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Eight days on Puerto Rico's north coast

Day 1
Day 1
A luxury casita at Royal Isabela

Puerto Rico as a vacation destination is a no brainer for US citizens. English is widely spoken, currency is in US dollars, driving is on the right side of the road and passports (and therefore customs and immigration) are not required. I traveled to Puerto Rico with my family for eight days over spring break.

This 8-day tour covers the north coast, with visits to Puerto Rico’s many natural wonders including El Yunque National Forest. In all, we covered 360 miles in our rental car from San Juan, to Isabela, to Rio Grande and Fajardo and back to San Juan. Here is our itinerary of where we stayed, what we did and what we ate.

Day 1
Day 1 A luxury casita at Royal Isabela

Day 1

Fly into Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport and rent a car. Drive 90 minutes to Isabela in the north-west region of the island. Isabela is known for its beautiful beaches and panoramic views.

You'll be spending two nights at the super-exclusive Royal Isabela, a golf resort at its core, but you'll discover why non-golfers are flocking to this drop dead gorgeous property. You can read my full review by clicking here.

Have dinner and cocktails at Royal Isabela's Restaurant La Casa. Then retreat to your 1500 square foot casita and take a dip in your own private heated plunge pool while gazing up at the stars and listening to the symphony of coqui frogs.

Day 2
Day 2 Restaurant La Casa at Royal Isabela

Day 2

You'll spend today chasing one of many active or inactive pursuits while exploring Royal Isabela's facilities. Perhaps a morning workout in the fitness center, a game of tennis or a tee time on the stunning, wild golf course. Order up a beach picnic and be escorted by a friendly driver to a lovely, quiet beach complete with beach chairs, towels, an umbrella and a cooler filled with lunch and drinks.

Spend your evening taking in the views at the Bar at La Casa or venture out to one of the excellent restaurants in Isabela. Ola Lola's Garden Bar and The Eclipse at Villa Montana Beach Resort are two that garner rave reviews on TripAdvisor and were highly recommended by other travelers we spoke with.

Day 3
Day 3 La Casa at Royal Isabela

Day 3

Leaving Royal Isabela will be tough, but know that there are good things to come. Take one last dip in your private pool before hopping in the car and heading east beyond the San Juan airport.

Drive about two hours to Rio Grande where you'll be staying at the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort for the next two nights. No, you're not lost and yes those are cows along the side of State Road 187. You're exactly where you should be and you'll find the resort tucked away behind lush greenery at kilometer 4.2.

If you're looking for a resort where you don't have to lift a finger, you've found it at the St. Regis. Every component of the service experience is elevated from check-in to the concierge service to turn down. You will be spoiled rotten. You can read my full review by clicking here.

Have a late lunch or an early dinner at Seagrapes, the open air seaside/poolside restaurant. Food is served until 6pm. Don't miss the wood fired pizzas and save room for the adult s'mores - a flat bread dessert pizza topped with hazelnut ganache, marshmallow and candied hazelnuts. Oh my! If a finer dining experience is more your style, have dinner at Fern created by world-renowned Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

The resort is very quiet in the evenings. Most guests leave the pool and beach area long before sunset. Take advantage of the solitude and the views and go for a dip in the ocean or have some fun in the pool in the early evening. Retire to your guest room balcony for a cocktail while listening to the waves crash against the shore in the distance.

Day 4
Day 4 Remède Spa's outdoor whirlpool, Michele McIntyre

Day 4

Today you will spend the day exploring all that the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort has to offer. The fitness center is well-equipped and you can undo some of the damage from yesterdays wood-fired pizza feast. Book a spa treatment just about anywhere on the property using Remède Spa's "Spa Without Walls" concept. I'd suggest a manicure or pedicure in a private poolside cabana while oriented to view the ocean. When your treatment is over, don't miss spending an hour (or longer) enjoying a glass of champagne and lingering in the top-notch spa facilities that surround the spa gardens. An open air relaxation area, cold plunge pool, steam room, sauna and whirlpool await you. There are plenty of places to sit and watch nature go by.

When you're perfectly relaxed, float on back over to Seagrapes for a poolside lunch (Yes, a repeat visit. It's that good!) This time try the fish tacos. After lunch head over to the Boathouse and borrow bikes to cruise around the shaded nature trails that run along a river and past the golf course. You'll feel completely transported under the canopy of trees. When you're sufficiently hot and sweaty, take the air conditioned resort shuttle back to the Plantation House. If you ask nicely, you just might get another refreshing rum punch to cool off with.

Spend the afternoon alternating between the beach and the pool. Don't forget to visit the spectacular concierge and make a dinner reservation for that evening.

At 6pm, return to the Plantation House for the nightly champagne sabering and fish feeding rituals. The kids love feeding the fish and the adults love welcoming the evening with a complimentary glass of champagne.

At 6:30 pm, board your complimentary shuttle to Richie's Cafe. It's a 15-minute drive that's well worth the hospitality from Richie and his staff and the view you'll be rewarded with. When you arrive at the restaurant, the sun will still be up but it will slowly be making its journey into the horizon. You'll have the best of both worlds: seeing the killer view in the daylight and the sparkling lights at night. You must order the sangria, the pineapple rice with chicken or shrimp and the coconut tres leches cake. Your driver will safely bring you back to the St. Regis whenever you are ready.

