- When: 12 February- 22 February, 2021
- Where (accommodations): AirBnb in Isla Verde (9 nights) and Courtyard by Marriott Isla Verde Beach Resort (1 night)
- Transportation: JetBlue direct 3.5hr flight from Boston to San Juan, Puerto Rico. 10 min flight from Ceiba (CVR) to Vieques (VQS) on Vieques Air Link . Car rental in Isla Verde- Charlie Car Rental
- Sights/attractions: Vieques island: Sun Bay Beach, Media Luna Beach, Navio Beach (Playa Navio), Black Sand Beach (Playa Negra/Negrita). Esperanza town. Puerto Rico: Isla Verde: Isla Verde Beach, Balneario de Carolina (Carolina Public Beach); Condado: Condado Beach, Atlantic Beach, Ocean Beach West; North East: Playa Azul, Punta Bandera, Luquillo Beach (Balneario Luquillo), Rio Grande beach, Playa Vacia Talega, La Posita (Piñones), Paseo Tablado Piñones (Boardwalk), Seven Seas Beach; North West: Survival Beach, Surfers Beach, Crashboat Beach, Balneario Rincón, Domes Beach; San Juan: Old San Juan.
- Food/drinks: Vieques island (Esperanza): Robin’s Mojito Bar and Grill; Puerto Rico: Ola Ocean Front Bistro, Paulina Escanes-Gourmandize, Kasalta bakery, Caña by Juliana Gonzales, Entrevinos, Lluvia Deli Bar & Artefacto, Degree 18 Juice bar, Rico Pan Bakery, Koa Açai, Terruño Comida Artesanal, Yamiko Sushi, Ceviche house, Coconut Ice Cream (Rincon), 1919 Restaurant, Mario Pagan restaurant, Marmalade.
Despite the name of this post we did a lot more than just ate, slept and enjoyed the beach 🙂 . We also ran, surfed AND worked! This getaway was not a vacation, but more like a ‘work-ation’. As on most of our trips we arrived Friday evening so that we could enjoy the weekend in the warm weather (just escaped yet another winter storm in Boston). Monday was a President’s Day holiday, so that made a long weekend. We worked Tuesday-Thursday and took Friday off to have another long weekend before returning home on Monday. We stayed in Isla Verde at the most wonderful Airbnb located literally on the beach. Falling asleep and waking up to the sound of waves (and sometimes the airplanes, as it is close to the airport) was magical.
Even work stress seemed to melt away when lifting the eyes from the computer screen you could see the blue Caribbean water. Before work we’d go for a jog on the wide stretching sand of Isla Verde beach, have a sweet breakfast from the local fruits and when Boston work day started (PR does not observe daylight savings, so in winter is 1hr ahead of Boston) we were ready to tackle any tasks that came our way. At lunch we went surfing- surfboard rentals and classes were literally steps away from the condo building, or simply had a break soaking up the sun on the white soft sand. After work we enjoyed the stroll on the Balneario de Carolina (Carolina Public beach) admiring the sunsets.
On the days that we didn’t want to drive more than a few minutes, we had dinners at the local restaurants nearby. I won’t bother mentioning some that we didn’t really enjoy, but a couple that we really liked is worth listing. Caña by Juliana Gonzales located at Fairmont el San Juan Hotel was steps away from our AirBnb and we enjoyed the table outside overlooking the water. Well, it was overlooking the pool area, but still was nice and the food was good. I especially enjoyed their heirloom tomato salad. Super fresh and delightful!
One of the weeknights after work we were craving sushi and found that Yamiko Sushi is only a few minutes drive away from our place as well.
Super simple, right on the main street, we sat at their little table outside literally in front of a parking lot, but the food was great and the service fast! Nothing more to ask after a long work day.
If you are looking for a good meal in Carolina (Isla Verde), we can also recommend a Peruvian restaurant- Ceviche House. Big portions, no fancy dress up needed- just bring a big appetite.
