FAJARDO, Puerto Rico — The day was bright and the tropical breeze warm as we took off on a chartered 51-foot catamaran off the coast of Puerto Rico for a sailing and snorkeling adventure.
As we cruised out of the harbor, past sunning iguanas and waving palm trees, my husband, Jim, and I knew we had done it. This was that full getaway mode we had been seeking. Cue the salsa music. Bring on the pina coladas.
Puerto Rico is more than a vacation spot for me. I lived and worked on the island for six years in my 20s, before moving back to the Boston area and meeting my Newton-born spouse.
During those years in San Juan, I spent more time writing about crime, poverty, and politics than sipping rum drinks at resorts. Yet I had ample time to explore, and fall in love with, the island. Now I was eager to show my children, Max, 8, and Chloe, 11, some of what I treasured about the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.
Puerto Rico is an ideal vacation destination for a time-limited, budget-conscious family. No passports or passing through customs; San Juan is about a four-hour flight from Boston. You can board at Logan International Airport in the morning and be pool-side by lunchtime. For the children, the island has beaches, a rain forest, and a historic seaside fort complete with colorful stories of pirates and sunken ships.
The island, which lies between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic, is an unincorporated US territory whose currency is the dollar. Among our fellow citizens, most people in the tourist areas speak English.
We chose to fly Wednesday to Wednesday to get the best fare. Travelocity.com offered hotel deals with free nights for extended stays.
We flew into San Juan and stayed at the Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, a hotel on busy Ashford Avenue, a seaside strip including hotels, restaurants, and clothing stores. The capital, with an unemployment rate of about 14 percent, shows signs of the economic recession, with some boarded-up buildings and empty storefronts along the street.
But the Marriott offered two pools, a waterslide, Jacuzzi, and several restaurants and bars, pleasing all members of our small party. When the kids grew tired of swimming, there was Ping-Pong and the long walkable beach for change of scenery. The waves were big enough to be adventurous but not so big as to be scary.
Days later, we moved to the seaside Rio Mar Beach Resort and Spa in Rio Grande, about 40 minutes from San Juan. The hotel is located by a crescent-shaped beach at the foot of the lush rain forest, El Yunque. The children were enchanted by the view from our balcony, looking up to the rain forest and out to a bog, filled with creeping iguanas and small black turtles.
We loved the long palm-lined beach and the ample swimming pool and Jacuzzi. Yet the hotel, with several costly, air-conditioned restaurants, made us yearn for an out-of-resort experience. An early morning Internet search helped with that. Remembering my pre-parent days as a scuba diver, I came across the site www.snor
kelpr.com that offered snorkeling and sailing on the boat Spread Eagle II. A picture of a beaming youngster was a sign the outing was child-friendly.
The trip offered a visit to Icacos, a small uninhabited island off the northeast coast of Puerto Rico, part of a string of small islands known as the Cordillera Natural Reserve.
We were able to secure reservations that morning. The outing included lunch, use of snorkeling equipment, and complimentary pina coladas with or without rum.
The catamaran was docked in Fajardo, a seaside town about 15 minutes from our hotel and an hour from San Juan. We drove to the dock and by 10 a.m. were sitting on the bow of the boat, lathering up with sun screen, the kids all smiles.
The gregarious first mate, Amado Calvo, welcomed us and described details of the day: A 45-minute sail to Icacos, lunch aboard the boat with about 30 other guests. Then a quick sail to another small island where we could feed bread to the fish.
The sail to Icacos was swift and easy. From the boat we admired the mainland, the impressive looking El Conquistador Resort, and a smattering of nearby small islands. When we arrived at Icacos, we were directed to walk along a pristine white beach toward an offshore reef. Just being a short distance from the mainland felt like an adventure. A few other surrounding tour boats were a reminder we weren’t too far from civilization.
This was my children’s first experience snorkeling and they briefly struggled putting on the gear and learning to breathe. But they were quickly wowed by the bright-colored tropical fish.
The underwater life at Icacos is diminished from two decades ago when I first discovered its reefs. There are some healthy vibrant corals but also bleached-out areas, the effect of global warming, overfishing, and boating, according to Marcos Ramos, an environmental educator with the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources.
Ramos said the department is working with local communities to educate them about how to better care for the reserve.
But there was enough sea life to make it interesting for a first trip. The kids were thrilled. We ate on the boat, enjoying a simple but fresh lunch of bread, cold cuts, tuna fish, tomatoes and lettuce, and cookies for dessert.
From Icacos we anchored off Lobos Island, a privately-owned atoll nearby where several catamarans congregated to feed the fish and enjoy the afternoon sun. A school of blue tang fish swarmed our group, eating out of our hands. A majestic stingray swam underneath us. On the way back, Calvo offered freshwater showers with a hose and threw fruit to the waiting iguanas.
On the way home, Max said that each day our trip kept getting better. But this 5½-hour outing was definitively the highlight of the week.