Retreat to your balcony for a nightcap but make it an early night. You have a big day ahead of you tomorrow!

Day 5
Day 5 Remède Spa's gardens, Michele McIntyre

Day 5

You'll be checking out of the St. Regis by 8:00 am this morning and heading east to Fajardo's Puerto del Rey Marina. You're in for a real treat today! Along the way, stop for breakfast at La Familia Bakery 2. You can't go wrong with any of the breakfast sandwiches or pastries.

Your activity for today is an excursion with Erin Go Bragh Sailing and Snorkeling Charters. If you're super-lucky, you'll be accompanied by Captain Dan and First Mate Ingrid for a spectacular day of sailing and snorkeling along with a barbecue lunch cooked on board while you're out snorkeling and swimming. Ingrid's mango salsa is worth a repeat visit. The Erin Go Bragh takes only 6 passengers at a time so you're guaranteed a personalized and nearly private experience aboard this comfortable sailing vessel.

Drive back to Rio Grande and check into the sprawling Gran Melia for the night. Upgrade to Red Level service for a host of special amenities - from daily buffet breakfast to a private check-in area and nightly cocktails in the Red Level Lounge. Have dinner at Mediterranean restaurant Tempo Steak & Pasta and snag a popover from the bread basket while enjoying regional Italian specialties and a great wine list.

Day 6
Day 6 Yhi Spa at Gran Melia Puerto Rico

Day 6

Your Red Level bracelet entitles you to enjoy the breakfast buffet at Café Soleil. Send the family off to splash in the exotic pool complex while you grab the first appointment of the day at Gran Melia's Yhi Spa. Try a massage to warm up your muscles for what awaits you this afternoon. Spend a little time at Yhi Spa's private tranquility pool before rejoining the family to check out.

Drive to El Yunque National Forest. Stop at the El Portal Visitor Center to get your bearings, see the short movie and grab a map. There is a small snack bar if breakfast is starting to wear off. The must do's: Visit the 69 foot high Yokahu observation tower for killer views of Rio Grande and beyond. Hike the trail to La Mina Falls where you'll be rewarded with swimming in the bracingly cold waters at the base of the falls. There are some food concessions along the single road that travels through the park where you'll find all manner of fried Puerto Rican specialties to snack on.

Leave Rio Grande and head towards San Juan. For the next two nights you're staying at the Condado Plaza Hilton in the Condado Beach area. Choose an ocean view room in the Ocean Tower for the best views and easiest access to the facilities you'll use most.

Spend the late afternoon and early evening hours lounging at the main pool area and float up to Aqua Bar's swim-up bar while the kids play on the water slide. Stroll down Ashford Avenue in search of dinner at one of the many restaurants located within walking distance of the hotel. Later enjoy a wide variety of gaming in the large casino. This is better than a Vegas vacation when you factor in the beach!

Day 7
Day 7 Condado Plaza Hilton main pool

Day 7

Walk 5 minutes east on Ashford Avenue to Hacienda Don Jose. Snag one of 5 tables by the window and order breakfast with a view.

Drive into Old San Juan where parking in multi-level decks is fairly easy to find and plentiful. If a cruise ship is in port you'll encounter some crowds but also a more festive atmosphere because the city rolls out the red carpet for cruisers. Wander around the famous blue cobblestone streets steeped in history and abundant shopping. Take the free green trolley (not narrated) to get where you're going quickly or to get out of the heat. Make a stop at El Morro for unforgettable vistas, cool breezes and rich history of the port city. Have a late lunch at Lupi's Mexican Grill for a fusion of Mexican and Puerto Rican cuisine.

Return to your hotel late afternoon and spend some time along the tiny stretch of beach behind the Condado Plaza Hilton. As the sun begins to set, move to the bar for last call - that is, the last cocktails of this trip. Stay poolside in the fun, tropical atmosphere until everyone is tired of swimming and declares hunger. Dinner is anywhere you want on Ashford Avenue or at one of the many dining outlets at your hotel. For a super-casual last meal, have Mike's Pizzeria deliver a gourmet pie to your hotel and enjoy on the balcony.

Day 8
Day 8 Condado Plaza Hilton

Day 8

It's your last morning in Puerto Rico. If you're lucky enough to have a later flight you can enjoy one last dip in the pool or stroll on the beach before heading from paradise to reality. The Condado Plaza Hilton is a short drive from the airport. Allow additional time to pass through the Department of Agriculture inspection and plan on long lines at the TSA security checkpoint at peak travel times. Will you come back to Puerto Rico? You certainly will! On the next visit you'll explore the west and south coasts.

As is common in the travel industry, the writer and her family were guests at many of the businesses mentioned in this destination guide. Specifically, stays and some meals at Royal Isabela, Gran Melia and Condado Plaza Hilton were hosted. St. Regis Bahia Beach provided the writer with a generous media rate. SeePuertoRico.com provided a courtesy rental car. These courtesies enabled the writer to research information for this destination guide and have not influenced this writers opinions.