Puerto Rico Restored: Best Tropical Family Getaway

beach in Puerto Rico

Put Puerto Rico back on your radar. If you weren’t sure about visiting the island hard hit by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in the Fall of 2017, be reassured because Puerto Rico is back in business.

In fact, it’s better than ever in most locations, with new restaurants, renovated hotels, and a general we-can-do-it spirit.  Many families are flocking to the island to help support its recovery by bringing their tourist dollars to this beautiful land of sand and sea.

Though some of the more remote mountain areas are still suffering, most places you’ll visit show little sign of the devastation from the hurricanes that tore roofs off buildings, trashed cars, and left the island without water and electricity for months. 

Now, the lights are back on, so fly over to this tropical getaway and enjoy a vacation that’s only a few hours away. You won’t even need your passport.

Where to stay:

Most of the major hotels have reopened, with the Caribe Hilton, one of the last to open in May 2019, following a $100 million restoration and renovation. Since the hurricane, most hotels have expanded or upgraded their facilities, so you’ll enjoy all new rooms, spas, and fitness centers.

Opening soon are Las Casitas Villas, ALOFT Hotel at the Convention Center, and El Conquistador. There are also many small guest houses available if you want something more rustic and off the beaten path from the mainland.

Though the luxurious Ritz-Carlton Dorado Beach didn’t suffer any structural damage, it underwent a complete refurbishment, including 300,000 new plants and trees on its 5-acre beachside sanctuary. The upscale resort boasts an eco-friendly kid’s program, letting young ones explore the coral reefs, fish, greenery, and more through games, crafts, and water activities.

My home base for this trip was the iconic El San Juan Hotel on Isla Verde, a picture of old-world elegance minutes from the airport. The moment you step into the mahogany-lined lobby and see the gorgeous Czechoslovakia chandelier, you’re transported back in time when Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. played there. 

Right before the hurricane, the hotel, built in 1958, underwent a $65 million redesign, complete with an all-new three-story fitness center, juice bar, and rooftop spa. Some of the damage from the hurricane led to even more upgrades and a December 2018 opening. A few more additions are in the works including the re-opening of their famous theater which will soon be home to top acts. Plus, there are plans for a new kid and teen center.

Take part in the hotel’s Float Fit water exercise program or enjoy water relays with the kids.  At night, get a hotel sitter and hit the downstairs club, or enjoy the 12-piece bands that perform in the lounge with dancing Thursdays-Saturday nights.

Be sure to stop by to admire the 300-year-old Banyan tree located near the wellness pool. Borrow floats or sand toys at the pool and spend the day playing or walking along the 2-mile beach; one of the area’s most beautiful.

Where to eat:

The city is bursting with new chefs, restaurants, and eclectic menus. We tried Paulina Escanes in Condado with a Mexican “glocal” approach to food and had an amazing piece of Carribean fish called snook. After enjoying a savory meal, be sure to stay for the delicious homemade desserts.

In the funky Santurce neighborhood of San Juan, the chef at Graziani serves up a glorious langoustine and scallops, and pork belly dish that will melt in your mouth. After food, wander around to check out the murals that cover the walls in this hipster neighborhood and revisit this area late at night a bustling music scene.

Be sure to stop by Señor Paleta in Old San Juan. Kids will love the popsicles made from local fruit including mango, passion fruit, and guava. The hard part will be choosing which flavor to have. I highly recommend the banana filled with Nutella as a mouthwatering treat.

What to do:

Wander the cobblestoned streets of Old San Juan. Admire the colorful colonial-style buildings in bright pink, yellow, turquoise, and green. Take a tour of Castillo San Felipe del Morro, one of several forts that defended the city. It’s the perfect spot to see the sunset. There’s a large grassy area, perfect for kids to run around and get their sillies out before dinner.

Do you have a Chef Junior? Foodies of all ages will love the culinary walking tours offered by Spoon Food Tours. Not only do you get educated in local history, culture, and cuisine, but you get to taste your way through the city with five restaurant stops. We got to taste mofongo, learn about the proper way to eat rice and beans (it’s very personal); and sample chocolate martinis (kids get a chocolatey non-alcoholic drink).

The tropical rain forest El Yunque is open with a few sections that remain off limits as they let nature take its course to rejuvenate post-storm destruction. Plus, a new path is being constructed to connect El Yunque with the Cabezas De San Juan Natural Reserve in Fajardo. Kids will love to explore nature at the reserve. Go with a guide who can explain the natural ecosystems, landscape, and wildlife as you journey on bike, kayak, trolley, or foot. As you are exploring, be sure to take in the spectacular view of the northeast tip of Puerto Rico from the top of the Fajardo Lighthouse.

For another wonderful family trip, check out one of three bioluminescent bays that are bright as ever.  These ecological marvels are magical, with their glowing plankton that gets stirred up when fingers are moved in the water.

So, with more direct flights from the U.S. than ever, it’s time to visit the island of Puerto Rico. It’s still an enchanted land of endless summer.

Bethany Kandel is a New York City-based freelance writer, author, and former national news reporter for the Associated Press and USA Today. Her articles have been published in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, Woman’s Day, Parenting, FamilyTravelForum.com, New York Family, and dozens of other national publications and websites. She writes about health, wellness, parenting, and travel. She’s always on the lookout for the offbeat when exploring her own city and those around the U.S. and abroad. She loves travelling with her husband and two sons. Follow her on Instagram @awaywithbethany

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