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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Puerto Rico -- After thoughts

I am in no place to give advice on Puerto Rico since I really did not do much home work and barely scratch the surface of Puerto Rico.  However, Puerto Rico could be an ideal  winter destination for people who live on the east coast wanting a quick getaway with some foreign flair, beautiful beaches with rich cultures.  

  • The flight time between San Juan and Vieques is about 20 minutes.  There are a handful of airlines that provide direct flight from both San Juan international and domestic airports.  The airfares for flights leaving from domestic airports are cheaper than the flights leaving from San Juan International Airport.  It is also good to keep in mind that the domestic airport is closer to Old San Juan.  You can book the flights with separate airlines from and to different San Juan airports that best suits your need since booking one way or round trip tickets does not affect the total cost.  The most economical transportation is by boat.  However, I have not heard one good thing about it.   To save yourself some hassle, it was best to spend a little more money to take the flight.
  • If you come to Puerto Rico, try to put Bio Bay tour on your itinerary even if just for a day trip with one of the tour companies.  When taking the Bio Bay tour, do not use flash light when taking pictures or use DEET bug spray.   Remember to wash off the sunblock on your skin before you swim to protect and preserve the bay. 

Now anyone knows where I can find mollorcas in New York City?

Puerto Rico -- Old San Juan & Condado 2.2

  • La Bombonera
  • El Jibarito
  • Helicopter ride
  • Condado restaurant hopping

People who know me quickly learn that I crave for new experiences like drug addicts crave for crack.  Rarely would I visit a place twice or eat the same food again.  So, for me wanting to go back to La Bombonera for Mallorca says volumes.  We went back to La Bombonera again for breakfast this morning and ordered some more heart attack inducing Mallorcas -- equally satisfying. 

After breakfast and some souvenir shopping later,  we took a taxi to Condado to check out life outside of Old San Juan.  Condado was a posh part of Greater San Juan with prime real estate values and expensive brand name stores.  Some part of it reminded H of Miami twenty years ago.  

A couple of hours later, we were hungry and headed back to Old San Juan for lunch.  George, the driver from the W resort in Vieques, recommended Raices restaurant.  We decided to check it out.  However, the location was slightly suspicious: the restaurant was near the Port, which screamed tourist trap.  The theme like decor and custom all white dress uniforms that the waitresses wore did not feel right to us.  We left the restaurant and decided to try El Jibarito instead.  It was definitely a good judgment call.  There were only local customers in the restaurant which put us at ease.  I had grilled shrimp mofongo, and H had fried red snapper.  The dishes were simple, unpretentious, and heavenly!  The home made hot sauce on the side was SOOO delicious that I wish they sold it in a bottle. 

Just as we finished eating, H's client J called.  He told H to get a cab and put the driver on the phone.  Before H could get any more information, J hung up.  The phone call was a bit out of the blue.  We knew that we were meeting J for dinner, so we assumed he meant later when we were ready to meet up. 

10 minutes later, J called again and asked H if we found a cab.  We rushed out of the restaurant, found a cab, put the driver on the phone, and were clueless what J had up to his sleeve.  

The cab dropped us off at a small aviation center.  J & his pilot friend with his own helicopter was waiting for us to take off.  We flew over Ricky Martin's house and Bacardi family's mansion.  It was so much fun seeing San Juan from high above. 

It was the beginning of an awesome evening. After the ride, J took us to a series of restaurants starting with a Mexican restaurant near his office in Old San Juan.  2 margaritas, 1 tequila shot, some nachos & quesadillas later, we moved to a Spanish tapas bar, Bar Gitano, in Condado.  

Bar Gitano was my favorite restaurant this night.  I liked the vibe and the food was excellent.  We had lamb skewers, squid cooked in it's own ink, and tuna tartar.  3 tapas and a bottle of red wine later, it was time to move on.  

The third restaurant was Pamela serving Caribbean cuisine by the beach front in Condado.  It would be a ideal location for a romantic dinner, however the service was left to be desired.  Some steamed mussels, ceviche, a bottle of champagne, and a shot of chichaĆ­to (a traditional after-dinner concoction)  later, it was hard to damp our partying moods even with their crappy services.  

