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Return to Puerto Rico

LYSA ALLMAN-BALDWIN | 12/28/2012, 2:25 p.m.
Return to Puerto Rico

Honestly, this is the life! Sailing on the gorgeous ship--the ms Eurodam from Holland America Line--followed by a fun-filled first port day in Grand Turk in Turks and Caicos (Part 2 of this series), and now a stop in the picturesque island of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico has long been one of my favorite travel destinations, and I was downright giddy at the prospect of once again basking in its amazing fusion of vibrant people, multi-hued facades, intoxicating scents and jaw-dropping scenery.

Embraced by both the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, the main island of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico meaning "Rich Port") is the smallest of the Greater Antilles; the commonwealth also encompasses the two smaller islands of Culebra and Vieques off the east coast and the tiny island of Mona (located halfway between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic) to the west.

About 100 miles long, 35 miles wide and roughly the size of Connecticut, the island possesses a very picturesque and diverse topography, encompassing nine lakes, over 50 rivers and streams and the Cordillera Central (central mountain range) running through the center of the island and rising between 1,000 and 3,000 feet. The highest peak--Cerro La Punta--is 4,398 feet high.

The Puerto Rican people are a gorgeous amalgamation of the native Taino Indians, Spaniards and Africans, and these three distinct peoples are palpable in every aspect of the cultural landscape here.

A Caribbean Isle like none other

It's hard to capture the essence of such a magnificent island in just a few words, or in only a full day, which was the amount of time I had on this latest visit. Nevertheless, embarking upon your own self-guided tour (on foot or via the city's trolley cars) will reveal just enough to captivate your senses, infuse you with the culture and draw you back for more.

Just a five minute walk from the cruise port and you are already immersed in the historic center, Viejo San Juan ("Old San Juan"), encompassing eight square blocks of colorful colonial buildings, delightful hotels, centuries-old fortresses, fascinating museums and art galleries, great shopping on every corner and fantastic restaurants, all situated along long, narrow azure-hued cobblestone streets.

Must-see sites and attractions include the Raices Fountain, a beautiful and inspiring statue and water feature situated where the Paseo La Princesa promenade meets San Juan Bay; the fountain is a tribute to Puerto Rico's three founding cultures.

For 250 years, the Casa Blanca ("the White House") was the residence of the descendants of Juan Ponce de Leon, the first governor of Puerto Rico. Today, it is a museum of 16th- and 17th-century family life and has a miniature replica of an ancient Taino village. Casa Rosa ("the Pink House") was built in 1812 for the Spanish army and now serves as a day care center for the children of government employees.

Built by the Spaniards, Fuerte San Felipe del Morro, San Geronimo ("Saint Geronimo") and San Cristobal ("Saint Christopher") Forts represent the massive strongholds pivotal to Puerto Rico's defense in the early to mid-1500s.