We actually had an extra meal to go so that we could have lunch during the work day. Excellent choice.
On Valentine’s Day we made reservations at Entrevinos– meaning ‘surrounded by wines’. It sort of was like dining in a wine cellar- literally surrounded by wines on all of the walls. The food was ok, octopus was a bit chewy and main courses quite salty. Luckily it was only the second day of our trip and we have not tried all of the amazing meals at the other places yet, so we were not too disappointed.
We initially planned to return on Sunday, but Sean got a Wellness day on Monday which meant no work meetings, so we changed the flights to depart 24 hours later (and to delay the inevitable return to the cold). Our Airbnb was already booked up for the next guest, so we moved to the nearby Courtyard by Marriott Isla Verde Beach resort for one night. To be honest we missed our Airbnb dearly. Hotel had lots of loud and drunk guests, thin walls and the room/view was way better from our Airbnb. There was a pool and a few hot tubs outside, but we were still glad we didn’t stay here the whole ten days.
This was really one of the best working trips. We want to be able to experience this lifestyle for 3-4 months each winter, so one of the reasons for this visit was also to explore Puerto Rico and decide which area feels like home. We’d like to potentially invest in a condo someplace close to the beach in the near future. On the quest to find the perfect location we managed to visit 22 beaches (some of those were in Vieques island), try several restaurants and ended our trip in Old San Juan- the place were we celebrated Sean’s 30th birthday five years ago. I will separate this post exactly by how we explored- each mini trip was to a different side of the island. One day we wandered Condado and the North side of the island, on Valentine’s Day we flew to Vieques, another day was spent for the North West of PR/Rincon area, then we went to North East/Fajardo and finally Old San Juan. Despite the island seemingly being not that big, there is A LOT to discover. We never made it to the Southern side, which doesn’t have so many beaches, but we’re hoping to check that off the list in one of the future visits.
CONDADO AND AROUND
We started our weekend with brunch at Ola Ocean Front Bistro in a swanky Condado Vanderbilt Hotel. The food and the ocean views were wonderful, though priced accordingly high. Egg benedict for $18 USD is a bit steep even coming from Boston, but we are in an upscale hotel, so to be expected.
We checked out the beach to the left of the hotel (Condado Beach) but it was high tide and it looked super rocky, so we didn’t even consider staying around and went to the nearest sandy beach. Atlantic Beach looked great for some sun and for splashing in the not too big waves.
After a few hours in the sun we got hungry, so went back to the Ashford Ave to look for a quick lunch. There are a ton of places on this strip, some had longer wait than others, but we were able to get a table outside at the Paulina Escanes-Gourmandize and really enjoyed their tacos.
Now we are ready for another beach! We continued the same direction and after the Atlantic Beach reached Ocean Beach West– it seemed a lot less touristy, more of a local vibe and a LOT of wind surfers!
Very nice, clean, wide beach, not too big waves, good for swimming and relaxing.
With all this walking/swimming and laying in the sun we started to feel sunburnt- it’s time to head back towards the car, we have a long walk ahead of us. Without any real plan we were walking down one of the neighborhood streets and came across Kasalta Bakery. Of course we can’t walk by and not try some of the sweets. Apparently this bakery is well known and even President Obama visited them while in PR back in 2011!
Everything we tried was delicious and we secured ourselves some pastries for the breakfast for the next day.
As far as Condado area goes- it’s nice, yet very commercial, lots of hotels, restaurants and traffic. We did not come back for the beaches, but returned several times for food. 1919 is an upscale restaurant at the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel serving Prix Fixe four course dinner. We made the reservations but did not read the dress code (smart casual, no dressy shorts). Sean wore a button down with shorts and because of that we were not allowed to sit in the main dining room. Whoops, lesson learned.
They seated us in the bar area and the menu was the same, so to be honest we did not really care as long as we got to eat the amazing meals. It was really good, beautifully presented, definitely recommend it.