We summed up our night at Ummo Argentinian Gril with the perfect hang over food, Provoleta (Grilled cheese with oregano), and 2 more bottles of champagne.

It was one of those spontaneous memorable nights that I would forever associate with Puerto Rico and a consolation for the sad reality that we had an early morning flight the next day back to New York in the midst of a dragging long winter.

Photo Album

Monday, February 21, 2011

Puerto Rico -- Old san Juan 2.1

  • La Bombonera
  • Old San Juan Walking Tour
  • Caficultura

This morning, we said good-bye to our beloved W resort and took the first flight with Vieques Air Link back to Old San Juan.  Due to the cancelled flight the previous Wednesday, we had to rebook everything for two days later.  All  the hotels, airline companies, and car rental were very understanding and accommodating.  Vieques Air Link was the only company that charged us the re-booking fees.  However, they seemed to feel perfectly okay to add an additional stop to the international airport to drop off two passengers the last minute.  I was not too crazy about their one-sided policy.

Once arrived at the Isla Grande Airport, we took a 10 minutes taxi ride to check into the Sheraton at Old San Juan.  The room was not ready, so we headed out again after we dropped off the luggage.  My friend from Puerto Rico recommended eating mallorcas at La Bombonera, so it was our first stop for breakfast.  La Bombonera was established in 1902 and has been a popular establishment, featured in various food & travel shows.  The morning when we were there, the restaurant was pretty quiet and mellow.  We sat on the long counter and each ordered a breakfast mallorca.  Mallorca is a spiral shape flat pastry that is generously buttered, grilled, and sprinkled with a thick layer of powder sugar on top.  You know it has to taste good. 

After the breakfast, we began the walking tour within Old San Juan.  Old San Juan was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1983.  It had a lot of flair with cobblestone streets and colorful ornate Spanish row houses with wrought-iron balconies.  We walked along the ancient city wall, La Muralla, passed through Puerta de San Juan, the wooden gate entrance built in 1520, stopped by El Gran Convento, a former convent turned hotel, and lingered at Castle del Morro for a long time.  We took tons of pictures of this photogenic city.  Since this trip was a pure vacation, I did not have any "Must Visit" list.  It allowed us to take the city in at a more leisure pace.  

We took a coffee break at Caficultura near the port in the afternoon.  The coffee was rich and creamy, and the Chicken with Guacamole & fried Plantains was delicious.  Something I did not expect in a cafe.  After having watched a big cruie ship ducked at the port, the streets were flooded with tourists.  The streets were hustling and bustling with excitement and energy.  

We decided to head back to the hotel.  We had a king bedroom suite with a spacious living room quarter and a Juliette balcony looking out to the cruise ships.  We lingered on the balcony for a long time watching the sun go down. 

That night, J, H's client, picked us up and invited us to his house for some home made dinner. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Puerto Rico -- Vieques: Orchid Beach & Bio Bay 1.31

    • Orchid Beach (Playa Plata)
    • Bio Bay

    We woke up to another sunny and beautiful day on the island.   After breakfast at the W, I wanted to check out the beaches on the island.  Bree, our host working at the welcome desk, recommended Orchard Beach. 

    We drove to the Orchard Beach and spent most of the time swimming in the shallow ocean.  There were two ladies on the beach that we recognized from the flight to Vieques and we started chatting.  No surprise, they were also from New York.  So far, most of the people we met on this island were from New York!  The ladies told us that the W resort's beach was on the Atlantic ocean side, and the south side of the island, i.e. Orchid Beach was on the Caribbean side.  A light bulb went off, no wonder the water here seemed calmer and warmer.  It was too bad that this was the last day we had on the island.  We would not mind swimming and snorkeling in the ocean for a few more days.

    After the beach, we went back to Isabel II to grab something to eat before returning the car.  
    We spent the rest of the afternoon in the hotel swimming pool. 

    Of course we could not leave the island without seeing the bio bay.  This was one thing I really wanted to do after I read about it in the tour book.  I booked the tour through W with Vieques Adventure Company for their clear canoes.  For people who hate group tours, this is an excellent anti-tour for us.  Gary, the owner of the company, was funny, personal and friendly.   We put on the life jacket, took the canoe, and paddled out of the bay.   H had absolutely no clue what this tour was about and I was excited to see his reaction.  As we rolled out  to the middle of the bay, the waves became brighter and brighter.  H sat behind me in the canoe and noticed something different.

