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 Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch

martin UNCLE SAM'S PLAYGROUND

BY MARTIN B. DEUTSCH

August 1, 1965 -- Within every very recent and fond memory, before the bearded wonders with their fatigues and cigars took over, Havana was the undisputed king of the Caribbean playgrounds. Within the last five years, in what must surely rank as one of the most amazing rags-to-riches sagas in the annals of travel history, the mantle of tourist supremacy has settled just as firmly on the bulging shoulders of the handsome tropical island of Puerto Rico. And the crown rests securely, without any challengers on the horizon, in the versatile capital of San Juan, a city of many faces, which successfully blends impressive strides in commerce with even greater gains in the vacation market; the quick tempo of resort hotels with the Latin languor of many quarters, and imaginative modern architecture with the graceful charms of the old Spanish homes and churches.

In fact, San Juan has just about everything Havana ever had, including the incredible reliability of sunshine all-year-around, (you won’t ever need a heated swimming pool); the wide range of excellent hotels; the high prices; the virtual absence of any language, of currency difficulties, and the gambling (the pros tell me that you really get a fair shake for your money in San Juan). Outside of the capital cities, I’d give the island of Puerto Rico the edge over Cuba for scenic splendor, variety and the quality of roads.

Havana had it over San Juan in one important respect. This is neither the time nor the place to go into details, but the Cuban capital was without a doubt the best town in the Western Hemisphere for the bachelor, the man on the prowl. San Juan has not tried to compete with Havana in this particular commodity. Instead, Puerto Rico has become a holiday mecca for the family, the husband and wife, the honeymooners—anyone, for that matter, who wants a good time with a guarantee of a tan. (The island claims to have only five days a year without sunshine.) The American bachelor also descends en masse on San Juan and its environs, since he is obviously not blind to the numerous resort attractions and there are plenty of young mainland chicks to keep him company. There is absolutely nothing wrong, either, with the many attractive Puerto Rican gals. Puerto Rico is currently an “in” destination. Everyone who is anyone making the Puerto Rico scene these days.

The flow of visitors has become so heavy in recent years, especially from mid-December through Easter, that the hotels have been bursting at the seams, despite an extensive building and expansion program, not only in San Juan, but elsewhere on the island as well. The supply of new accommodations, which continues to mount, has not been able to keep pace with the demand, and unless you make arrangements far in advance, there’s a good chance you may be disappointed. Further, to prevent heartache, frustration and high blood pressure, make sure you have a copy of your pre-paid, confirmed reservation with you. A practical, wordly traveler might also have a second and third choice, in the way of other island destinations in the Caribbean, tucked away in the back of his mind. It pays to plan ahead.

It also pays to have a good travel agent, or to be a good friend who happens to be a travel agent, or, if not, to cultivate one. Failing these considerations, carefully check the family ties for a travel agent who might be a distant relative. Or maybe your cousin plays poker with an agent. Even with an agent tucked away in your hip pocket, keep in mind that unless you give him plenty of notice, he might still be unable to pry open a broom closer for you in mid-February. These are trying times. At least 500,000 Americans get to Puerto Rico every year, and at least that many more would like to go if they could.

Getting down there can also be a problem. The three airlines which fly from New York offer as many as 100 round trips a week with the biggest and best jet equipment, but often space gets tight and it makes sense to book early. The carriers—Eastern, Pan American and Trans Caribbean—fly for as little as $104 round trip, and this low fare, for a three-and-a-half-hour, 1,700-mile flight, must be credited with being one of the key factors in Puerto Rico’s phenomenal rise to tourist prominence. Pan Am and Eastern also fly from Miami (two and a half hours) about forty times a week, with the lowest round-trip fare at $92.50. And Delta flies in six times a week from New Orleans. There is also direct or connecting service from other major cities. And the fare for these flights is always moderate.

Just keep our perspective, and conceding at the same time that Puerto Rico might some day sink into the Caribbean because of the combined weight of hundreds of thousands of visitors, the island has some shortcomings. Room rates are high, to begin with, and there’s too little difference between winter (peak) and summer (off-season) tariffs. The weather is often too humid for my taste, and it becomes especially noticeable when you move from the poolside sun into some of the hotels, where they seem to be trying to refrigerate the guests. (The change can be dramatic, if not drastic.) The level of service is generally not up to the prices, even though it’s usually adequate. The gambling casinos are overly formal. And two of San Juan’s finest hotels are so close to the airport that you can never quite shake the feeling that a DC-8 or 707 is about to land right in your room. Finally, while the food is quite good—often excellent—with a commendable range in the way of prices and selection, I’ve never found a paella to match the ones they used to serve in Havana.

There are other detractors, of which I am no one, who argue that San Juan has merely become an extension of Miami Beach. They cite the flashy new hotels, the undeniable influx of big-name entertainment, and the competition to “keep ahead of the Joneses: in the way of evening garb. I don’t agree at all.

