Trip Coach: February 20, 2007

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Suzanne Van Atten, author of Moon Puerto Rico, answered your questions about Puerto Rico.

Sarver, PA: My sister and I are going to Vieques, March 3-10, with the last day spent in PR and staying overnight at the Sheraton. Should we hire a guide, to help us see the highlights of old San Juan? What restaurant would you recommend for dinner?

Suzanne Van Atten: Hi! Thanks for your question.

You definitely do not need a guide to see Old San Juan. It's compact and easy to get around on foot. Plus it's laid out in a grid, so just pick up a map at the Puerto Rico Tourism Company located in a little yellow Colonial building (La Casita on Plaza de Darsenes) near the bay and the cruise ship docks.

For dinner, I highly recommend Aquaviva on Calle Fortaleza for amazing seafood in a magical setting that makes you feel like you're underwater. My other suggestion is Baru, a lovely Mediterranean-influenced restaurant on Calle San Sebastian.

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Hoboken, NJ: Looking for the combination of a spa and horseback riding in Puerto Rico. Any suggestions? Thanks

Suzanne Van Atten: Despite Puerto Rico's long equine history, there are few opportunities for horseback riding for visitors. To combine both spa services and horseback riding, you're going to have to pay dearly and head for the northwest coast to the lovely, non-touristy town of Isabela. Villa Montana Beach Resort is a sublime, high-end resort with full spa services, and horseback riding is provided by the nearby Tropical Trail Rides.

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Oak Park, IL: Where is there good snorkeling on the main island of Puerto Rico?

Suzanne Van Atten: Your best bet is to head to Rincon, the surf and snorkel capital of the west coast or La Parguera on the southwest coast. Be sure to book space on a snorkel/dive cruise. They know the best places to go and can provide all the equipment you need. If you're feeling adventurous, most outfitters offer Discover Dives for first time divers.

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Valparaiso, IN: We'll be traveling to Puerto Rico next month and we are looking for a place to stay between Ponce and Yabucoa right on the coast that is inexpensively priced for four people staying together. However, we would like to know it is clean and well maintained. What do you suggest?

Suzanne Van Atten: The pickings are pretty slim between Ponce and Yabucoa, and what's there is quite modest in the way of modern amenities. You might try Caribe Playa Beach Resort or Villa del Carmen in Patillas. Or if you don't mind a little detour through some windy but lovely mountain roads, you might head north of Salinas to Hotel Banos de Coamo. This basic, family-friendly hotel is located by the natural hot springs, Banos de Coamo, a favorite getaway for locals.

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Ridgecrest, CA: This is an embarassingly simple question. Four of us will be flying into San Juan shortly after noon on March 25th. We need transportation to the port to board a cruise ship for an 11:00 p.m. departure and would prefer not to commit ourselves to the cruise line's transportation service. What other options are open to us, what might we expect to pay, and how might we make best use of the afternoon hours before we board? Thanks!

Suzanne Van Atten: You can expect to pay about $16 for a taxi ride from the airport to the cruise ship piers in Old San Juan, plus $.50-$1 per piece of luggage over two pieces. Plus tip.

There are couple of options for your afternoon hours in San Juan. You could rent a car at the airport and head southeast to the nearby rainforest in El Yunque Caribbean National Forest, where you can hike and picnic. Afterwards, you can return the rental car to the airport then take a taxi to the cruise ship piers.

You could also spend your time exploring Old San Juan, which is where the cruise ship docks are located. The town is compact, easily traversed on foot and jam-packed with things to do and see.

Check out one of the Spanish fortresses -- the 16th century Castillo de Felipe del Morro or 17th century Castillo de San Cristobal. See the extensive collection of Latin American folk art at the Museo de Las Americas. Do some shopping at import shops and local craft stores along Calle Fortaleza. Dine on hearty, traditional Puerto Rico cuisine in a casual setting at El Jibarito on Calle Sol or try the upscale, creative Caribbean cuisine at the Parrot Club on Calle Fortaleza.

The action doesn't get started until pretty late in the clubs, but you might check out Divinio Bocadito on Calle de la Cruz. The tiny Spanish bar offers salsa dancing and authentic tapas starting at 6 p.m.