    "What is wrong with the water?" H asked with a high pitch tone.
    "What do you mean what is wrong with the water?" I was smiling in the dark wishing I could see his face now.
    "Look! Look the water! It's really weird!" H was lost of words and I was too.  

    There are an estimated total of seven bioluminescent bays in the world. Three of them are in Puerto Rico.  The Puerto Mosquito bay in Vieques is the brightest of all.  We could not have picked a better day to come out to the bay.  It was sunny during the day, and there was no moon in the sky at night which provided the ideal condition for the bright light in the water.  As we jumped out of the canoe to swim in the bay, the water twinkled.  The sparks rolled off our arms and legs.  When you looked up, there were tens of thousands of stars in the pitch dark sky.  When you looked down, there were glows in the pitch dark water.  The experience was magical.  I felt like I was in a fairytale land.  I could almost feel the wings on my back.

    Of course, the aggressive misquote bites brought me back to reality pretty fast.....

    There is no way that the camera can capture the magical experience.  Flash light should not be used to minimize the light interference.  The picture posted here was the combination of several pictures taken in the pitch dark and photo shopped.

    Nonetheless, it was one of the most unique travel experiences and a perfect way to end our stay in Vieques.

    Next: Puerto Rico -- Old San Juan 2.1

    Vieques Photo Album

    Tuesday, February 15, 2011

    Puerto Rico -- Vieques: Scuba diving 1.30

    • Scuba Diving
    • El Resuelve

    This morning, we woke up early for our half day scuba dive.  H & I  had our first taste of Scuba diving in Bora Bora a few years back.  The underwater world blew us away.  We were eager to try it again in Vieques.

    The discovery dive that we signed up for in Vieques proved to be much more hard core than the baby dive we did in Bora Bora.   After a quick safety course and practice, H and I were diving off shore with our instructor.  The first 15 minutes was sheer terror for me since I had trouble equalizing ear pressure.   I came very close to call it quits and was already thinking about waiting for H on the shore for the rest of the day.  Somehow, the fear of boredom waiting for H for the next couple of hours outweighed the fear of suffocation underwater, I pulled myself together and was able to dive down again and  breath with ease. 

    Despite a challenging start, once we were underwater swimming around the coral reef and fish, it was actually relaxing and fun.  We took a break after the first tank and came back up to the shore.  Both H and I were exhausted.  The thought of taking the second tank for another dive seemed a bit daunting, but I kept quiet and stuck with it.

    We dived deeper and further with the second tank.  On the way out, we encountered some current.  The purple marine plants below us  were dancing back and forth along with the current.  Even though it made diving harder, it was quite a sight.

    On the way back, I misread the meters on my tank and thought the tank was close to running out of air.  We surfaced to the water.   We were still a good 10 minutes swim away from the shore, and I had trouble staying above the water with all the weight of equipment on me.  I freaked out as water got into my nose and my right leg was cramping up.  Finally, with the instructor staying by my side, I calmed down and composed myself.  We decided to dive back since it was much easier and faster and we did have enough air in the tank.  I was relieved to make it back to shore.  The experience took a lot out of H & I.  I think it will be awhile before we go diving again.

    By the time we were done with diving, it was already early afternoon.  We were exhausted and hungry.   A few people had told us about a local casual eatery, El Resuelve.  We decided to check it out.  H saw this fried pig ear dish on Anthony Bordain's travel show once and wanted to try it this time coming to Puerto Rico.  El Resuelve served broiled pig ears on their menu and we were curious to try it.  The texture of the broiled pig ear was a little off putting.  I imagine that fried ones would taste a lot better.  We ordered crab, conch, and cod empanadillas and garlic shrimp with fried sweet plantains.  They tasted delicious with the local beers after a hard day of diving.

    We took it easy the rest of the day.  Napping in the cabana by the pool, watching TV in the room, taking a bubble bath (the bathtub was enormous and it took forever to fill up), and  hanging out with other guests in the W living room..... 