Another place that we had dinner at in Condado was Mario Pagan restaurant. We made reservations for the same day on a Saturday and were surprised they were available- the food was superb! The restaurant itself has a minimalistic decor, very modern and unpretentious, but of course the best (and most important) is the food.
We noticed that many dishes we’ve had in PR have a bit too much salt, while here it was perfect. And of course, don’t forget the dessert!
I think Condado is a great area to stay if you are on vacation, want to have access to the nice beaches and lots of good bars/restaurants/cafes. It does get congested with traffic on a one way streets, so ideally it’s a place for a short trip when you don’t want to drive around and want to have everything fairly close within walking distance.
We’ve wanted to visit this Caribbean island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico five years ago when we first came to PR together. I can’t recall why we ended up to Culebra instead, but this time we made a point to see Vieques. There are several ways to get there from the main island. The cheapest and longest way is a ferry from Fajardo. In this case it was not possible, because ferry was reserved for PR residents only and during COVID-19 no out of island guests were permitted. That left us with an option of flights from San Juan airport (SJU), Isla Grande airport ( SIG) or Ceiba airport (RVR). Since we had a rental car and only wanted to visit Vieques for one day, Ceiba was the most convenient option. It took us about an hour drive from our Airbnb and then 10 minute morning flight on a tiny Vieques Air link plane. The flight time from Ceiba was 10am and the flight back from Vieques at 6pm- perfect window for a day trip and cost $80pp.
It was such a small plane that we felt like on a private jet (8 passengers plus the pilot), and we were luckily seated right behind the pilot (each way!), so got to see the fun takeoff and landing as well as the beautiful views below.
Vieques is not small (I kind of wish we spent a night there) and you can’t just walk the island. It’s recommended to rent a jeep, since some of the roads leading to the beaches are unpaved. Since we were here for such a short time, we decided to rely on the local taxis (publicos), which were readily available at the airport. Of course we are here to enjoy the beach, so that’s where the first stop was.
Sun Bay Beach
Beautiful, white sand, calm water and empty beach looked like a postcard. We could not believe that there was not a single other person here on a such beautiful day. Well, we will not complain. Let the photoshoot begin : ) .
As if only having the most beautiful paradise all to ourselves was not enough- there were also wild horses right nearby! The island has about the same amount of horses as it does people (one of the locals said there are 8000 horses and 9000 residents) and while some have owners, others are wild and roam free. We did not go too close, but it was a lovely sight.
FYI- there are bathrooms available on this beach, but no other amenities, so bring your own snacks and water. All other other beaches that we visited in Vieques did not have any facilities at all, so keep that in mind.
Media Luna Beach
We relaxed for some time at Sun Bay beach and decided that we need to explore more- Media Luna Beach was only around 11 minutes walk away. We came, we saw, we did not stay.
Compared to the clean white sand on Sun Bay, this did not look like a place worth spending time at. Maybe it looks better on the other days, but there was too much seaweed on the shore for our liking.
Another 7 minutes walk and we are yet on another empty beach on this island. Completely different feel and look- the waves were HUGE. There was also some dried up seaweed on the shore, but the water looked clear. It was too scary to get in though, even taking photos I almost got knocked out and swept under.
By now our snacks were depleted, so we called one of the taxis and wanted to see one more beach that this island is famous for- Caracas Beach. Unfortunately the taxi driver told us it’s closed and she could get fined if she took us there (also it’s not easy to access it), so we decided to go have lunch instead.
Charming little town of Esperanza is on the southern part of the island, with the nice boardwalk along the ocean. We could have walked there from the Sun Bay beach, but since we were already in the taxi, ended up getting a ride. We planned to eat at Bananas- a well known beach bar and guesthouse, but the driver told us that’s where all tourists go and recommended Robin’s Mojito Bar and Grille instead.
