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Escape the cold with a trip to warm, sunny San Juan

Explore Old San Juan this season.

Explore Old San Juan this season. Photo Credit: Linnea Covington

Let's be honest, the howling winds and below-freezing temperatures make it hard to enjoy New York City right now, which is why it's the perfect time to get away from it all and go somewhere warm. We have just the place too: Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan.

Dubbed the "Isle of Enchantment," this area has it all: a rich history, beautiful beaches, luxury, a vibrant culture and plenty of local eats. It's only a quick three-and-a-half-hour ride by plane, too -- no passport necessary.


This small island has been overrun by pirates, acted as a military base and has remained an active port for centuries. One of its greatest attractions is the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, aka El Morro, a stunning castle-fort built in 1539 over the San Juan Bay. Today millions of people come to explore it. It's located in another main attraction of the city, Old San Juan, a historic colonial tract that was discovered shortly after Christopher Columbus' famous voyage to the new world. One neat thing about this town: there are laws that keep all the storefronts and house colors a certain way, so it maintains the integrity of the island's history.

Walk the iron-laced cobblestones (carefully) and dip into the little, quaint shops along Fortaleza and Cristo Streets. If you are looking for souvenirs, head to La Casa de Las Casitas (250 Cristo St., 787-723-2276). For local nibbles, try the Spicy Caribbee (154 Cristo St., 787-725-4690), an artisan food shop specializing in spices and coffee. Later, sip rum and cokes made with spirits from local distilleries including Bacardi (Carretera 165 KM 6.2, 787-788-1500), which, for about 50 cents, you can hop on a ferry from Old San Juan to Cataño for a factory tour and tasting. Then, take a turn on the dance floor at Nuyorican Cafe (Calle San Francisco #312, 787-977-1276) or La Factoria (148 Calle San Sebastian, 787-412-4251). You don't have to know a lick of salsa to get the party going -- there are plenty of folks ready to whisk you away and show you a step or two.


If you want to stay in Old San Juan, El Convento (100 Cristo St., 787-723-9020) is the place to be. Situated in what used to be a convent, this unique property has a beautiful open courtyard, comfortable rooms with a Puerto Rican flare and a plunge pool on the top floor. Plus, it's in the hub of activity, located right across the street from the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, which houses the remains of the first governor of Puerto Rico, Juan Ponce De León.

For luxurious accommodations right on the beach, another aspect winter-escapees may crave, the Condado Vanderbilt (1055 Ashford Ave., 787-721-5500) is a surefire bet. Though this grand property was built in 1919, it recently reopened after a major renovation that modernized the facilities while keeping the Spanish Revival architecture in perfect condition. Gaze at the sea while simmering in the heated infinity pool, indulge in a lavender massage in their spa or grab a beach chair and soak in some sun seaside.


Even if you don't stay at the Condado Vanderbilt, check out its fine dining restaurant 1919 for some of the best wine on the island, as well as local dishes including chayote salad, cochinillo (suckling pig) ravioli and snapper crudo, all carefully executed by chef Juan José Cuevas.

Another great place to visit, especially if you want to eat seaside, is Oceano (2 Vendig St., 787-724-6300). The restaurant serves a lot of fresh, bright seafood and salads, including grilled pineapple with cumin-roasted almonds and pickled jicama, a house ceviche with king snapper and passion fruit dressing and the tender, cardamom-marinated palarmo pork.

Of course, you can't visit Puerto Rico without trying its famous mofungo, a dish made of mashed, fried plantains that usually gets stuffed with pork, chicken or shrimp. The place to go for it is El Jibarito (280 Calle Sol, 787-725-8375) though be warned: after 7 p.m., you may have to wait a while for a table.

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