Wednesday, June 25, 2008

San Juan-Vieques Puerto Rico-Jun'08

Every three years we go to a national drug prevention conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico and stay at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan. It is rated only a 3 star hotel but with a little more effort and a more disciplined staff it could easily be a 4 star. If you stay in the Tower with a view of the ocean, the experience is great, even with the room having a slight musty smell when you open the door and the maid service lacking attention to detail. Wiping the phone with a dirty rag just doesn’t add to the phone experience. But the view is really great out our balcony. Below are the remains of an old fort. Three years ago the big conference dinner was held here and it was cool even if you had to stand in a long line to get to the food.
Looking the other direction the hotel beach area is in the foreground and across the inlet is the ruins of another fort and a public beach.
A purple sunset.
The beach bar has a bar tender with a great personality and dedication to his customers, but don’t ever order a Margarita. They are the worst ever. The Mai Tais, however, are very nice, made with a shot of Amaretto added to two kinds of rum, white rum and Meyer’s dark rum. The Caribe Hilton was where the Pino Colada was invented and this drink should not be missed. The inventor experimented to get just the right mixture of coconut milk and pineapple juice. At one o'clock each day, free samples are given out although I am not sure there is alcohol in them. But the real ones are a delight. All drinks are expensive. Note-If you go to Singapore, stop in at the Raffles Hotel and have a Singapore Sling. They were invented there.

Food prices at hotels are no bargain usually but we did eat a burger around the pool restaurant.

Other times we walked half a block to a Subway where we learned the popular footwear here is the dreaded Crocs, at least by young people.
One evening we walked across a bridge under construction to eat some local, less expensive food. This is looking back at the hotel and the Tower is on the left.
We ate at a local restaurant with a Mexican theme and sat five feet from waves crashing on a few rocks below.
We went to old San Juan and walked the streets. We had a nice dinner at a restaurant named Baru and the Sangria was really good.
We fly to the small island of Vieques just off the coast of Puerto Rico. The plane will carry 6 passengers but this trip there are only 3 of us. There is a ferry to take to Vieques but it takes most of the day to make the trip. Actually, Vieques is part of the commonwealth of Puerto Rico so if is it called Vieques, Puerto Rico, is the island of Puerto Rico called Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico? I wish someone would clear this up. But I digress.

After we land at this very small airport, our bags arrive on the baggage carrier about 30 seconds after we enter the terminal. We find that the island taxi will come in 15 minutes, but I believe the taxi came because one of the security guards called him and made arrangements for him to come. However, he does come soon and we travel across the island (about 5 miles) to our hotel, the Hacienda Tamarindo, named for the very old Tamarindo tree that grows up through the hotel starting in the lobby. Our room is the best room in the small hotel with a private balcony overlooking about ½ mile of landscape to the sea. The photo below show the balcony the rest of the guests can use. Our room door is on the right and we have the same view from our smaller balcony.
Here is the side of the hotel taken from our balcony.
After checking in our rental car arrives after an hour. It is essential to book a rental car reservation ahead of time. There is only one car rental on the island and some of the guests we talked at the hotel had to wait a day or two until a car was available to them. Without a car, there is no way to get to a restaurant and the hotel only serves breakfast (and a box lunch if you let them know). We drive to the small village of Esperanza about 2 miles away and I have one of the best tasting Margaritas.
The restaurant/bar/hotel is called Bananas and besides good drinks, the food is good also,
We also later ate next door at Bili. It was hot and the sangria was very good. We ordered some fried plantains with salsa which we enjoyed.
We were very disappointed with our dinner at the Trade Winds up the street. We arrive about ½ hour before dinner was served, so we offered to have some drinks before and sat down at a table near the bar. The bartender continued to her duties instead of stopping and asking what he would like. So we decided to visit some of the shops and come back later. When we returned, we ordered two starters and wanted to share an entrée. The calamari was dull and tasteless and the goat cheese and toast was served with rancid oil which we sent back. The entrée of was a Thai dish with penne pasta instead of Thai noodles and we were charged $5 more because we shared the entrée. The menu or waitress made no reference to the added charge. I made sure before I left that the kitchen was told about the calamari. I could have given a Chef Ramsey rant starting with, “does someone taste the food before it is served.” We do not recommend this place because of the food and the attitude. Everywhere else the service and food were good, especially at Bananas.

