|WHERE'S SHELIA? Puerto Rico|
Destination: San Juan, Puerto Rico
Visit the island paradise known as the Caribbean's shining star.
By Sheila O'Connor
Feel that warm Puerto Rican sun as it warms your skin, thirsty for heat. I call it bliss. And it's something this Caribbean island has in abundance. That, and a beautiful location. A territory of America, yet with its own distinct Spanish style and influence, Puerto Rico is the jewel in the South Caribbean Sea. And at only three hours from the East Coast, it's an island that's easily accessible. It's not for nothing that movies, like The Flying Nun with Sally Fields, have been filmed here.
First things first: if all that traveling makes you feel exhausted, or you simply want to unwind -- and let's face it, why shouldn't you? -- then it's time you took it easy with a massage. You won't do any better than the Ocean Club at the San Juan Marriott (Tel: 787-289-6023). If it's statistics you need, The American Psychological Association released a survey in October 2007 indicating that one-third of Americans are living with extreme stress and 48% believe that their stress has increased over the past five years. All the more reason to get that massage.
As one of those one-third of Americans with an aching shoulder blade, I can attest to the fact that the intense kneading by the therapist was enough to take the pain away. And it hasn't come back since. By the end of the time, the massage table and I had become one. Take the time to have a full 90-minute massage; a 60-minute massage is only a taster and your time is always up just as you're finally relaxing completely. For this journalist, I'll henceforth always ask for a "trigger-point" massage. The therapist goes slowly and deep in rotation on the various trigger points on your back. Yes, right there -- right on the knots that always seem to form in the troubled areas. It's quite acceptable to fall asleep but all too soon, the time is up and the hardest part of the whole experience is getting back off the table.
Now that you're refreshed, you're ready to check out the history on the island. And there's plenty of that. One of the most notable dates was 1493 when Christopher Columbus came here. At that time, the island had 60,000 Taino Indians living on it. Then in 1508, Ponce de Leon came here and was governor of the island. Check out the painting in the state capital that shows this meeting and then see the ceiling above your head to follow the history of the island. The granite used for the flooring comes from both Italy and Georgia. The Taino Indians named the island Boriquen. Puerto Rico became part of the U.S. Commonwealth in 1952 and these days, the residents don't pay federal taxes although they do pay state taxes. Sales tax was introduced just a year ago.
History comes alive in the El Castillo San Cristobal in Old San Juan as you peek into its tunnels and dungeons. The fort was actually a Spanish colony and it had space to house 500 soldiers. Construction started in the 1630s and wasn't finished until 150 years later. This is the twin of the El Morro fortress, built to protect the entrance of the harbor. The forts have valiantly guarded the island against Spanish, English and Dutch invasions, all of which have been in an attempt gain control of the island. The wall of these fortifications range in thickness from 12 to 20 feet and the sentry boxes that look out seaward (kept in excellent condition) offer a strong defense against enemy attack.
Look for the Rogativa statue; dedicated to the bishops and nuns who unknowingly saved the city when the British troops saw their lighted procession and fled the city, assuming enemy reinforcements had arrived.
This island was a strategic spot and a good defense system was needed. This is where ships would stop before arriving in the new world. Here, they would load up on water, wood and food -- all of which were in rich supply. FYI: Puerto Rico means "Rich Port". It was also the last stop ships would have before heading back on their long voyage back to Europe.
Wander through the shops, past the old gate and along the river walk of this 500-year- old city. The old town has changed little over the past couple of centuries, except for the addition of fast food chains cleverly disguised to blend in with the surroundings of wrought iron balconies, shaded plazas, cobbled streets and flower-filled patios. Boutique shops are fun to stroll through as you absorb the sights and sounds of the city.
Another historic building worth checking out is the Center for Tropical Diseases ... at least from the outside; you don't want to catch anything!
If you are in town at the right time -- the first Tuesday night of the month -- you might come across the art evening with local artists selling their wares, anything from hand-made soaps to jewelry or fabric crafts. As many as 20 galleries and museums are open after hours and the public is invited to view examples of Puerto Rico's rich artistic tradition. You won't be able to go home without buying something. The deals are too good to miss!
Relaxation is the name of the game and it's worth taking an easy kayak tour of the Pinones Forest Natural Reserve. Look for the wildlife as you kayak through the lush red mangrove trees, which are needed to prevent flooding onto the island.
When dinnertime rolls around, head to that San Juan classic, The Parrot Club, established in 1996. The restaurant specializes in Nuevo Latino cuisine and tropical cocktails. It boasts an open kitchen, a warm and colorful dining room and bar, and a lovely Old San Juan courtyard for outdoor dining. The Parrot Club, Calle Fortaleza 363, Old San Juan, Tel: 787-725-7370.
SAN JUAN MARRIOTT RESORT & STELLARIS CASINO
In order to be near everything worth seeing, stay at the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, located in the Condado area of San Juan, a quiet residential area only a stone's throw from the heart of Old San Juan. The San Juan Marriott is home to the newly expanded Stellaris Casino, one of the biggest on the island. Check out the Northern Italian restaurant. Recently renovated, at a cost of $38 million, the hotel has 512 guest rooms and 13 suites and is one of the premier hotels in San Juan. Rooms feature new Revive bedding and flat screen HD TVs with Jack Pack and iPod compatibility. The hotel features high-speed wireless Internet access. Amenities include a pool, swim-up bar, fitness room and superb dining options. San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, 1309 Ashford Avenue, San Juan, 00907, Puerto Rico, Tel: 787-722-7000.
The history, the warmth of the people, the culture and the climate are all here to welcome you to beautiful San Juan, the island they call the Caribbean's shining star. I call it simply heaven on earth.
Sheila O'Connor is a freelance writer who specializes in such areas as relationships, parenting, health, travel and golf. This is Sheila's first article for Johnny Jet. When she is not exploring the globe, Sheila is at home in San Francisco with her husband and three children.
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