To begin with, San Juan has a permanent advantage over Southern Florida in that it’s always swimming weather, even in midwinter. There are no cold waves or frost in Puerto Rico. Second, there’s no “hotel row” in San Juan; rather, the resorts are scattered through the better sections of the city, a much less oppressive arrangement. While there is some overdressing and an excessive display of furs in San Juan at night (not a bad idea with some of the air-conditioning), it hasn’t reached the proportions you’ll find in Miami Beach during the winter.

And the top talent which has invaded San Juan hasn’t damaged the town’s appeal one iota. If you don’t dig floor shows and the like, you don’t have to go. The last time my wife and I were there, we greatly enjoyed Sophie Tucker at the El San Juan, and had an excellent dinner at the same time. Also, in the hotel’s Club Tropicoro, we saw a husband-and-wife comedy team who were quite good, even though I don’t recall their names. You’ll also see the likes of Maurice Chevalier (he was at the American’s la Copa Super Club last March). Jimmy Durante, Eartha Kitt, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Jose Greco, Milton Berle, Leslie Uggams, Tony Martin, Abbe Lane, Andy Russell and a whole roster of famous—and excellent—Latin American entertainers, including Xavier Cugat.

A hotel like the El Juan, which happens to be a well-run, fairly relaxed 300-room establishment, with attractive, spacious rooms, gets at least $32 per night for two from December twenty-first to April twenty-fifth, and about $6 less the rest of the year. There’s a beach, swimming pool, tennis courts, eighteen-hole golf-nearby, and a nine-hole putting green on the grounds, several fine dining rooms, three cocktail lounges, a casino, a nice coffee shop and a delightful poolside snack bar with great hamburgers for about sixty cents. The place is fully air-conditioned.

The Americana, right next door, in the Isla Verde section, has 450 rooms, done in tasteful Spanish décor. The façade, which fronts on the beach, is also very impressive. Rates for two in the winter start at about $30. (None of these prices include meals.) You can play tennis, golf or shuffleboard, or gamble in the casino, enjoy the fresh-water pool, snack in the coffee shop, have a drink in the cocktail lounge and dine in the Gaucho Steak House.

The 250-room La Concha, in the Condado section, is distinguished by a very handsome supper club. 250 inviting rooms, and facilities similar to those mentioned above. The Condado Beach in the same area has 350 rooms, including those in a new wing, and a nice feeling of being spread out and comfortable. Peak-season doubles here start as low as $24. Other hotels in the deluxe range include the famous Caribe Hilton; the new Da Vinci in Condado; El Convento, an elegant 300-year old building which was once a convent; the El Miramar Charterhouse, where we had a superb dinner in the Penthouse Rib Room for about $5.50 a head, plus a sweeping view of the city; the Holiday Inn; the La Rada; the Hotel Pierre, with its justly famous Swiss Chalet Restaurant; the Puerto Rico Sheraton, and the San Jeronimo Hilton. There are two new hotels: the Flamboyan in the Condado area, with 162 rooms, and the forty-two-room Lee Hotel, which features kosher cuisine.

You can also live in comfort, amid attractive surroundings, in any one of San Juan’s thirty-one guest houses, which have a total of 327 rooms. There are four more scattered around the island. Rates run in the neighborhood of $14 to $16 for two in the winter, $4 less in the summer, breakfast included. Rooms have private baths.

Before we do a little sight-seeing and shopping and take a fast look to see what’s up on the rest of the island, this seems to be a good time to break in and talk about fishing, horseback riding, horse racing, baseball, plus a few more words about golf, which has become a big game here. Both for amateurs and professionals. Puerto Rico has become a rendezvous for the sportsman in quest of the big ones. Tournaments abound, and everyone’s a winner. Over forty records have been shattered in recent years and the largest blue marlin ever caught with rod and reel was taken just off San Juan. The deep waters which embrace the island teem with blue and white marlin, Allison’s tuna, sailfish, king mackerel, dolphin, wahoo and blackfin tuna. Charters are easy to arrange–and moderate–from San Juan or such charming fishing communities as La Parguera and Las Croabas. If you prefer plug casting, trolling or fly casting, try the shallow waters of the southern coast for taproom, snook, snapper, jack crevelle, bonefish, grouper, pompano and amberjack. Whatever your preference, you don’t have to be an expert. A 780½-pound blue marlin was recently hauled in by an American banker who’d never caught one before. Incidentally, you can get a boat out of a place like La Croabas for as little as $30 per day. Crew, tackle and the work from San Juan costs $75 per day.

Spectator sports also abound. You can drop a few dollars any holiday. Wednesday, Friday or Sunday at El Comandante near San Juan; watch good quality baseball at the new Estadio Municipal Hiram Bithorn, or, if you’ve got the stomach for it, attend the cock fights on week ends in San Juan or any village on the island. In the Santurce section of San Juan, there’s always action on Saturdays and Sundays at the Galleras (pits), Canta Gallo, or at the Tres Palmas Gallera on the Bavamon Road.

