Travel UNCOMMON COMMONWEALTH

Puerto Rico in the off-season: Only the prices are off.

Puerto Rico is 100 miles long, 35 miles wide, forever springtime green, awash with the surfs of an ocean and a sea, and fringed with 600 miles of fine sand beaches. It is also crowded and expensive, except during the summer. Luckily, summer in Puerto Rico reaches all the way to December. What that means to you and me is a lengthy period of low prices. Puerto Rico works two seasons: On-season is winter, from early December through Easter; off-season is summer, or the rest of the year. Off-season means that a $90-a-day luxury room for two will rent for only $50. Or $40. Or, as I was charged earlier this summer, $30.

The summer season, curiously, is based on a false premise. Hotels and other visitor services lower prices because fewer tourists come; fewer tourists come because they believe summer in Puerto Rico is uncomfortably hot. Truth is, temperatures between July and December won’t vary five degrees. Year-round humidity is largely dissipated by constant trade winds. That makes Puerto Rico an excellent vacation buy between now and December.

The island is a mix of exotic sights and sounds and tempos, fundamentally Spanish though laced with American touches. Puerto Rico is an American Commonwealth, which grants the island quasi-independent representation without taxation. Puertorriquehos pay no federal income tax; better yet, American visitors need neither passport nor visa; nor is duty charged on any purchase. You are free to come and go and spend lavishly.

San Juan, with nearly a million residents, is the gathering ground of Puerto Rico. It is overbuilt, plagued with concrete and plastic, dotted with Pizza Huts, Burger Kings, freeways, and condominiums. San Juan’s industrial complex rivals those of Houston and Pittsburgh.

However sprawling, San Juan is not without virtue. What San Juan is, is lively. Gay, in the old meaning of the word: bright and exuberant. A kind of sedate Las Vegas, with discos, flamenco clubs, staged revues, rock joints, casinos and, on occasion, a semi-big-name entertainer or two. San Juan proves there is life after dark in the Caribbean.

I sampled the sounds and furies of Leonardo’s, San Juan’s oldest disco, and Juliana’s, the newest, and found them noisy, strobe-lighted, packed, and probably worth their $9 and $12 minimum charges. Over in El San Juan, a hotel that resembles a sultan’s palace as envisioned by an architect from Des Moines, “C’est Magnifique” is a two-hour staged extravaganza, Las Vegas-style, with almost-naked showgirls, brass-heavy orchestra, songs and dances interspersed with jugglers and dog acts. Shows are presented twice nightly, at 9:30 and 11:30, with a $10 cover charge (and a $6 minimum if you do not order dinner, which you should not). The Copacabana, in Old San Juan, presents an excellent flamenco show from Spain. Dinner prices begin at $9.80 and include the show. San Juan has eight casinos, all in major hotels, with the usual array of dice, roulette and blackjack tables, and slot machines. After the fashion of Monte Carlo, Puerto Rican casinos are quiet and somewhat dull. Rollers are not encouraged to speak to the dice; yellers are politely shushed. No hard liquor, and gentlemen must wear jackets after 8 p.m. San Juan casinos are not crowded.

The Latin vibrato of San Juan after dark can hide the other half of the city’s life (no one who experiences the 4 a.m. closing of Juliana’s arises very early). But San Juan in the sunlight is an athlete’s city. Beaches behind the Condado, Santurce, and Isla Verde sections are excellent. Major hotels there rent out surfboards, sailboats, snorkeling equipment, even towels and umbrellas. Bikinis are de rigueur and legion; San Juan, especially the Condado area, appears to be the summer nesting ground of the New York City secretary.

And tennis. The racquet explosion has arrived and major hotels have tennis facilities, some with as many as a dozen courts plus resident pros and instructors. And there’s no better golfing in the Caribbean.

Sightseeing in the Caribbean is largely a myth, because every place looks like every other place. In Puerto Rico, however, there are things to see and places to go. Like Old San Juan. The ancient walled city dates back to 1521 and holds the splendid remains of everything from El Morro, a great fortress spread over 200 acres, to the bones of Ponce de Leon, entombed in the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista after his fruitless search for the Fountain of Youth in Florida.

Begin at the Plaza Col6n on the Calle de O’Donnell and stroll past Columbus’ statue (verdigris is creeping up his right leg) into any of the cobblestone streets. You’ll see shops and cafes, pocket parks where old men play dominoes on stone tables, grand bars and cheap bars, 400-year-old homes laced with ornate grillwork. It is a walker’s paradise of new and old sights. The moss-covered wall around the city (45 feet high in places) repelled pirates and invading armies for centuries before the Spanish-American War of 1898, when American soldiers arrived and chose El Morro as their headquarters. The fortress, 150 feet above the Atlantic, can be seen on an hour-long guided tour conducted by National Park Service rangers.

