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Puerto Rico: An island vacation spot full of adventure (and golf)

Jason Scott DeeganBy Jason Scott Deegan,
Senior Staff Writer
Bacardi Rum Factory
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The Bacardi Rum Factory offers free drinks and the chance to explore the world's largest rum distillery. (Jason Deegan/TravelGolf)

Want the secret to the ideal golf vacation in Puerto Rico?

Wake up early. Don't dawdle like other vacationers in the Caribbean. Play golf at a marquee course, maybe the Ocean or River course at the Westin Rio Mar Beach Golf Resort & Spa in Palmer. Or try either track at Dorado Beach Golf Club. Then enjoy the day elsewhere, away from the heat of the course.

The beach or pool is the obvious choice. With temperatures rarely dipping below 80 degrees during winter, lounging near water seems smart. Sailing, tooling around on a jet ski, chartering a fishing boat, snorkeling and scuba diving are also popular pursuits.

But there's so much more: sightseeing, caving, exploring a rainforest, kayaking by night. In Puerto Rico, these are the best adventures to explore away from the golf course.

Old San Juan

Puerto Rico's pulse will live forever in Old San Juan. A walking tour of the narrow streets, some of which are cobblestone, introduces quaint shops, art galleries and authentic island eateries. Historic statues and squares reveal themselves at every turn.

The city's cornerstones, the El Morro and San Cristobal fortresses, have fascinated tourists for decades. These huge stone structures and the walls surrounding Old San Juan are testaments to a bygone world when Pirates ruled the waters and Spain its empire. Observation towers serve jaw-dropping views of the coastline; see it all for just $3. The city's domed capital seems small compared to these mammoth marvels of human engineering.

By night, the city comes alive, especially in the SoFo district on South Fortaleza Street, where some of the best restaurants can be found. The splashes of color on the walls epitomize the charisma of The Parrott Club, opened in 1997. Food and music create draw scores of patrons.

El Yunque

What's the only tourist attraction that's truly free? Mother Nature.

Of course, there's some commercialism involved with the Caribbean National Forest, or El Yunque, the only U.S. rainforest. Many hotel concierges recommend visitors stop at the El Portal Rainforest Center, which requires a small fee.

True explorers go it alone, however. The island's interior is truly mountainous and inside the rainforest. There are reportedly 240 species of trees and 137 species of animals (none dangerous) within this ecological treasure.

The hair-raising drive on the main road through the park can be exhilarating and scenic. Just watch where you're going.

The Yokahu observation tower, a castle turret, delivers 360-degree vistas of the mountains to the south and ocean to the north. The most famous route of the 24 miles of trails, the Big Tree Trail, is just long enough to be an adventure, yet short enough for children or the elderly. It's a 1.5-mile hike through vegetation that blocks the sun to the 40-foot La Mina Falls. Taking a dip under the cataract in the small pool of cool water can be refreshing and recharge your batteries for the uphill hike back.

Alvin Robles, who runs Paradise Seekers, says his local knowledge of the forest can lead to other treasures few experience. "I know a 25-minute hike that passes four waterfalls," he said. "There's even one you can slide down. It's perfect. You wouldn't believe how smooth it is."

Bacardi Rum Factory

Free drinks aside, the regular tours at the Bacardi Rum Factory are insightful and interactive. The factory, the largest rum distillery in the world, produces more rum in 24 hours than you and all your friends could drink in a lifetime of debauchery.

Once the tour ends, visitors can't help but buy a sample or two. The factory sells a brand of rum only available there. Just remember, you can't bring 151-proof back on the plane. It's hazardous -- to fellow passengers and your health.

Bio bay tours

Kayaking by night to tour a bioluminescent bay is perhaps Puerto Rico's most unique experience. There are only 13 bio bays in the world, and three of the brightest and best are in Puerto Rico. The island of Vieques, a short ferry ride from Fajardo, offers the best chance to see microscopic phytoplankton light up the sea, but it requires a night in Vieques to participate. Mainlanders can tour the Laguna Grande bay near Fajardo through a number of companies, none better than Las Tortugas Adventures, Inc., led by U.S. Coast Guard veteran Gary Horne. Las Tortugas also offers kayak snorkeling and eco tours.

During the bio bay tour, kayakers navigate the narrow channels of a mangrove swamp in the Cape San Juan Nature Reserve. It's a dark, mysterious journey, following only the light of a glow stick attached to the lead kayak. On an ideal night (don't go within a week of a full moon), guides encourage guests to jump into the bay. Every splash and stroke stimulates the plankton, which number in the millions, to light up and amaze. It's an eco tour you'll never forget.

Rio Camuy Cave Park

Even if you're not a spelunker, caving is still possible at the Rio Camuy Cave Park, home of the world's third-largest underground river cave system. Tours by cable trolley ride visitors to the mouth of one of the caves. The nearby Arecibo Observatory features the world's largest radio telescope. Its 1,000-foot-diameter reflector is operated by Cornell University under the cooperation with the National Science Foundation. Interactive exhibits and a 20-minute introductory documentary can be fun and educational for children.

Puerto Rico travel: The verdict

The golf in Puerto Rico is very good, and some of the hotels are among the Caribbean's top resorts. But the tourist traps are just as good. Old San Juan is a must. El Yunque doesn't have the exotic animals you might expect in a rainforest, but it is a great way to spend a day exploring. But, remember, this is a vacation. Don't neglect the beach.

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San Cristobal fortressEl Yunque forest

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

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