We do prefer local joints over the tourist traps, so were happy to try the place we didn’t know about. It was very good! Food tasted fresh and my mojito was super refreshing after the hot beach day.
As for the town itself, we did not see too much, because we wanted to check out one more beach before our flight back to the main island. What we walked by looked colorful, quiet and charming.
Black Sand Beach (Playa Negra/Negrita)
Not every day you get to see the black sand beach, so once we heard that there is one on Vieques and that we can walk there in less than 20 minutes, we decided to do so. It was worth going on the side of a narrow road and then through a path that was a bit like a jungle- the beach turned out to be one of our favorites on this island! The waves were big, but we managed to get in for a quick swim a couple of times.
The surrounding cliffs add to the charm and gives this beach even more unique look. Definitely a big change from your typical white sand/palm lined backdrop.
We had a flight to make, so we walked back to Esperanza, right near the touristy Bananas. In our minds we had this idea that the taxis will be lined up and we’ll have no trouble getting to the airport. Well, no such luck! Not a single publico in sight, we called all of the numbers that we had- nobody’s available or there is a long wait. Our 10 min flight (and the last one of the day) is in exactly one hour. I started holding my thumb up to hitchhike, Sean did not waste the time and literally walked up to the older gentleman that just got out of his car and offered to pay him to take us to the airport. The man looked at us (holding a can of beer in his hand that he was about to open) and said: I don’t need your money, I’ll take you. We felt so grateful that we did not even care that his car was so trashed we had to move the things around to find a space to sit. We didn’t even think of objecting when he said : I’ll drink the beer if you don’t mind (and opened it as he was steering the wheel with the other hand). The ride was a good twenty minutes, so we got to know our kind hearted rescuer. His name is Paco, he’s 82 yr old former boat captain and a chief of the police in St Croix. He lives a good life and has six grown up kids. We made our flight and will never forget his parting words – “It’s nice to be nice”. Thank you, Paco, I hope you continue to drive safe!
NORTH EAST OF THE ISLAND
Since we want to find a location for winter escape near the beach, we decided to explore the coastline of Puerto Rico and started by going East from San Juan/Isla Verde. We looked up on the map how big of a stretch we can cover without rushing, and started exploring.
Driving in PR
Before I get into beach discoveries, I must mention driving in Puerto Rico. If you want to see more than just a couple of beaches around your hotel, you will need a car. Rental cars are reasonably priced and at least our Geico car insurance from Massachusetts provided coverage in PR. If you do not have car insurance, you REALLY need to get one. Because driving here is VERY different from what you might be used to (of course unless you drove in India, then you have nothing to worry about). The roads are good, but the drivers are fast and inpatient. They will drive super close to you, they will cut you off (and flip you off as they fly by). Using directional lights is more of an exception than a norm. We saw more cars driving with their hazard lights on than using the turn signals. What is normally a fast lane in the USA (the left lane), here somehow is a slow lane, so a lot of cars pass you on the right. Yet there are a ton of trucks that use this ‘fast’ lane, so it’s quite interesting. Police drive with their lights on all the time- they just keep them on, does not mean that they are pulling anyone over. If they decide to pull someone over (definitely did not see them doing it for anyone speeding), then they would turn their siren on. Driving under the influence is also very common, which means cars do not always stay in their lane…That being said, don’t get discouraged from exploring. We drove almost every day and came back unharmed. We definitely avoided late night/evening simply because we saw a lot of drunk drivers and did not want to be on the road in the dark for extended periods of time. It is a beautiful island and to see it a car is a must, so just come prepared, be cautious and enjoy the ride!
When we arrived this beach was not busy, but the waves were pretty big, so we took some mandatory photos on the leaning palm tree (my signature pics when on the islands 🙂 ) and decided to see what else we can find.
There was free street parking, so we left the car and set to explore the coast on foot. We’d like to find a beach that we can easily swim at and this was simply too rough of a water at the moment.
