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Puerto Rico: Rediscovered gem of the Caribbean

Puerto Rico: Rediscovered gem of the Caribbean

Be it the royal palaces of Great Britain, medieval streets of provincial Europe or cherry blossom saturated sights of pre-Meiji Japan, history can be an ace when seeking overseas travellers.

Often overlooked, however, is the island of Puerto Rico.

Located just a few miles to the south of continental America in the Caribbean Sea, the island offers nearly five centuries of Spanish influence, creating a fascinating past – but also a bright future.

Long recognised as a leading cruise location, Puerto Rico offers the second largest port in the Western Hemisphere, serving Caribbean departures from the Carnival, Celebrity, Costa, Cunard, Princess and Royal Caribbean lines.

But over the past decade, the island has sought to expand its offering, positioning itself as a mid-to-top end holiday destination.

Eschewing the all-inclusive resorts which characterise much of the Caribbean, Puerto Rico has instead focused on exclusive, distinctive destination properties catering to discerning American leisure guests.

Old San Juan is among the most popular destinations on the island

Luxury Hotels

Top luxury brands are falling over themselves to open properties in Puerto Rico as this repositioning gathers pace. In the past two years Starwood has led the way, opening both the W Retreat & Spa, Vieques and St. Regis Bahia Beach.

But this is just the beginning of the renaissance for the island.

This year Condado Vanderbilt and Ritz Carlton Reserve - the first six star property in the region – will both open, to be followed by Palmas Del Mar by Regent and Mandarin Oriental in 2012.

As Mario Gonzalez Lafuente, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC) told Breaking Travel News: “Puerto Rico is not a price driven destination.”

“We are moving back toward our former position as the luxury, resort based destination of choice.

“There is a clear vision in place, with a structured plan to reposition the island as a leader in the Caribbean.”

That is not to say budget-conscience travellers are excluded.

One popular attraction is the network of Paradores operated by the PRTC. Seeking to provide an authentic experience, these small, privately-owned hotels offer guests a chance to explore some of the Puerto Rican interior, away from the metropolitan centres.

With 18 available throughout the island most of the top destinations are covered by the network.

Holidays in Puerto Rico offer everything from city breaks to beach adventures

American Influence

Demand for both types of property has been helped immeasurably by the island’s relationship with the United States.

As an unincorporated territory, American citizens do not need a passport to visit, with upward of three quarters of overnight visitors coming from the mainland.

Abundant airlift also makes a visit relatively stress free for American visitors.

Some 17 airlines connect Puerto Rico to major hubs in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and London – with nine US airlines offering a total of 63 flights a day.

Why travel all the way to Europe or Japan, when everything from historic city breaks to exotic luxury retreats are on offer just a short hop over the Caribbean Sea?

British Airways has recently reintroduced its twice weekly service from London Heathrow, while Iberia flies out of Madrid, bringing Puerto Rico closer to European visitors.

Attractions in Puerto Rico

But what do guests – American or otherwise – do when they are on the island?

Firstly, it is important to note Puerto Rico is not a fly-and-flop destination. While the resorts are world-class, the island is as safe as anywhere in the United States, encouraging guests to get out and explore.

Excellent roads make navigation easy, leading guests from the – ever popular - El Morro fort overlooking the Bay of San Juan around the sights of the island. For nature-lovers, Puerto Rico offers the only tropical rainforest under US Forest Service, while adventure junkies will find insurance friendly spelunking, rappelling and climbing options in the Rio Camuy Cave Park.

Naturally, there are also the – now Blue Flag rated - beaches, with even city-dwellers in San Juan able to feel the sand between their toes in a matter of minutes. Surfing, snorkelling, and biking are also favourite pastimes to the west of the island – known as Porta Del Sol.

A day trip to the Bacardi distillery, located in the outskirts of San Juan, is also a popular diversion.

World class beaches are a staple of the island

Niche Tourism

But away from the headline grabbing activities, Puerto Rico has also been careful to cultivate its niche tourism offering.

Included in a recent raft of tourism-friendly legislation was a wedding destination law, designed toallow US couples seeking to certify their ceremonies to meet requirements from their own state, in lieu of local requirements.

Golf is also popular, with the PGA tour stopping off at the Trump International Golf Club in Rio Grande, last year. There are also more than 25 – very reasonably priced – courses dotted around the island, with many offering stunning ocean views.

Medical travel is also growing, with authorities recently enacting new legislation to provide credits to companies which are seeking to establish a presence on the island.

Finally, incentive travel is more than accommodated in Puerto Rico.

The new $415 million Puerto Rico Conference Centre boasts 580,000 square feet of floor space in a stunning waterfront location. As many as 10,000 guests can be – lavishly – accommodated, giving the island a real boost over regional rivals.

The development is also situated amid a cluster of world class hotels, including the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino, which was last year recognised by the World Travel Awards as the Caribbean’s Leading Meetings & Conference Hotel.

History, culture, world-class facilities – for business or leisure – and an array of activities to please any taste, perhaps that is why locals say “Puerto Rico Does it Better!”