    Sunday, February 13, 2011

    Puerto Rico -- Vieques 1.28 - 1.29

    • W Resort & Spa
    • Maritza's car rental
    • Richard's Cafe in Isabel II
    • El Quenepo in Esperanza

    Luckily, the second try on Friday night flying out of JFK went relatively smooth. The flight time from New York to Puerto Rico was 3.5 hours. Puerto Rico was one hour ahead of New York. We landed in San Juan at 2:30 AM.  As soon as we stepped out of the airplane, the familiar warm humid air came over me that reminded me of Taiwan.  Since the connecting flight to Vieques was only 6 hours later, we booked a room at the Best Western airport hotel  to crash for a night. The hotel was bare minimal, but it was inside the airport, saving us the hassle of transportation.

    The next morning, we took the first flight with Cape Air out to Vieques. This was a surprise for H, and he had no clue where we were going and what I had planned for the next three days.

    H & I had not gone to a beach vacation for a few years. With the brutal winter that we had in New York this year, I just wanted to stay in a beautiful resort to enjoy the sun, the island, and be pampered.  W Resort and Spa seemed like the kind of place to be.

    And pampered I felt as soon as we walked into the W Lounge at the Vieques airport. There was food and beverages waiting for us while we waited for the car to pick us up to the resort.

    Once we were in the resort, we were able to check in right away.  Our room was located in a villa right by the W Living Room (the fancier version of  a hotel lobby).  It was spacious, vibrant, with interesting art pieces, a huge bath tub, and a glorious view to the ocean.

    After settling into our room and unpacked, we quickly changed into our swimming suits and went to explore the rest of the W property. 

    I totally dug the vibes and interior design of the W Resort. It was hip, young,  with splashes of bold colors, and a lot of personality.  The staff was friendly and helpful.  The pool table in the living room was a big bonus for H.  After booking for a few activities with the resort, we went to the Whisper Beach, a top optional beach on W property.  Unfortunately, we did not see any women going topless.  It was a windy cloudy morning with temperature around 82F/25C. However, the water was colder and the waves were stronger than I expected.  I laid on the beach chair while H tried snorkling.  By the early afternoon, we decided to pick up our rental car and got something to eat on the island.

    From the research I did, it was recommended to rent a car as early as possible when one comes to Vieques.  There are no big chain car rental companies on the island and rental cars are limited.  From a list of no more than 10 local car rental companies that I contacted, Maritza's car rental is the most responsive one and seems to have decent reviews.  They came to the W resort to pick us up to the rental company.  The Suzuki Grand Vitara we had was pretty worn out, but it served the purpose.

    We wanted to get some light lunch and decided to drive to Isabel II.  There were a few stores and a post office in the area.  We ended up getting some Empanadillas from Richard's cafe before heading back to the W again.

    There were daily sunrise yoga and sunset yoga classes offered at the W fitness center.  I decided to take advantage of it and joined the yoga session with 3 other guests.  Awhile later, I heard some bird chirping "co-qui" from the grass around us.  The sound was loud, consistent, and really adorable.  I looked around and could not find any birds. As the sky grew darker, it seemed like more and more birds joined in and the chirping grew louder and louder.  One of the guests broke the silence and asked the yoga instructor what kind of birds they were.  The instructor told us that the sound came from tiny tree frogs which only existed in Puerto Rico.  Due to all the constructions happening on the island, they were in danger of extinction.  Out of 12 species of tree frogs, 2 were extinct and only 2 species would sing like "Co-qui".  

    Doing yoga in a beautiful surrounding with tree frogs singing in the background was such a treat.  The instructor practiced Kripalu yoga and demonstrated some challenging poses that totally kicked my butt.  I felt so rejuvenated and calm after the yoga session.
    But now that sun was down, I was ready to do some damage to my body with alcohol!

