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Destinations with Andrew Zimmern: Puerto Rico

Conrad Condado Plaza

Courtesy of Hilton Worldwide

The Conrad San Juan Condado Plaza hotel.

I love Puerto Rico. White sand beaches, fantastic architecture, ridiculously good food (with apologies to Spain and Cuba, the best whole-roasted hogs in the world are Puerto Rican) and the use of the U.S. dollar puts the so-called 51st state at the top of my list for tropical island getaways. It’s easier to fly into San Juan than any other place in the Caribbean, and there are activities for all family members.

In San Juan, I drop my bags at the Conrad Condado Plaza, where my wife can hit the spa and my kid can hit the beachfront. Plus, one of the Caribbean’s finest restaurants, Pikayo, is here. Chef Wilo Benet puts modernist spins on fresh seafood and meat dishes paired with classics such as rice, beans and mofongo (a fried plantain dish). Anything that comes from his kitchen is world-class.

From Condado, the best of San Juan is at your fingertips. Grab breakfast at the century-old restaurant La Bombonera and start your day with a cup of Puerto Rican coffee, fresh-squeezed orange juice and one of the famous Mallorca pastries. Then meander down the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, stopping by El Morro (a 16th-century Spanish fortress) for spectacular ocean views and the obligatory photo op at the giant cannonades.

The island is only 100 miles long and 35 miles wide, so day trips are easy. One of my favorites is the small town of Guavate, an hour south of San Juan. This is a must-go-to mecca for pork lovers. The town specializes in lechón asado, or whole-roasted pork. At El Rancho Original, whole hogs are brined for days, then spit-roasted. You get served chunks and slices from any part of the animal, and there are about 50 side dishes and sauces served. Or head an hour and a half southwest to Lares, where the ice cream shop—Heladería de Lares—has more than 1,000 flavors on rotation. From refreshing and tropical (guava, avocado) to just plain weird (codfish, rice and beans), you’ll find exactly what you’re craving.

Adrenaline junkies will dig a day at the Toro Negro rain forest with Acampa Nature Adventure Tours. Hike the mountains, tear through the treetops on a zipline and plunge into freshwater pools—this is a day of serious fun. For something more low-key, it also offers wildlife tours at El Yunque National Forest.

If you want to go off the grid, book a room at the W Hotel on the 52-square-mile Vieques Island (a 20-minute puddle jump from San Juan Airport is about $90 a person). W’s chic and fun atmosphere is within reach of some unbelievable natural attractions. Collect shells and sea glass at nearby Playa Cofi, take a night paddle across the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay in one of Vieques Adventure Company’s clear canoes or snorkel at Playa Esperanza on the southern coast. Or just lounge on the beach. You’re in the Caribbean, after all.

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