Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch



October 1, 1962 -- "What is probably the lowest mileage rate offered today on a major international air route?"

The question was posed recently to a casual grouping of five or six Martini-muddled people at a cocktail party, by a sweet young thing who works for an airline. Despite the mental haze and lassitude that always seems to settle over people in the dying minutes of one of these affairs, the query stimulated an instantaneous response from almost everyone within earshot, much to the young lady's disappointment.

The answer, in case you haven't already guessed, is New York--San Juan. The 1,700 or so miles that separate New York City and Puerto Rico's capital may be flown for just under three cents per mile with propeller aircraft, and for a fraction above three cents with jetliners.

This works out to a remarkable low fare, which makes it possible for you and your family to enjoy a moderate-priced, exciting and easy-to-reach vacation in Puerto Rico and the nearby Virgin Islands, easily the most popular double-threat Caribbean lure for American Tourists today. With proper planning, the cost of a trip to these exotic subtropical islands need not exceed $100 a week in the winter and $150 or less a week in the summer season. These prices are competitive with those of a similar vacation at a mainland resort like Miami Beach--but you're in the blue, romantic Caribbean.

Admittedly, a low airfare and easy accessibility are in themselves not enough to recommend a pleasure trip of several thousand miles. There's no problem, though, since Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are generously endowed with a basketful of other attractions. These include the year-round co-operation of the weather, an impressive roster of hotels in all price ranges; free-port shopping with a special twist (you can bring home twice as much duty-free); sightseeing with a scenic and historic flair; top-name entertainment and authentic local festivals; water sports and golf courses; fishing for the big ones in the Caribbean, and even a fertile filed for those who dream of glittering pirate loot.

Whether you're a recluse or a mixer, whether you seek a gregarious environment or isolation, whether your vacation dish is a deluxe resort hotel or a modest guest house, you'll be able to fill your specifications here. Another plus factor for Americans is a minimum of documentation (proof only of citizenship) and customs red tape, since both Puerto Rico and the Virgins are part of the Untied States. There's no language problem, either, even though Spanish is the mother tongue in Puerto Rico.

It would only be fair to point out that the aforementioned vacation assets have not been lost on our fellow citizens. Last winter, for example, a hotel room in this area (especially in San Juan) was as hard to come by as an apartment in New York after World War II. January, February and March are especially popular, and if this has to be your target time, make positive plans and reservations many moons in advance. (In fact, there's no question but that, both pressure and price-wise, it's wiser to go in the off-season, May to December.) New hotels are continually being opened and existing facilities expanded in Puerto Rico and the Virgins, but not fast enough to keep pace with the demand.)

Before we get to specifics, let's take a quick look at those magical airfares that bring Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands within easy reach of plane and purse. Three airlines (Eastern, Pan American and Trans Caribbean) fly many times a day from New York, mostly with jets that cover the distance in three-and-a-half hours. One-way fare in "thrift" or third class (quite comfortable for the short trip) is $57.75. The same hop with a piston craft is $49.75. One-way jet fare from Miami is $43.95. Direct service from other major cities on the East Coast and from the Midwest and South are also available.

Connections from San Juan to the Virgin Islands are fast, frequent and inexpensive. A local company, Caribair, flies about twenty times a day to St. Thomas ($18 roundtrip) and St. Croix ($24.75). British West Indian Airways also serves San Juan to St. Thomas, and Pan Am now flies directly from the Untied States to St. Croix. Caribair links St. Thomas and St. Croix every half hour, at $10.80 roundtrip.

Let's start our tour in the Virgin Islands, which lie some fifty miles east of Puerto Rico in one of the most constant temperature zones in the world. The mercury loafs in the seventy- and eighty-degree ranges month in and month out, while the trade winds keep the humidity moving. The hotels are so cocky about the weather that many of them will waive the room charge for any day the temperature dips below seventy.

The three key islands in the group, St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John, lie suspended in a triangular pattern due east of Puerto Rico. Although neighbors in every sense of the word, enveloped perpetually by the same bright blue skies, each member of the trio has a distinct personality that the visitor is almost immediately aware of. St. Thomas is alive and sophisticated; there's "action" on this island. St. Croix also has a thriving tourist industry, but the pace is slower, the resorts smaller and more intimate. St. John is lush, green, covered with forests--an isolated haven without commercial taint. There's little sense in visiting one island and omitting the other two; they make a perfect package in combination with Puerto Rico.

Let me pause at this point to try and paint a typical visitor scene: It's late afternoon, you and your wife are seated under a canopy near the swimming pool enjoying a banana or a pineapple daiquiri (frozen, of course). The beach is just a hundred feet away and there's a mild breeze rustling through the palm fronds. In the morning, after a pre-breakfast swim, you took a leisurely sightseeing tour of the surrounding countryside in an air-conditioned bus ($3.50 each). After a light lunch in town of some freshly-caught seafood (pompano?), you came back to the hotel for a nap while the Mrs. Stayed in town for some shopping at hard-to-believe prices. Before you go to your room for a shower, maybe you'll play some tennis or shuffleboard and have a Martini or another rum drink at the poolside bar. After dinner at the hotel (the menu is basically American-Continental, with some local dishes), you'll go into town to that little club with the excellent calypso trio and watch them dance the limbo (or even the twist). You can't stay out late, because you and two other couples have chartered a small boat tomorrow morning for fishing. There's marlin, tuna and tarpon out there. The day after tomorrow, you've made a date for golf. Yes, thanks, we'll both have another daiquiri.