We spent a day at Sun Beach and in spite of spending almost all of the time under palm tree shade; we both got just a little too much sun, not too bad though. The hotel prepared a nice box lunch which was really good. We brought a few seashells back.

One day we signed up for snorkeling/scuba called snuba. The air tanks are on a raft with a hose leading to a mouthpiece. We had wet suits though the water was not cold. I was hyper venting and became uncomfortable so I quit. But Judith stuck it out just fine and was pleased to see a spotted leopord ray among some of the other creatures. Here she is being helped through the slippery rocks. The raft holding the air tanks can be seen.
While I was waiting in the van for Judith to finish her snuba, the helper Fred told me about life on Vieques. He has lived here 30 years. In the early days, there were no paved roads, and only pay phones that seldom worked on the Esperanza side of the island. There were no street lights and little electricity. When people first got refrigerators, they put them on their front porch to let everyone know they had one. (You can still see them on some of the porches). When a pay phone did work you had to shout into the phone so everyone knew your business. Whoever answered the pay phone was responsible to go get the person if the call was important or to deliver a message the next time they saw the recipient. There was no crime. It was a simpler time when people looked after their neighbors’ interests and they did also in return. I could tell Fred could have gone on and on and he missed the good ole days.

During our stay there was a full moon. This had unfortunate consequences.
There are bioluminescent bays in Vieques but when there is too much moon light, the creatures are not visible.

The bioluminescent glow is produced by a physico-chemical reaction that begins when the single celled dinoflagelate organism is disturbed. The defense mechanism starts a chemical chain reaction that results in a blue green glow that lasts as long as the organism is disturbed. It is not like a "glow in the dark" toy that has to be held up to a light and charged up. This is a reaction that occurs because a very specific set of nutrients are available in the water to sustain these little "water fireflies".

There is actually more than one bioluminescent bay on the Island of Vieques, the brightest is the "Mosquito Bay" - it is this bay the dinoflagelate population numbers refer to. Several things had to come together all in one spot for bioluminescence in Puerto Mosquito and elsewhere to have evolved:

1) Mangroves (or their ancestors) had to surround the bay and provide a habitat for specific bacterium which produces vitamin B12 in large quantities as a metabolic by-product.
2) The mouth of the bay had to be narrow to keep its waters from being washed out to sea, diluting the dinoflagelate population.
3) The location had to be remote and thus without pollution.
4) The temperature had to stay warm, and constant, within a very narrow range.
5) The water had to remain calm enough so that most of the saltier water could sink to the bottom and eventually be carried away back into the ocean by mild undercurrents, since the organisms can not thrive in the saltier ocean water.
6) The population of natural predators for the organism had to remain low.

We are told that the experience of being in the water with the dinoflagelates is a very unique experience. So we may return in another 3 years if there is no full moon.

While we were at Esperanza at night, while having a cold drink, with the temperature in the low 80’s, watching people walk along the colorful lights, we seemed to be enjoying a bit of paradise. And in the morning, opening the balcony doors and enjoying the view, I had the same feeling.
We flew back to San Juan early in a slightly bigger plane, and had a long wait for our flight back home. During the time, these guys came through the terminal singing and playing their instruments. It was a nice touch to a great trip. The trumpet and sax players are behind these wide guys.


GETkristiLOVE said...

Arrrrghhhh, Crocs are everywhere!

What a great way to spend Father's day.

vikkitikkitavi said...

Glad you had a good time. That Tamarind Hotel looks great.

Anonymous said...

It is Vieques, Puerto Rico because Vieques is a town of Puerto Rico, just like San Juan or Fajardo. The name "Puerto Rico" encompasses the main island as well as Vieques and Culebra (town-islands) so it is just Puerto Rico.

I'm glad you had a great time. I'm Puerto Rican and it is going to be my second time visitng Vieques this week, and I will be specifically staying at Esperanza. Looking forward to it.