If you’re addicted to golf, as a player or onlooker, you can indulge your fancy in the San Juan area either at the new championship made through your hotel, or at the nine-hole Fort Brook at El Morro. But the real golfer’s paradise lies about twenty-five miles west of San Juan near the town of Dorado. The magnificent, spacious Dorado Beach Hotel now provides a total of twenty-seven (thirty-six by November) championship holes, an unbelievable layout bordered by the ocean, graced by slender palm trees, and topped by some of the softest, greenest grass you’ve ever seen. The designer was Robert Trent Jones. The north-shore resort occupies 1,500 manicured acres, has in the vicinity of 300 rooms, operates on modified American Plan (two meals included in the rate), provides delightful dining, gives you a feeling of elbow rooms and leisure, has all the sports facilities from archery to horses to an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and offers very reasonable rates for families in the summer. The owner is Laurance Rockefeller. Now Conrad Hilton is also represented in this plush neighborhood, with the 222-room Dorado Hilton, which offers a truly handsome, eighteen-hole championship seaside golf-course, a delightful clubhouse, driving range and putting green, will keep the golf carts for rent. Other facilities will keep the golf windows occupied.

While we’re out on the island, we might as well mention three or four other good places to spend a few days, and in passing, tell you that there are some 3,000 miles of well paved roads, good signs and car-rental rates comparable to those in the U.S.A. proper. My wife and I had a compact for a week and we never got lost once, in San Juan or on the island–a pretty good record in view of the fast that I often can’t find my way home in Manhattan.

The El Conquistador Hotel in Las Croabas, thirty-five miles east of San Juan, has eighty-five rooms and a picturesque site on a cliff overlooking the ocean. There are the usual amenities, and the rates include two meals a day. The Villa Parguera, on the southern coast, gets as little as $9 for two without meals, and is renowned for its fishing facilities. The El Ponce Intercontinental, across the island from San Juan, gives you an attractive resort setting, a full range of activities, a casino, and reasonable rates. Also lots of privacy. The Mayaguez Hilton (he’s everywhere), lies 115 miles from San Juan near La Parguera, and is a fine resort for fishing, water ports and nice scenery.

Incidentally, you can get a full eight-day tour of the island, San Juan, Ponce and the fishing and sailing center of Fajardo, for $279.95, including round-trip air fare from New York, accommodations, all travel on the island, sight-seeing and meals. It’s called a “Round-O-Rico” vacation.

Speaking of tours, let’s get back to San Juan, where there are some worthwhile sights, especially the “old” city; El Morro Fortress, and the Cathedral, which hold the remains of Ponce de Leon, who founded the city and became the island’s first governor in 1509. Old San Juan lies on a small island and is connected to the mainland by four bridges. The scene of many attacks and sieges for centuries, the community remained walled until late in the nineteenth century. There are still some vestiges of the walls around for you to photograph these days, as well as the san Juan Gate, the only one of the three principal gates still intact. Easily covered on foot, Old San Juan’s streets are narrow and cobbled; there are gas lams and overhanging grilled balconies; Fort San Cristobal (begun in 1631); San Geronimo Fort (1771); the Museum of Colonial Architecture; San Jose Church; La Fortaleza (Governor’s Mansion), and the Alcadia, the Spanish counterpart of a city hall. Old San Juan is a pleasant, compact section which will transport you back hundreds of years in time.

Built in 1539 by Negro and Indian slave labor, El Morro Fortress, almost perfectly preserved, towers 140 feet over the Atlantic. This guardian of San Juan’s harbor is open daily to the public from nine to five. There’s a unique golf course in front of El Morro which uses the castle’s old moat, bastions and sentry tower. It’s worth a visit. Incidentally, for $2.50 a day, American Express will rent you a “Tele-Tour,” a small, radio-sized record device, which describes the highlights of Old San Juan as you walk along. Just push a button, and your “guide” starts talking.

A second recording (they weigh only eleven ounces), will take you to and through the famous El Yunque Rain Forest, thirty-five miles from San Juan, then down to renowned Luquillo Beach, on to Las Crobas, and back to San Juan by way of the impressive campus of the University of Puerto Rico. Even though it rained the day we drove to El Yunque (it often does; I guess that’s why they call it a rain forest), we were delighted by the scenic drives, the tropical foliage, the fern gulleys and waterfalls, the dwarf forest on the higher mountain slopes and ridges, the brilliantly colored blossoms, the thick shrubbery, the captivating beauty of this near-jungle. EL Yunque, which rises to 3,496 feet, has picnic shelters, swimming pools, dressing rooms, fireplaces, observation towers and guided tours along nature trails.

A word of caution about driving in Puerto Rico: they don’t fool around. A speeding ticket is $50; traffic lights, $25; parking, $6, and booze on the breath from ten to 120 days in the jug to sober up.

If you’re going shopping –and there’s no customs declaration for getting back to the U.S. –concentrate on hand embroidery and carved religious figures), pottery, straw goods and low-priced oils and water colors.

You’ll get all the literature you need, as well as information, from Puerto Rico’s Department of Tourism, 666 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York.

Christopher Columbus discovered the island in 1493. It was, in fact, the only part of the United States he actually ever set foot on. It’s about time you discovered Puerto Rico for yourself.

This column originally appeared in Argosy magazine.

Copyright © 1962-2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.