The smallest, least-known and loveliest of the Virgins is St. John, four miles and thirty minutes by boat from St. Thomas. About fifteen of the island's twenty square miles were designated as the Virgin Islands National Park in 1956, the twenty-ninth such area on United States soil. The gift of this property came from Laurance S. Rockefeller, brother of New York State's Governor and a pivotal name in the development of vacation facilities not only in the Virgins but also in Puerto Rico and the Far West.

Here on St. John, Rockefeller's Caneel Bay Plantation dominates the tourist picture. Various types of boats, from sail to sloops, are available at the hotel, along with snorkeling equipment. Sightseeing tours are arranged to take you through scenic old trails by horse, donkey or jeep (guides are available and advisable). The ruins of the old Danish plantations and relics of the Carib and Arawak Indians make for an interesting half-day tour. One-day guests from St. Thomas also make their headquarters at this resort (roundtrip by boat, all facilities and luncheon for $12.50). Caneel Bay itself is an unusual spot, marked by serenity, a cluster of white-sand beaches, Danish décor and a dramatic setting. St. John also has several moderately priced guest houses.

Forty miles to the south, the largest of the Virgins, St. Croix, has been flexing its competitive muscles without disturbing its quiet, almost pastoral appeal. New developments within recent months include the completion of a runway to handle the largest jetliners and the opening of a new pier facility for cruise ships.

St. Croix is the home of tow of the most picturesque cities in the West Indies, Christiansted and Frederiksted, fifteen miles apart by bus or taxi, but fairly close in looks. The former is a magnificent old Danish port city, with many-colored eighteenth-century houses, topped by red roofs and accentuated by the brilliant flowers that beautify these islands, including oleanders, orchids, hibiscus and bougainvillea. Foremost among Christiansted's points of interest is the St. Croix Museum in the Public Library, with a good collection of Indian relics that predate Columbus and mementos from Danish plantation days. Americans will be especially drawn to a local hardware store where Alexander Hamilton worked as an apprentice at twelve and as a manager only a year later. Frederiksted, not unlike its sister city, frequently opens its interesting old homes to visitors ($3 a tour).

St. Croix' hotels, generally small but excellent, are usually built along a beach. Most of them also have swimming pools, tennis, snorkeling, fishing and access to golf facilities. The food is renowned, spiced by such local dishes as "taniasoup" and "guava tarts." The island also has fine shopping facilities.

Moving back north, we come to St. Thomas, capital of the Virgin Islands and long famed for its cruise appeal, deluxe hotels and free-port shops. This island of thirty-two square miles, especially its attractive, active harbor city of Charlotte Amalie, continually percolates with the hustle and bustle of a popular resort. Hotel space last winter was at a premium.

Shopping in St. Thomas (as well as in St. Croix) has always been something special. Recent developments in Washington have placed the Virgin Islands in a unique and enviable position. The duty-free limit that each American citizen may bring home from anywhere in the world has been pegged at $100. There is one exception--the Virgin Islands, which have a $200 ceiling. The U.S. traveler must be abroad at least forty-eight hours before he is entitled to his duty-free exemption. This requirement has been waived for the Virgin Islands. With this in mind, let's take a quick look at some of the free-port good that make you wish for the really good old days when the duty-free allowance was $500.

Charlotte Amalie's 102 shops carry a wide assortment of merchandise from all over the world at anywhere from twenty-five to seventy-five percent below the prices at home. There are jewelry, silver, perfume, liquor (Virgin Islands rum is excellent), watches, cameras, china, etc. A noted French perfume costs $10 instead of $23.50 and one of the finest Kentucky bourbons sells at $2.50.

St. Thomas is an island of contours, climbing steeply from the sea to 1,500 feet at its zenith. Nestled on a hillside, the city of Charlotte Amalie, with its winding, cobbled streets, is best covered on foot. Tours of the picturesque, Danish-looking island are available by motorcoach ($5 for a half day) or self-drive rented cars (a Volkswagen runs about $10 a day, gas included). St. Thomas is bordered by many fine beaches. Sightseeing by glass-bottom boat is worthwhile; the spear fishing is legendary, and charter boats of all sizes are available to catch wahoo, yellowfin tuna, marlin, sailfish, kingfish and dolphin. And the talk (inspired by an occasional find) of pirate treasures in these silent waters persists.

St. Thomas' hotels, cottage colonies and guest houses fall into all price slots, with some as low as $7 per day, for two, in the summer, without meals. There are some fifty resort hotels.