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Princeton, NJ: My husband (43) and son (16) will be spending four days in Puerto Rico, just the two of them, from March 12-16. My other son and I will be joining them on the 16th, for a week in Culebra. While the two of them are in Puerto Rico alone, what should they be sure to experience? They are flying from Philadelphia to San Juan, and renting a car. They both like adventure and exploring over sitting on a beach.

Thanks!

Suzanne Van Atten: Since you're all ending up in Culebra for a week, you'll surely do plenty of snorkeling and/or scuba diving there.

I suggest your husband and son explore the northeastern corner of the island. They can spend the day hiking or biking the 6-mile Paseo Pinones Bike Path through gorgeous, pristine pine and palm forest along a rare strip of undeveloped coastline. The area is dotted with vendors selling traditional fritters and fried pies cooked over open fires.

Nearby is El Yunque Caribbean Forest, which contains the island's beloved rainforest. There are 14 miles of paved and primitive trails for hiking.

Finally, they should definitely spend an evening kayaking and swimming in the bioluminescent lagoon, Laguna Grande, to see the phosphorescent micro-organisms that make the sea glitter an electric green -- it's best seen under a moonless or cloudy nighttime sky. They should book their nighttime adventure with a local outfitter, such as Las Tortugas Adventures.

Other options include a tour of Las Cavernas Rio Camuy, the third largest subterranean river system in the world, on the northwest coast. Or check out local adventure outfitters such as Expediciones Palenque or Acampa, which lead guided spelunking, rappelling and body rafting trips through the mountain interior, Cordillera Central.

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Stafford Springs, CT: I am a single mom with 2 daughters. I would like to take them to Puerto Rico the week of April 16th. I like being with the natives more than I like resorts but if that is economical I will go that route. I can speak some Spanish and was thinking of the paradors as it may be the less expensive way to go. I do like to have my own kitchen also so I was thinking maybe I could rent a villa or apartment. I was also interested in Vieques. I want to relax on a beach but would also like 1 - 2 nights in Old San Juan. Help!!! My biggest expense will be airfare from Hartford and accomodations. I need to go cheap on a single mom's budget and again I can speak Spanish and want my daughters to play with local children. Thanks - Lauren

Suzanne Van Atten: Despite what you might think, paradors are not necessarily cheaper than other hotels, and the quality of their accommodations can be hit or miss.

And although Vieques is more "native" than the main island, everything is pretty pricey because most goods have to be transported in from the main island.

You might consider going to the small beach town of Boqueron the southwest corner of the main island. This is a popular vacation spot for Puerto Rican families, so the accommodations are affordable and often have kitchens or kitchenettes. Plus, there is virtually no American influence. You'll definitely get to practice your Spanish here! In addition, the public beach--Balneario Boqueron--is one of the island's best. The beach is gorgeous and the facilities are new and well maintained.

For inexpensive accommodations with kitchens in Old San Juan, try Caleta de las Monjas at www.thecaleta.com, although they may have a minimum night requirement depending on how booked they are. Another thrifty option in Old San Juan is Hotel Milano on Calle Fortaleza, although I don't believe they have kitchens.

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Valpo, IN: How often is there a problem with the ferry breaking down that goes between the mainland and the Island of Vieques? I will be traveling to Puerto Rico for usiness but I don't want to get stuck on the Island of Vieques and miss my meetings.

Suzanne Van Atten: The ferry between Fajardo and Vieques is pretty reliable, but it's time consuming. The trip takes an hour, plus -- because the ferry sometimes sells out before it can accommodate everyone who wants to ride -- you're recommended to buy your tickets in advance and get to the port at least one hour before departure. If you absolutely have to be somewhere on time on the main island, your best bet is to fly.

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Boston, MA: My husband and I are spending 10 days in PR, May 9-May 19. We are renting a car from the San Juan airport and heading to Rincon for the first 4 days. Then we will spend the next 4 in Vieques, and the last 2 in Old San Juan. What is the best way to get from the mainland to Vieques? We're confused about the different flight and ferry options, plus what to do with the rental car. Thanks!