As we walked along the coast, the scenery changed dramatically and so did the waves! They literally disappeared.
I think so far this was our favorite area – peaceful, calm, very tropical and true island life. I don’t even know where exactly one beach ends and the other begins, so this piece of heaven is between Playa Azul and Luquillo Beach.
Walking a bit more and turning around the corner opened up into a wide, long stretch of sand called Luquillo Beach. This is where our walk ends and we’ll enjoy some sun, swim and relax!
Perfect for families, great for playing in the water- no rocks, no seaweed and plenty of shade if needed- this beach is a dream. If you get hungry, as we surely did, you need to walk towards the end of the beach and just across the street you will find a row of restaurants with variety of meal options. We chose Terruño Comida Artesanal and were happy with their ceviche and mofongo dishes.
Rio Grande Beach
We did not spend any time on this or the rest of the few beaches that we stopped at on the same day- sun was setting shortly and we simply ran out of time. But since we visited, I will share a few pictures, so that you know what they look like, in case you’re in PR and debating if it’s worth going there.
It’s definitely a gorgeous beach no doubt!
Playa Vacia Talega
Nice beach on the way back to Isla Grande, definitely a lot of locals enjoying the sunset, no high rise hotels or tourists around.
La Posita (Piñones)
Literally right near the road, so we just pulled over to see this beach- a bit rocky and with big waves.
Potentially would be a nice spot during the day, but when we were driving by the water looked very rough.
Paseo Tablado Piñones (Boardwalk)
Last stop on this beach hopping day. Boardwalk seemed like a nice place for a stroll and the beach looked beautiful.
It seems like so many places visited, but we barely covered a small area of North East coast of PR.
Seven Seas Beach
We did not go here on the same day, but since I am writing about the North East, I must mention it. We spent the whole day just relaxing and enjoying this calm beautiful place. It also had a local feel, not crowded and no high rises around. Only about an hour drive away from Isla Verde this beach should be on your list, especially if you find yourself in Fajardo area.
Sean learned the (very useful) skill of opening coconuts in French Polynesia, so he really put this into practice here. It takes some time and patience, but what can be better than a fresh coconut water on a hot beach day! We cut up the coconuts, brought them home and made fresh grated coconut to top our breakfast bowls.
Talking about breakfast around this area of PR. We found two perfect places that I must mention. One of them we knew from our previous visit five years ago and were glad to hear they have survived the hurricane, Covid-19 and are still making amazing food. It’s called Lluvia Deli Bar & Artefacto and is located in Palmer, Rio Grande, PR.
We stopped here for a quick to-go breakfast burritos before our flight to Vieques.
Another amazing place in Palmer (we went here twice) is Degree 18 Juice bar. Fresh juices, smoothies, açaí bowls and great vegan burgers- this place is a must stop when in the area.
After eating a lot of not so healthy food, this juice bar was a much needed healthy (and delicious) treat for our bodies. Lastly, if you are looking for the best tuna sandwich (I swear it was simply perfect), or craving some sweets and coffee- stop at the Rico Pan bakery. Small place right off the highway, but that tuna sandwich still makes me drool just thinking about it 🙂 .
Road trip to North West!
On another weekend day we set off to the opposite side of the island- the side we’ve never been before. Still with the goal to see beaches, feel the local atmosphere and try some food of course. It was quite a long day and a lot of driving. Just to get all the way to the West side takes about 2.5 hours. Add all the stops along the coast, plus the drive back and the sun is going down…If we’d do it again, we’d spend a night in Rincon, so that it would be less driving and more time for fun. But for the sake of limited time, we managed to see a lot and have some time to relax (very little time if you ask Sean).
If you are up for a little hiking adventure, this is a place for you. Before though, to have some energy, stop at the Koa Açai in Isabela, PR. We always like to try different açai bowls wherever we go and we were not disappointed to find one on this side of the island as well.
