Puerto Rico, America's "shining star" just over two hours from South Florida, offers a Caribbean vacation like no other. Combine zesty Latin color and flavor with a hassle-free American vacation that requires no passport. Send postcards home using U.S. stamps bought with U.S. dollars. Shop stateside stores.Macy's, Sears, Radio Shack, Gap and the largest JCPenney store in the world are at the giant Plaza Las Americas mall here. If you're timid about new foods, eat in American fast-food restaurants. Speak English or Spanish. Either way, it's OK with friendly Puerto Ricans.
Our trip centered on the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino because of its location only 10 minutes from the airport and 10 minutes from Old San Juan. We had only three days for a Caribbean getaway and this one allowed us to fly in and zip straight to the hotel without standing in lines for immigration and customs.
The hotel's choices of activities are made for families: a slippery pool slide, splashy children's pool with gushing fountains, and kid-friendly menus and sophisticated dining and dancing for moms and dads.
San Juan families take to the green lawns outside the fort on breezy afternoons to fly kites. Everyone is invited. Build your kite on Day One; fly it on Day Two after the glue dries. Help yourself to shaved ice and make your own piragua (snow cone). Build a sand castle. Learn to cook. Have a treasure hunt. Little girls want to have their hair plaited in pigtails, and the whole family loves the treats that beach vendors sell from their pushcarts. The hotel is known for its Kidzine children's menus and for children's calendars that fill holidays with safe, supervised fun.
Nearby, Old San Juan is a living history lesson. Castillo de San Cristobal and El Morro in Old San Juan form a massive fortress with so many miles of tunnels, it would take days to explore them all. Hit the highlights with a guided tour to see secret passages, officer quarters and ramparts where cannons once blazed. As recently as World War II, when German submarines roamed the Caribbean, the fort served as a lookout post. Visit Plaza del Quinto Centenario, where a giant stone pillar commemorates Columbus' discovery of the New World. The ground-level fountain, filled with surprises, invites kids to walk in and get soaked.
Visit the science park and children's museum. Learn about the Taino Indians who lived here before the Spanish came. Indian and colonial artifacts are on display in Casa Blanca, built in 1521 as the governor's mansion. Visit the hushed interior of San Juan Cathedral to see where explorer Ponce de Leon is entombed. The church dates to 1540, more than 60 years before the first English settlers in America founded Jamestown.
While children have their own vacation, parents can play tennis, work out in the fitness center and have spa treatments at the hotel, or they can explore the old city's fine galleries and museums. Hotel dining with the family is casual at La Vista Restaurant and Ocean Terrace or in La Isla Beach Bar & Grill. Take-out is from the noodle bar or the coffee bar and bake shop. Elegant dinners are served in Ristorante Tuscany. Drinks and dancing are in the lobby bar, where live music is a nightly magnet to a lively crowd of visitors and locals alike.
Janet Groene is a freelance travel writer.