This Caribbean Destination Has Bioluminescent Waters and Gorgeous, Uninhabited Islands — and It's a Short Flight From NYC

·6 min read
Tranquil beach landscape, Vieques, Puerto Rico, Caribbean
Tranquil beach landscape, Vieques, Puerto Rico, Caribbean

Danita Delimont/Getty Images

Puerto Rico has a little something for everyone. Beach vacationers will find clean, white-sand beaches lined with palm trees, while history buffs will love Old San Juan, with its cobblestone streets and brightly painted colonial buildings sandwiched between centuries-old fortresses. Those looking for adventure won't have to go far. There's surfing, snorkeling off uninhabited islands, and glowing bioluminescent waters. And in El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the national forest system, travelers can access 24 miles of hiking trails leading to waterfalls, swimming holes, and mountain peaks.

Plus, travel to Puerto Rico is noticeably easier and breezier than most other Caribbean islands. Because it's a U.S. territory, you don't need a passport or have to worry about exchanging money (they use the U.S. dollar). English is widely spoken, and there are direct flights from several U.S. cities, including New York, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Buffalo, and St. Louis (in addition to most major cities in Florida).

Best Time to Go to Puerto Rico

Most travelers head to Puerto Rico in the winter, when the rainy hurricane season has passed and a tropical escape is top of mind. And while there's nothing wrong with a mid-winter beach escape (sign us up!), winter is also the island's busy season. Head to Puerto Rico between mid-April and June to avoid sky-high rates and crowded beaches. During this short but blissful window, you'll avoid the winter crowds and the hurricane season.

Rain does tend to be more common starting in April, but it's usually paired with milder weather in the mid 80s and plenty of sunny, bluebird days. Just pack a raincoat and have a plan for when the clouds roll in.

Things to Do in Puerto Rico

Clear-kayak Tour on a Bioluminescent Bay
Address: Jak Water Sports, Vieques, 00765
Phone: (787) 644-7112
Website

No trip to Puerto Rico is complete without a visit to the island of Vieques (30 minutes by ferry from the mainland). And while you're there, you'll want to experience the otherworldly, glow-in-the-dark blue of Bioluminescent Bay (a.k.a. Mosquito Bay) after dark. As you glide your clear-bottomed kayak into the bay, the underwater world beneath you will be lit up by the ocean's equivalent of fireflies. To say it's magical is an understatement.

Surf Lesson in Rincón
Address: Surf Lessons Puerto Rico, Rincón, 00602
Phone: (787) 617-4731
Website

On the far western and northwestern side of the island is a series of surf breaks that have given this part of Puerto Rico the nicknames, the "Hawaii of the Caribbean," and even, the "Mecca of Surfing." Thanks to a year-round break and bathtub-warm waters, everyone from true beginners to old pros will find waves to play in. For a lesson — or a local guide who will take you to the best spots — check out Surf Lessons Puerto Rico, an outfit that's been in operation for over 20 years.

Silhouette of surfer at sunrise in Rincon, Puerto Rico
Silhouette of surfer at sunrise in Rincon, Puerto Rico

Getty Images

Catamaran Tour to Cayo Icacos
Address: East Island Excursions, Marina Puerto Del Rey, Fajardo, 00738
Phone: (787) 617-4731
Website

Just off mainland Puerto Rico is Cayo Icacos, a tiny, uninhabited island with a private, deserted-beach vibe — especially during the quiet season. A day spent on the island is the No. 4 activity in Puerto Rico, according to Tripadvisor travelers, who say the best way to experience the clear waters and white sandy beaches is by catamaran. The 5.5-hour snorkeling tour with East Island Excursions is complemented by the catamaran's underwater windows — perfect for viewing sea life from the ship — and onboard waterslide.

El Yunque National Forest
Address: El Yunque National Forest, Río Grande, 00745
Phone: (787) 888-1880
Website

El Yunque National Forest is the only tropical rainforest in the national forest system. The park lives up to the distinction with nearly 29,000 acres of dense rainforest inhabited by geckos, mongoose, bats, and 97 bird species. Perhaps most spectacularly, there are more hiking trails than roads in El Yunque, making the park a hiker's paradise — with 24 miles of trail leading to clear mountain rivers, waterfalls, and even a high-altitude elfin forest.

Where to Stay in Puerto Rico

St. Regis Bahia Resort
Address: State Road 187 Kilometer 4.2, Río Grande, 00745
Phone: (787) 809-8000
Website

The St. Regis Bahia Resort is anything but boring. The property, set on a former coconut plantation, is perched between the lush El Yunque National Forest and the Atlantic Ocean. The property has two miles of secluded beach, a pool with private cabanas, and a golf course. And in addition to its distinct setting, each room has a private terrace and marble bathrooms with giant soaking tubs.

Overview of the St Regis Bahia Beach Resort in Puerto Rico
Overview of the St Regis Bahia Beach Resort in Puerto Rico

Courtesy of The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, Puerto Rico

Malecón House
Address: 105 Calle Flamboyan, Vieques, 00765
Phone: (939) 239-7113
Website

Set on the island of Vieques is this truly boutique hotel with just 13 carefully appointed rooms, some with ocean views and private terraces. The property sits on a boardwalk overlooking the ocean within easy walking distance to beach bars, boutiques, and some of the island's best restaurants. After a daily complimentary breakfast, you can snorkel off the pier, head to the nearby black-sand beach, or simply put up your feet on the hotel's shaded terrace or fall asleep to the sound of the waterfall rushing into the outdoor pool.

Condado Vanderbilt Hotel
Address: 1055 Ashford Ave, San Juan, 00907
Phone: (787) 721-5500
Website

It's all about luxury at this five-star property on the coast of the capital city of San Juan. That means 24-hour butler service and a handful of restaurants overseen by the acclaimed chef Juan Jose Cuevas. And while the service (and food) are excellent, the hotel's history makes it truly stand out. The resort was built in 1919 and is a perfect example of Spanish Revival architecture. The property infuses its history and heritage with all the modern amenities a discerning traveler would expect.

Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve
Address: 100 Dorado Beach Drive, Dorado, 00646
Phone: (787) 626-1100
Website

Just west of San Juan is the sprawling Dorado Beach resort, which sits on 1,400 acres and has two pools, three golf courses, a water park, and a spa and fitness center. There's no shortage of things to see and do, but don't be shocked if you don't want to leave your room — some have indoor-outdoor showers, terraces, and private pools. And let's not forget The Ritz-Carlton's exemplary butler service.

Lazy Parrot Inn
Address: km 4.1, PR-413, Rincón, 00677
Phone: (787) 823-5654
Website

If you want to experience the real Puerto Rico, start with a night or two at the Lazy Parrot Inn, a family-run boutique hotel in the surf town of Rincón. From your perch on the hill above town, you'll have views over the bay (and the surf break), which is a breezy 20-minute walk (or a three-minute drive) from the hotel. Each of the Lazy Parrot's 21 rooms is clean and modern with all the organic touches you'd expect from a green, eco-hotel. On-property perks include a saltwater pool and hot tub, farm-to-table fare, and lush gardens.

Hurricane Season in Puerto Rico

In Puerto Rico, hurricane season typically runs from early June to late November, but historically, many larger storms occur in September. Hurricane season, predictably, aligns with the island's rainy season, which typically starts in April and runs through November. Because of this, tourism to Puerto Rico decreases during these summer and fall months.