $74 plus 7 percent tax, but given the lack of eateries in the area, the full-board plan is highly recommended and a bargain indeed: the two-night package, for example, includes a double room with sea and pool views, plus two breakfasts, lunches, and dinners per person. The cost? $260, or $130 a night for two people, and the Latin food is excellent (try the tongue-twisting churrasco a la chimichurri, flank steak in olive oil and parsley sauce). For a change of pace, check out the nearby Sol y Mar (Rt. 901, 6.1 km, Yabucoa; 787/893-8297), where similar creole cookery is served up for $3.75 at lunch and $5-$10 at dinner. Area attractions include Vieques Island (which you can see from your room, as well as the very scenic loop of Route 901), El Cocal beach for surfing, and a historic sugar mill.

The Southwest: Fishy fritters and glowing critters

Posada Porlamar, Rt. 304, 3.3 km, La Parguera; 787/899-4343, fax 787/899-5558

For snorkeling, fishing, and kayaking, the calmer waters of the Caribbean coast are ideal, and this parador in the fishing village of La Parguera may well be the top spot. Looking like a wayward Cape Cod inn, the white wooden gem has 35 air-conditioned rooms with TV and phone, as well as a pool and a 60-foot dock. Standard rooms run $85 (plus 7 percent tax), while $100 buys you a sea view on the third floor and $110 adds a minibar. The big draw hereabouts, apart from fishing and watersports, is Phosphorescent Bay, where skazillions of luminescent micro-critters light up the water when agitated (best seen on moonless nights). La Pared, the dining room, specializes in seafood and, like most parador eateries, ain't cheap, with dishes in the $21-$25 range; the half-board plan is $145 for the night (a standard room with breakfast and dinner for two). Drive instead to Antonino's (Rt. 116, 1.9 km, Lajas; 787/899-0001), an Italian/pizza spot where you can enjoy lasagna and garlic bread for $4.49 or a marinated breast of chicken with pasta for $7.50. For a funky mix of Chinese and Puerto Rican fare, try Manny & Sons (Rt. 116, 1.9 km, Lajas; 787/899-1880); the atmosphere is pretty minimal (think vinyl tiles and Formica tables), but where else could you get egg foo young served with french fries and mofongo (plantain mash) with fried porkchops (both $4.99 and darn yummy) all under one roof?

The Northwest: Surfing, spelunking, and eavesdropping on aliens

Villas del Mar Hau, Rt. 466, 8.3 km, Playa Montones, Isabela; 787/872-2627, fax 787/830-2490

With a long private beach and a huge tidal "wading" pool that's perfect for kids, it calls itself "your secret spot in paradise"--and that ain't just hype. Run since the early 1960s by the friendly Hau family (locals of German-Cuban descent), it offers 16 lovely Bahamian-style cottages in bright Caribbean colors and Victorian wood trim right on the water, complete with kitchens and front porches (for dramatic sunsets). There are also 22 newer units with A/C, TV, phone, fridge, coffeemaker, and French doors overlooking the ocean. Weekend rates run from $80 a night for a double up to $115 for two-bedroom units that sleep six; stay weeknights and prices drop 15 to 25 percent. Apart from the beach, there's a good-size pool, free tennis and sand volleyball, horseback riding ($15/half-hour), a game room, and a small grocery store. Neat area activities include surfing at the famous Jobos Beach, spectacular underwater caves for diving, the fascinating Camuy Caverns park, and the Arecibo Observatory (where Jodie Foster made Contact). Olas y Arenas, the in-house gazebo eatery, serves sublime island-inspired creations way out of budget range but well worth a one-night splurge. Otherwise, head for the clean and pretty Iggy's BBQ Restaurant (Rt. 110, 9.2 km, Aguadilla; 787/890-0402), where you can savor owner/chef Iggy Molina's award-winning BBQ porkchops served with a choice of sides ($5.95) or his superb mofongo with red snapper in Creole sauce ($9.95). For simpler grub, try the beachfront Happy Belly's (Rt. 4466, Isabela; 787/830-2457), where filling platters served with fries or tostones (fried green plantains) go from $3.75 (hamburger) to $9.95 (chicken breast stuffed with ham, cheese, and broccoli over pasta).

The Central Mountains: Crystal streams and coffee beans

Hacienda Juanita, Rt. 105, 23.5 km, Maricao; 787/838-2550, fax 787/838-2551

Ask those who know the paradores to name their fave, and nine out of ten say Juanita. Perched on a steep ravine overgrown with flowering vines about two-and-a-half hours southwest of San Juan, this nineteenth-century wood-frame ex-coffee plantation is wildly romantic, with veranda dining in the "big house" and 21 super-cozy tiled rooms with four-poster beds and private baths in the former slave barracks; these units are a tad rosticos (no phone or A/C), but that's precisely their charm. Play tennis, hang out in the pool, or go hiking on nature trails that teem with tropical bird life in the Maricao forest reserve; farther afield, check out the shrine at El Pozo de la Virgen or the colonial-era mountain town of San Germ n with its centuries-old Porta Coeli church. A double with no meal plan runs $85 ($95 with TV); the half-board plan for two, though, is a great deal at $125 ($5 more with TV), as it includes one breakfast and one dinner per person per night and the hearty food is excellent. Otherwise, drive a ways to La Parada 119 (Rt. 119, 3.7 km; 787/892-7402), an authentic open-air restaurant where complete dinners with salad, fries, plantains, and garlic bread run $5.50 (chicken cracklings) to $9.50 (red snapper in garlic sauce).

Inn terms of preparation

An American and TWA hub, San Juan is serviced by more flights from the U.S. mainland (including the only year-round evening flight) than any other Caribbean island; thanks to competition, prices range from $200-$300 from the East Coast. You'll save on sales tax (there's none) and money-changing fees (the greenback rules).

For air-land packages, contact Inter-Island Tours (800/245-3434, prparadores.com or interislandtours.com), one of whose specialties is the paradores. It will custom-design an itinerary: a four-nighter in a different inn each night would run about $633 per person in high season from Miami and $722 from New York (airfare and car included, but no meals). Additional details on Puerto Rico and the paradores may be found at 800/866-7827 or prtourism.com.

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