You need not be that regimented, though. Just stroll and look, enjoy ice cream or India beer at an outdoor cafe and watch the workers roll cigars. Or walk to the docks and pay 10¢ for the ferry ride to Catano across the bay, then taxi to the Bacardi Rum distillery, the world’s largest. Free tour plus drinks on the house. Or you might board one of those Technicolor buses – I rode a pink one named, inexplicably, Big Daddy Rabbit – and return to new San Juan.

The countryside surrounding San Juan is a far better experience than the highrise city. Outside the freeways and industrial complex, Puerto Rico is pure tropical island, with miniature mountains rising to 4000 feet, small rivers, lovely little valleys with pastel-colored cube houses hidden in forests of banana plants, bougainvillea and wild orchids, and patches of thick jungle. You are never more than 20 miles from a good beach, and closer yet to a dozen fine rural resorts.

Drive up to El Yunque, 25 miles outside San Juan. A tropical rain forest high in the mountains, El Yunque is bathed with 200 inches of rain each year. Huge ferns grow there, along with acres of orchids, liana vines thick as bridge cables, and high sierra palms. There are multicolored clamorous parrots, waterfalls and quiet pools, footpaths for long walks. And El Yunque is home to the “coqui,” a little green frog which everyone hears but nobody sees. The frog’s call is its name, and a pleasing sound on quiet dark evenings in the mountains.

You might stay overnight in the rain forest at El Verde, one of a series of government-operated paradors – guest houses – strategically spaced around the island. All are small (from 7 to 46 rooms) and inexpensive ($21 to $36 daily, double occupancy). Several lie on the grounds of 18th-century coffee plantations and sugar cane mills. Others are near good beaches. All feature native foods and, on weekends, island entertainment.

Puerto Rico’s major island resorts are equal to any in the world. The Dorado Beach complex, El Conquistador – a luxury spread so vast that escalators and cog railways are necessary to transport guests to and from rooms – and the 2700-room Palmas Del Mar are the leaders. All are full-service resorts, with everything from riding stables to babysitters. Most have excellent golf courses, from a pair of Robert Trent Jones beauties at Dorado to the 6,660-yard layout designed by Gary Player at Palmas Del Mar. Golfing in Puerto Rico is superb.

And finally there is nearby St. Thomas, the capital of the American Virgin Islands. St. Thomas has become part of the Puerto Rican experience because of its duty-free shopping. The traffic between the two islands – it’s about a 30-minute flight – has become so competitive that a half-dozen commuter airlines will vie for your business. Prinair, at $51.50 per couple round trip, appears to offer the lowest fare, but Chart Air throws in free transportation to your hotel, free drinks on board, and a free bottle of rum, all for $30 per person, round trip.

It seems poor economics to pay $30 in order to save $2 on a carton of Kools or a bottle of Seagrams, but everybody does it. Or perhaps they go for major purchases – the $1000 Rolex for only $600 or the $300 Car-din jumpsuit for only $150. The catch is, only the first $250 is duty free; after that, you’ll pay a small tax. Still, you can find sensational savings on luxury items, St. Thomas is pleasant enough, and it fills another day in paradise while waiting for the discos to flash on.

I haven’t mentioned the cockfights (140 licensed galleras in Puerto Rico welcome tourists, but remember, cockfights are more than a little bloody); and horseracing (thrice-weekly year-round); and Ramon Marrero, the Caribe Hilton’s chief bartender, who invented the Pina Colada (rum, pineapple juice, and coconut cream); and the best local craft market, set up each weekend in front of the convention center in Condado; and the more than 30 world deep-sea fishing records that have been set in the waters off Puerto Rico. Another time, perhaps.

Puerto Rico’s long summer season of relatively low prices can be cut even more with package rates. You might try Delta Air Line’s seven-night package at the Dutch Inn, a fine hotel in the Condado section. Its $117.50-per-person rate gives you a full week plus cocktails on arrival and free racetrack tickets – not a bad deal at all. Out on the island, Dorado Beach offers a four-night package for $213 per person, which covers room, green fees at both golf courses, tennis court fees, use of a bike to get around the resort, and breakfast and dinner each day. The cute pink bus named Big Daddy Rabbit costs two bits, winter and summer.

For further information, write thePuerto Rico Tourism InformationCenter, Suite 3704, 1290 Avenue ofthe Americas, New York City, 10019.Or call 212/541-6630.

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