Very generous portions, we are now ready for our hike!
To get to the Survival beach for the GPS and parking purposes I recommend putting the name of Surfers beach. You can leave the car in the shade of the palm tree and go towards the right. You will see the sign pointing to Survival Beach.
Do NOT wear sandals- the path is lined with tree roots, rocks and goes up and down- closed shoes/sneakers is definitely recommended if you don’t want to twist your ankle or worse- fall down the cliff. Don’t be scared though, it’s not a long hike, maybe 15 min or so, the views of this rugged beach are worth it at the end.
The path continued up the cliffs, we eventually turned around and went back. I don’t know if there is an area where you could lay/swim- it did not look possible from the waves crashing into the massive rocks.
This was more swimming friendly and we saw a lot of surfers, but no rentals around, so we didn’t get to surf. Waves seemed pretty big as well, so I am not sure if we’d braved them even if we could have rented a board. Still a very nice beach though. With a leaning palm tree of course.
This beach is a beautiful place, but was quite busy on a Friday afternoon. There were lots of vendors at the entrance selling food, so it would be a good place to hangout for the day when in Aguadilla area. Calm blue water and spectacular views from the viewpoint on the hill.
We’ve heard a lot of good things about the relaxed surfing town of Rincón on the west side of Puerto Rico, so that’s where we headed next. The town definitely looked charming, but we didn’t have much time to explore it. Since we hoped to surf, we went straight to the main public beach- Balneario Rincón. Definitely a nice place, beautiful sand and water and a few restaurants/cafes nearby.
We tried Coconut Ice Cream and it was delightful. The lady made a fresh batch right in front of our eyes.
There were no surfers at the Rincon beach and I asked a girl in one of the shops where is a good place to surf in the area. She said Domes Beach is good for that, so it being only a short drive away we took the advice. Well, little did we know that it’s way out of our league. First of all, there were no rentals and all of the surfers had their own boards. Second- there were huge rocks all along the shore. So here we are- at the beach where we can’t even get in to swim and the day is almost over.
We relaxed on the sand and cooled off by going in the water up to our knees, but it’s definitely not a beach for swimming. At least there was a picturesque leaning palm tree and plenty of coconuts for Sean to open 🙂 . Time to drive 2.5hrs back. This was a VERY long day.
OLD SAN JUAN
Since we extended our planned trip by an extra day and were slightly ‘beached out’, we decided to spend an afternoon in a charming Old San Juan. We’ve been here together to celebrate Sean’s 30th birthday, and luck would have it, were able to get a reservation at the same restaurant- Marmalade. Still rated #1 restaurant in Puerto Rico, still just as amazing as we remembered.
We look the same, don’t we? I think five years later we aged like wine and actually look better (not to brag whatsoever 🙂 ).
This restaurant serves four, five or six course menus, and we went with five for me and six for Sean. Way too much food. It was super amazing (especially their signature white bean truffle soup), but we could have been rolled out of there by the end. No regrets, just acknowledging the fact that our eyes are bigger than our stomachs.
From the appetizers to the last bite of the desserts- this place is a foodie’s heaven.
We did not only eat in Old San Juan. We walked a lot! Castillo San Felipe del Morro alone took up a good chunk of the day and is fun to explore.
If you are into history and the forts, this is a place for you!
If not for the fort, just walking around the charming and colorful streets of the Old San Juan was pure delight.
It’s good to see that even after the hurricane destruction, with COVID-19, this island not only surviving but is thriving.
Winter escape to Puerto Rico has been a huge success. We were able to enjoy the sunshine, explore the island and didn’t need to take much time off from work. It was so much fun to discover new areas of the island and to return to the places that we visited together when we just started dating. I know we are very fortunate to be able to work from home during these uncertain times and definitely are not taking it for granted. If all goes well, we hope Puerto Rico will be our winter home soon, but for now, we are happy to have spent even this short time here.