Five weeks ago today, on one of the last Saturdays in June, we loaded our suitcases into the back of the Sienna, buckled up, and drove out of our neighborhood. After a quick pit stop at Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee for me — a medium, with cream and sugar — and some donut holes for the kids to share, we headed north toward the Jacksonville airport. After a 90-minute drive to Jacksonville, a couple of hours in the airport, and a few hours in the air, our nonstop JetBlue flight would land in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Back when the trip was in the planning phases, back when I was still trying to decide where to travel, I made a checklist in my mind of what I wanted. Warm weather and beautiful beaches were at the top of my list, followed by gorgeous scenery, plenty of outdoor spaces for us to get out and explore, easy travel time, minimal time change, and no passports required. And I didn’t want to spend too much on this trip. I considered a cruise, but I didn’t want to be confined (and those cruise ship mishaps over the last year are still in the forefront of my brain). I considered the British Virgin Islands. Sam and I had been to Virgin Gorda before we had children, and I’ve been dying to get back there. But traveling to Virgin Gorda with kids is not completely simple, and besides, we only had five nights. I thought of Mexico, possibly the Riveria Maya, but I didn’t want to deal with passports and customs with the kids in tow. But Puerto Rico? It fit all of my criteria, and then some.
Our home base in Puerto Rico was the El Conquistador Resort in Fajardo, on the eastern coast of the island. The resort is 40 miles – or about an hour – from Old San Juan. We rented a car while we were there, mostly because we didn’t want to have to rely on taxis or shuttle buses, and we were so glad that we did. While the resort had plenty of activities – including its own private beach and several pools – we liked being able to come and go as we wished, and not as a part of a tour group. Having a car also gave us the freedom to eat at restaurants not affiliated with the hotel, a serious bonus.
One morning, we explored El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest System. We stopped along the winding, two-lane road to gawk at waterfalls and listen to the coquí frogs. We hiked down the rocky footpath of the Big Tree Trail to La Mina Falls, a must-see waterfall, according to the no-nonsense, elderly park ranger at the visitors center, El Portal. It was on this trail that I learned exactly how out of shape I am. About ten minutes into the hike, I tried to convince my husband, that this, the burbling stream we’d just crossed over on a footbridge was it, the big waterfall we were hunting; we’d found it, and could we please just go back now? Because he loves me, he didn’t listen to me. And I’m glad my beloved husband ignored my pleas to turn around, because after another 15 to 20 minutes, we were rewarded with the thundering of water cascading over the rock ledge towering above us.
Our leg muscles were sore that night, but we all fell asleep easily, serenaded by the calls of the coquí frogs hidden in the tropical plants outside our hotel room.
Old San Juan was on our agenda the following day, and specifically, Castillo San Felipe del Morro – or “El Morro” for short. Along with El Yunque, this historic fortress was the other gem of a memory I had from childhood. We arrived early, hoping to beat the crowds, but really, hoping to beat the heat. We didn’t. The vast expanse of the fortress baked in the sun, and we baked along with it. High up in some of the turrets, or in the shade within some of the sentry points, a breeze slipped through, cooling the sweat on my neck. We guzzled water and Gatorade, and we found some treasured moments of relief from the heat in the air conditioned movie theater that showed a continuous reel of the history of San Juan’s military fortifications. We watched that movie at least three times.
We had wonderful meals in Puerto Rico. Because we fell in love with the restaurant’s grilled meats and mofongo the first time we had dinner there, we ate dinner at La Estación twice. I still dream of the mofongo relleno (mashed plantains) stuffed with lobster sauteed in white wine and garlic. My daughter had mofongo with grilled chicken in a guava barbecue sauce, and she has asked me to recreate it at home. At La Estación and at our second favorite restaurant, Pasión por el Fogón, the meals were accompanied by tender red beans, garlicky and with chunks of ham and diced potato in the bean broth. We were so enamored with those beans and with the flavors of so many other dishes we tried – like the marinated flank steak with tamarind sauce at Pasión por el Fogón – that I bought a used copy of Puerto Rican Cookery by Carmen Aboy Valldejuli as soon as we returned to Florida.
I wish I could say that our trip was all rainbows and laughter, but it wasn’t. I didn’t expect it to be, though. My children are young – 9 and 6 – and they bicker often, much the way my brother and I did when we were that age. Some of those beautiful photos of white beaches and swaying palms were accompanied by quarreling and screams of “He touched me!” or “She won’t share!” Some of our dinners were eaten too late in the evening, well past our usual dinner time, and my son is crabby when he doesn’t eat on schedule. To make up for this, we ordered appetizers and extra drinks for the adults.
The benefit of travel, though, is that all of the arguing and whining – which would normally happen at home – happened in an exotic location, with new sights and sounds and flavors to distract. We didn’t notice it as much, and, really, the good moments far outweighed the bad.
And, when it got too rough, there was always ice cream to bribe the kids with. And there were plenty of mojitos for us.