A throbbing nightlife, marked by calypso, steel bands and the limbo, also distinguishes St. Thomas. Every April, the island celebrates its famous Carnival, a colorful week-long Mardi-Gras festival. Book your hotel well in advance. For more detailed information, get in touch with your travel agent or the Virgin Islands Government Tourist Office at 9 Rockefeller Plaza, in New York City.

Although less than half an hour apart by air, the transition from the Virgin Islands to Puerto Rico is dramatic. The Virgins are small, diverse, non-industrial--the ideal Caribbean resort islands. Puerto Rico, as typified by San Juan, is gradually emerging as a dynamic modern community, a giant in its own right, giving lie to the old saw that all tropical islands are permanently on siesta.

Puerto Rico's industrial revolution (known as "Operation Bootstrap") has not bypassed tourism. It has instead swept it along so swiftly that today this island Commonwealth must be ranked first among Caribbean tourist powers.

"Amigo," you may well ask, "what does this island, which is only thirty-five miles wide and a hundred miles long, offer its guests to make it so irresistible?" It's got suntan weather always; fine beaches and mountain resorts; a vivacious personality, reflected in the proud, gay people; a rhythmic, rollicking nightlife; a magnificent array of hotels; a spicy, Spanish-oriented cuisine; the Casals Music Festival every spring and the El Commandante race track; one of the finest golf courses in the world and magnificent fishing; casinos, cockfighting and beisbol, and much to please the eye.

From the moment the plane touches down at San Juan's International Airport, with its turmoil and excited Latin buzz, you realize that this place swings--so much so that it's not much different from any other large, cosmopolitan city. (Even when at work, the citizens here always seem to be on the verge of breaking into a dance. An acute observer once reported that if there's any one thing that characterizes the Puerto Ricans, it's that they are a dancing people.)

In order to get a true feeling of this city and its romantic past, however, you have to leave the newer sections and take a leisurely walking tour of old San Juan. (Be sure to pack a pair or two of comfortable walking shoes.) Here, packaged neatly into a seven-square-block area, you will find some of the island's prime historical sites. The logical place to start is El Morro, a majestic fortress begun by the Spaniards in 1598 to guard the approaches to San Juan Harbor. Tours are run four times a day and visitors will be surprised to find a nine-hole golf course on the grounds, for use by American troops stationed there. (The United States, incidentally, acquired Puerto Rico in 1898 after the Spanish-American War.)

Other highlights include the San Jose Church, founded in 1523; the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, where Ponce de Leon (who never did find that fountain of youth) lies buried; the Callejon Las Monjas, an old Spanish "street of stairs" that begins at the waterfront and leads to the top of the city, and an inescapable feeling of pleasure at having "discovered" this fine old monument to a long-gone era.

There's plenty to see and do out on the island, and you can plan anywhere from a half-day tour locally from San Juan to a full four-day circuit. Whether you hire an auto, take a bus or a publico (five- to seven-passenger cars that run almost on an island-wide schedule), or sign on for a tour, set aside a day for El Yunque, the famous tropical rainforest forty-five minutes from San Juan. It's magnificent.

A typical four-day tour takes in some lovely beaches, fishing villages (take some time out for the rod and reel) and old Spanish towns. The itinerary includes Arecibo, built in 1556; Aguadilla, where Columbus is believed to have landed in 1493 (he got around); then inland to San German, one of the oldest Spanish communities; La Parguera, with an after-dark trip to Phosphorescent Bay; Ponce, the second-largest city; back inland toward San Juan on the north shore, with a stop at the mountain resort of Barranquitas. Per person cost, without meals, about $85.

Where to stay in San Juan presents a problem, chiefly because the choice is so attractive. Rates without meals average $25-$35 daily for two in the winter at the deluxe resorts, ranging down to as little as $5 in a modern guest house, breakfast included. Rates at the higher-priced hotels are substantially reduced in the summer.

Many of San Juan's best dining places are found at the name hotels, but there are also a good many more modest ones scattered through the city that offer such dishes as arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), asopao (a thick, spicy soup), or paella (yellow rice with chicken or seafood). The Puerto Rican rums are light and low-priced. Here is a typical recipe for "Poco Coco Loco," served in a coconut shell: 1 ½ ounces of local rum, ½ ounce of Puerto Rican 151-proof rum (Wow!), ¼ ounce of Benedictine; 1 ounce of fresh lime juice; ¼ ounce of coconut cream (syrup), and 2 ounces of coconut water. A blender and shaved ice are needed.

This drink was originated at the Dorado Beach Hotel, a most remarkable resort forty-five minutes from San Juan by car. This self-contained vacation colony, a Rockefeller property, features a twenty-seven-hole championship golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones. This is just one aspect of this $10,000,000 showcase.

Puerto Rico is a vacation winner the year round, but be sure you've got your hotel space confirmed in the winter months. A word to the wise.

This column originally appeared in Argosy magazine.

Copyright © 1962-2010 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.