Venture off the beaten paths in Puerto Rico

SINCE ``the road less traveled'' here in Puerto Rico is just about anywhere outside metropolitan San Juan, the Puerto Rico Tourism Company is heralding a new battle cry: ``Go west, young tourist.'' It wants to persuade some of the thousands of American tourists who descend on the east coast city's casinos, hotels, museums, and night life to go out and witness more of the island's natural splendor.

Not coincidentally, the new idea includes where to stay once you've gotten there and been beguiled by verdant valleys, lush rain forests, and country roads that end at less-crowded beaches. Officials have borrowed from the Spanish and Portuguese the idea of government-owned-and-run country inns, which are usually chosen from among the nation's finest inns, based on their historic import, location, or architecture. In Spain and Portugal they are known as paradores and pousadas, respectively.

Here they're dubbed ``Paradores Puertoriquenos'' (``pair-uh-DOE-rays puer-toe-ree-CAY-nos).

The idea actually began 10 years ago, but it has coalesced only recently via renewed marketing and promotion attention. Of 10 paradores (three more on the way), the government tourist company owns three (which are leased to private operators) and holds contracts with the owners of the seven others. The board screens and selects the properties and provides technical assistance, promotion, and a central reservations system.

Having seen at least half a dozen of these inns in each of these three countries, I can tell you that Paradores Puertoriquenos are in nowhere near the same league as their transatlantic cousins. But they are well run, well kept, and sometimes wonderfully decorated. With their emphasis on setting, history, and vastly reduced prices (averaging about $37 a night, single, and $45.50, double), they are certainly worth staying in. If not for the accommodations themselves -- renovated mansions and great plant ation houses as well as hotels -- their scenic settings are so exotic that just getting there, as they say, is half the fun.

Like their European counterparts, parador sites often offer the best view of an entire region: strategic hilltops, former coffee plantations, or sea cliffs. Not unimportant is an emphasis on genuine Puerto Rican cuisine served with a personal, if not homey, touch. And the list of nearby attractions will certainly keep you busy. The southwestern towns of Ponce, San Germ'an, and Mayag"uez are filled with wonderful architecture and history. I found them much more interesting than Aguadilla and Arecibo on the north coast, and there are also the forest reserve at Maricao and world famous beaches at Rinc'on and Aasco.

I grabbed a list of the paradores and directions from the tourist board in old San Juan. Telling them I had three days to spend, I got help with itinerary and reservations and headed west on Route 2 out of the city. Destination: Hacienda Gripias, perhaps the remotest of the paradores because it is well inland, high up in the range of mountains known as the Cordillera Central, above the village of Jayuya.

You have to drive almost 90 minutes out of San Juan, beyond the small town of Manati, before the landscape of auto and body shops and franchised restaurants gives way to farms. The landscape flattens, as well, with great vistas of marsh to the right, gumdrop mountains to the left. (Exasperated by this endless stretch of banal urbanity, I decided to make my return trip along Route 655 -- a superlative seaside drive through fishing villages.)

Continuing to Arecibo, I turned left, following Route 10 along the river known as R'io Grande de Arecibo. Here the mountain landscape begins to make you think you've switched islands. Roads are narrow and winding, and vistas are fabulous. Eventually detouring off the main route, I wound up and around the mountain roads into Utuado to see the famed Indian Ceremonial Park, where native Taino Indians held rituals at the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s.

Well after dark, I finally pulled into the restored, 200-year-old coffee plantation home (the simple road signs indicate merely ``Parador''). The distinctive sound of the coqui, Puerto Rico's tiny tree frog, echoed across a moonlit, tropical mountainscape. Wicker chairs, Puerto Rican tapestries, high ceilings, and exposed beams greeted me inside. I was shown to the restaurant beneath an arching skylight, hanging ferns, and Spanish-style ceiling fans.

There are only 19 rooms here, all with ceiling fans and screenless windows with garden or mountain views. Walls and doors are thin, and there is imitation tile rolled over cement floors. Fixtures and bathroom facilities are basic. I settled into bed directly beneath the ceiling fan, which kept me cool and free of mosquitoes.

Waking up the next morning to the sound of a crowing cock, I watched the sunrise from the second-story porch that runs the length of the house.

The brochures each parador provides to pinpoint nearby areas of interest are helpful, but you'll need local help in choosing where to go. I chased down Piedra Escrita (the Written Stone), advertised with great fanfare as having fabulous Taino Indian carvings. It turned out to be little more than a large boulder smack in the middle of a stream with unimpressive, barely discernible markings. The art museum in the coastal city of nearby Ponce, however -- listed much more casually -- has one o f the best art collections in the entire Caribbean and would be a gem in any city's jewel case.

I scheduled lunch at Parador Oasis, 72 Luna Street, 35 minutes beyond Ponce in San Germ'an, a town so full of history and wonderful architecture that I wished I had a full day to explore. Two must-sees in this town are the Roman Catholic church (second oldest in the new world) above the town square and Porta Coeli, the museum of religious art in the 400-year-old chapel of the Dominican monastery.

Right in the midst of the historic inner city, Parador Oasis itself is a stately 19th-century family mansion converted to a 24-room inn arranged around a central courtyard. The present owners have kept the ornate, locally crafted iron and woodwork in perfect condition. They recently uncovered frescoes dating back 200 years and tunnels once used to smuggle contraband beneath the main street.

My meal at Parador Oasis was the best of any in Puerto Rico. It was a local version of the Italian saltimbocca: steak, ham, and cheese garnished with asparagus and aranitas, and unripened green plaintain (a form of banana) deep-fried in flour.

Since my first two parador visits were so successful, I continued my western Puerto Rico tour, making every effort to stop at them for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or sleep. But none of four more I saw had the intimate flavor or historical ambiance of those first two .

I had a good evening meal at Villa Parguera. But far more vivid in my memory is the famous phosphorescent bay -- where microorganisms glow intensely when dis-turbed by passing boats -- than the parador itself. Hacienda Juanita, near the Maricao forest reserve, is a coffee plantation very similar to Hacienda Gripias, but it is not as architecturally interesting or well kept.

Parador Montemar (40 rooms, two restaurants) at Aguadilla and Parador Guajataca (38 rooms) in Quebradillas are both in stunning settings overlooking the sea. But both are too large to maintain the intimate atmosphere generated by Parador Oasis and Hacienda Gripias. I had meals at both, each of which had that generic, any-hotel-in-the-Caribbean flavor.

The great disparity in quality is one thing tourist officials would like to correct. According to executive director Miguel Domenech, the network of paradores has declined in recent years, so the tourist board is spending $500,000 a year to refurbish and promote them. As it stands now, 95 percent of the paradores' clientele is Puerto Rican. The government wants to change that.

``We have to figure a way to show the Americans that there is an island out there, with not only stunning scenery, but hosts of historical attractions,'' says Carlos Diago, deputy director of tourism in Puerto Rico.

More a reconnaisance mission than an extended stay, my whirlwind tour of more than half of Puerto Rico's paradores has whetted my appetite just enough to plan a more leisurely tour back to the best on the list. It has also piqued my interest in finding the best of what remains.

Most of all, the trip provided the luxury of observing that the island's fabulous scenery is worth the tour, no matter what the accommodation.

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