    We decided to drive to Esperanza for dinner. Esperanza was probably the "happening place" on the island.  There were more restaurants, bars, and tourists compared to Isbal II, but you could easily walk from one end to the other in less than 10 minutes.  El Quenepo restaurant had pretty good reviews and apparently was quite popular.  While we waited for a table, we walked around the Esperanza.  On the way back to the restaurant, we saw a shining bright huge red star shooting across the sky.  "Was that a shooting star?" I asked in disbelief.  "Was it? It was HUGE." H was not sure either.  "Could it be firecracker?" We couldn't be certain.  (A few days later, we were told that what we saw was indeed a shooting star.)

    We had some cocktails, ceviche, conch fritters, lobster & Shrimp mofongo, and chocolate cheese cake at El Quenepo.  We were tipsy, happy, and everything tasted good.

    On the way back to the resort, we saw something that was uniquely Vieques.  There were wild horses roaming around on the side of the roads looking for food in the trash!

    Wednesday, February 9, 2011

    Puerto Rico -- Prelude

    View Pureto Rico in a larger map

    After a rather stressful 2010, I was eager to travel again.

    I wanted to go somewhere warm with beaches and swimming pools.  A little culture would be nice in case I got bored laying around being a beach bum.  Less than 5 hours of direct flight is the key requirement.

    Even though I would prefer to travel outside of the U.S. territory, Puerto Rico seemed to hit all the marks, and it would be silly of me to reject Puerto Rico just because I did not need a passport to travel.

    As luck would have it, the afternoon before we were scheduled to fly, it started to snow. Just before 4 PM, the airline company called to inform us that the our flight the next morning was cancelled. My heart sank when I heard the news. Before I could get all hysterical about it, H called the airline back and booked another flight leaving the same night at 8:30 PM.

    It was 4 PM when we booked the flight. Both H and I were still in our offices and the luggage was not packed yet. We didn't know where to sleep for the extra night, but it didn't matter, we were able to get out of snowy New York!

    We rushed back home, quickly packed, got the car service at 6 PM, checked in, and had dinner in the airport. Everything was on schedule. We booked the airport hotel for the night, re-booked the connecting flight for the next morning, informed the car rental company and hotel that we would arrive earlier than expected. We could not believe how lucky we were to be able to make the last flight out.

    After all the passengers boarded the plane, the captain made a series of announcements:
    "We are waiting momentarily for the runway to be clear to take off.".....
    "We have to wait for the visibility to get better to take off."......
    "We will try our best to wait for the storm to pass to get you safely to San Juan."....
    "We are now cleared to take off." 

    The passengers burst into small cheers.  The plane was slowly moved backwards for de-icing. After awhile, the windows were quickly covered in snow that we could not see what was happening outside.

    Another series of announcements later, finally the captain pulled the plug. 
    "Unfortunately, the snow has progressed into a full blizzard.  This flight is cancelled.  This is it. We are calling it a night."
    I was throwing myself a pity party while the news slowly sunk in.

    As if it was not tragic enough to have a cancelled flight, we were sitting on the plane forever waiting for the ground to be plowed so the plane could return back to the gate.  Finally around midnight, we unboarded the plane. Both H and I were on the phone with the airline companies, hotels, and the car rental company trying to rebook the entire trip.

    As soon as we stepped out of the airport, we realized how bad the weather condition was. It was windy, frigid, and the snow was blowing sideways. There were only a few taxis around, and more and more snow accumulated on the ground. We shared the cab with two other passengers. There was zero visibility on the highway. After dropping the first couple, the cab got stuck in the snow. The cab driver kept stepping on the gas, the wheels were spinning, but we were not moving. H tried to push the car with a bunch of other bystanders. Smoke came out, and we smelled the rubber burning. 

    This night could not get any worse and I was prepared to spend the night in the cab in the middle of the road. Somehow, just as we were ready to throw in the towel, the driver maneuvered out of the snow! We were on the road again! 

    The driver dropped us off on the main road, 3 blocks away from our apartment since he did not want to get stuck on the unplowed street again. H carried our suitcases, I walked behind him in the midst of the winter snow storm  wearing only light sweaters and crocks for the longest three blocks in the snow. By the time we got to the building at 2:30 AM, both of us were shivering uncontrollably.

    This night was too crazy for us to be upset about the cancelled flight. The whole experience was almost hysterical. I guess in the case of New York Snowstorm v.s. Puerto Rico Sunshine, New York Snowstorm won this run.