Suzanne Van Atten: Your cheapest option is to take the daily passenger ferry from the town of Fajardo. It costs about $4 round-trip and takes about an hour each way. Buy tickets in advance at the Port Authority in Fajardo and be at the port at least an hour before departure, as the ferry often fills up. Last time I checked, it left Fajardo at 9:30 a.m., 1 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; and 9 a.m., 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Sat.-Sun. and Mon. holidays.

There is also a car ferry, but rental cars are not permitted to leave the main island of Puerto Rico so your best bet is to turn it back in to the agency and rent another car in Vieques. But be sure to reserve your rental car in Vieques ahead of time, because they often get snatched up.

You can also fly to Vieques from San Juan or Fajardo.There are several operators, including Vieques Airlink, Isla Nena Air Service and Cape Air. Check their sites or give them a call to confirm cost and departure times.

BTW: You should forgo renting a car for your last two days in Old San Juan. It's quite walkable, and it's easy to catch a cab or bus if you want to explore other parts of the city. And be sure to allow plenty of time to drive between Rincon and San Juan. Although it's only 93 miles (150 kilometers), it could take you roughly three hours, depending on traffic and road construction.

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Wernersville, PA: Need a reasonable, clean and safe hotel for 1 night near San Juan. Going on a cruise and want to spend the day before in San Juan. Cruise line hotel reservations and air are way too expensive.

Suzanne Van Atten: In Old San Juan, which is where the cruise ship docks are located, I suggest Hotel Milano. It's very modern and clean, albeit a little lacking in character. But it is located in an historic building and has, to my knowledge, the only rooftop deck in the old city -- a great place for sipping pina coladas.

There is also a hotel that caters to -- but is not exclusive to -- gay clientele in the Condado area not far from Old San Juan called Atlantic Beach Hotel. It's one of the best deals on the island. It's located right on the beach and many of the rooms have been recently renovated. On Sunday nights, there's a late-night drag show that's quite popular.

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Plymouth, Minnesota: I am interested in taking a spring break trip with my young (age 4 & 6) children to Puerto Rico. Where would you suggest we stay?

Suzanne Van Atten: You might consider La Parguera on the southwest coast. It's a quaint little town right on the water where you can catch boat rides through the mangrove canals and take a nighttime glass-bottom boat ride through Bahia Fosforescente, another of Puerto Rico's bioluminescent bays.

Slightly eastward in the town of Guanica is Copa Cabana Beach Resort, a lovely but low-key and out of the way resort with lots of great activities onsite for kids and an excellent fine dining restaurant called Alexandra's that adults will appreciate.

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Simsbury, CT: I would like to take a quick 4 or 5 day trip to Puerto Rico while my college freshman daughter is home for spring break. I specifically want us to travel to Puerto Rico because: my daughter is studying Spanish, I am a Spanish teacher, most of my students are from Puerto Rico or of PR heritage, and I have never visited PR! I am not on vacation at that time but do have 3 personal days available. I would like to use 2 or 3 of them for this trip over the weekend of March 15-18, 2007. We definitely want to spend some time on a beach, but we would like to get a real feel for PR as well. We are fearless travellers, we speak Spanish, and we are seasoned budget and third-world travellers who prefer to stay off the beaten path and out of luxury hotels. What would you recommend we do and where would you recommend we stay in order to get the most out of our visit? We would also like to keep expenses to a minimum! Another possibility would be wrapping travel around the previous weekend, as my daughter will be home from 3/9 to 3/18. Beginning and ending our travel out of Bradley airport (BDL) would also be ideal. Thank you so much for whatever advice you can provide!

Suzanne Van Atten: If you want a truly authentic experience where you're unlikely to encounter any American influence, I suggest you head to Jayuya in the interior mountains, called Cordillera Central. The flora is staggeringly beautiful -- we're talking National Georgraphic quality here -- and the people couldn't be friendlier. And there are lots of interesting Taino indian sites in Jayuya, such as the Cemi Museum and La Piedra Escrita, a rock covered in Taino petroglyphs located in a river, easily accessible by ramp and located by a natural pool ideal for dip!

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Suzanne Van Atten: Thanks for your questions. If you'd like more information, pick up a copy of my book, Moon Puerto Rico, published by Avalon Travel Publishing.

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