If Puerto Rico in August sounds about as appealing as Iceland in January, you owe yourself a trip back to the travel agent -- where you can collect a substantial savings.
Haunted by the memory of the tourism slump this past winter and daunted by the prospect of a long, slow summer, recession-conscious resorts throughout the Caribbean are anxiously promoting cost-saving packages for the summer season. And it's no sweat to enjoy them in Puerto Rico, where summer temperatures range from 75 to 85 degrees and may be cooler than your own.
The Dorado Beach Hotel, 20 miles east of San Juan, is offering one of the most enticing summer packages, ''Twogether,'' and its success over the past three years represents a democratic breakthrough of sorts for the conservative Dorado. Since it was constructed by Laurence S. Rockefeller in 1958 on 1,000 acres of former plantation and swampland, a heroic undertaking in the tradition of ''Heart of Darkness'' and ''The African Queen,'' this former Rockresort has ranked among the most exclusive hotels in the Caribbean.
Lush vegetation, two miles of white sand beaches, and sheltered coves serve as a spectacular backdrop for the four championship golf courses, two at Dorado and two at Dorado's sister hotel, Cerromar, which opened in 1972 a mile away to cater primarily to conventions. Course designer Robert Trent Jones correctly perceived that he couldn't beat nature, so he decided to join it, digging water hazards out of swampland and hacking the rough out of the jungle. The result is that these courses are among the most scenic and challenging in the world.
With the added attractions of its luxurious accommodations, seven tennis courts, and lagoon-size swimming pool, the Dorado quickly became a favorite playground for the rich. Over the years, its high prices imbued it with an elitist atmosphere, but changes in ownership in the '70s reflected a growing need for a broader-based appeal. Managed by Regent International Hotels since 1977, when Rockresorts relinquished control, the Dorado has regained its former luster while altering its off-season image.
Swiss-born Anton Wohlwend, general manager of the Dorado for the past three years, describes the traditional clientele as quiet and conservative. Generally these guests come from the Northeast to play golf. As Mr. Wohlwend succinctly put it, ''Golf is our main baby here.'' Guests, inevitably, are wealthy, as room rates for a double range from $200 to $310 MAP per room during the winter season. And that's not all by a long shot -- 18 holes of golf, for example, cost a minimum of $20 -- $12 greens fee and $8 for the mandatory cart (and possibly an additional $8 for club rental). There are also extra charges for the use of tennis courts ($8 each time), snorkeling equipment ($10), etc.
In contrast, the ''Twogether'' package is aimed at bargain-conscious couples. One of the major advantages of the package is that it eliminates most of the annoying extra charges (with the notable exception of the golf cart); includes all three meals, gratuities, and taxes; and provides round-trip limousine transfers to and from the hotel. An added bonus if you fly Eastern Airlines is round-trip limousine service to Old San Juan with a complimentary lunch at El Convento, a restored Carmelite convent which is now one of San Juan's most elegant hotels in the faintly dolorous Spanish style.
The five-day, four-night package costs $351 a person, double occupancy, excluding air fare, and the eight-day, seven-night package, $599. (The regular room rate in summer is $130 for a double, plus $25 per person for breakfast and dinner). The accommodation is standard, or the least expensive, with rooms in the Golf Wing or the Fairway Cottage. While these air-conditioned rooms lack the amenities of the deluxe rooms ($20 surcharge a day) or the casitas (suites overlooking the ocean with a $45-a-day surcharge), they are spacious and attractively decorated, and the picture-window view of the fairway with golf balls whizzing past is a diverting substitute for the absent television screen.
The obvious appeal of ''Twogether'' is to the sports-minded. Although even the couple who lazes on the beach all day will come out ahead financially, the package seems to have borrowed its social philosophy from the cruise-ship lines, with a hectic program of social activities that include sailing, snorkeling, volleyball, jogging, tennis and golf clinics, archery, bike-riding, and so on, led by an energetic ''Twogether'' host and hostess. With all this exercise, most couples are too tired to care that there's not much to do in the evening except take in the nightly movie or occasional floor show at Cerromar, or visit the discos in Cerromar or Su Casa, the charming converted hacienda where the plantation owner once lived. Anyone looking for greater excitement than listening to the symphony of the coqui, the tiny but vocal nocturnal tree frogs, or smelling the fragrance of the jasmine and the frangipani, would be better off in one of San Juan's flashier hotels.
The guests seem to absorb the atmosphere of good taste that pervades the Dorado and manifests itself in so many pleasing ways: the low-slung latticework architecture that seems a natural extension of the landscape around it; the cluster of orchids in the lobby that dazzle the eye like crown jewels -- even the decor of the rooms reflects a sensitivity to the environment, with an effort made to use natural materials such as clay tiles, raffia carpets, and grass-cloth wall coverings.
The cuisine, however, is hardly indigenous and falls into that ambiguous catchall category, international. Mr. Wohlwend is proud of his Swiss chef and the fact that so much of the food is imported (sometimes in cans). But the cooking lacks national or ethnic conviction. While the outdoor buffets served on the breezy ocean terrace tend to be unimaginative, the sit-down meals in the main dining room are closer to gourmet caliber. (The gastronomically adventurous might wish to taste the fare at the local Puerto Rican restaurants a few minutes away, which feature local piscatory specialties such as red snapper with creole sauce and lobster.)
A final word about the setting. Mr. Rockefeller cast a conservationist's as well as a commercial eye upon his property and prohibited the careless destruction of vegetation; his respect for nature prevails today and the grounds of the Dorado, tended by chief horticulturist Dionisio Martinez and his crew, seem in the wild, at least, to be completely untouched. Mr. Martinez is more than willing to take guests on a horticultural tour of the grounds where they can marvel at such aptly named trees as the cannonball, the chicken foot, the strangle tree and the walking tree, and admire the kaleidoscopic profusion of flowers, not only orchids, but jacaranda, Maltese cross, antherium, and heliconia.
Potentially the greatest attraction of all for the nature lover is, unfortunately, the least accessible except to the well armored or the foolhardy. Near the 15th-hole tee on the east course is the entrance to the only ''dry'' tropical rain forest in Puerto Rico and allegedly the only authentic one because of its low altitude. Scientists come to study the exotic flora and fauna, some near extinction. Unlike the celebrated, elevated, serene El Yunque rain forest an hour to the west, this is an inhospitable mosquito-ridden swamp, as my husband and I quickly learned in our shorts and sandals after persuading a dubious Mr. Martinez to lead us in. The wonders of nature are no match for the persistence of the Puerto Rican mosquito in capturing one's attention, and my husband and I unashamedly ran out of Puerto Rico's only ''dry'' tropical rain forest. This is not to say you shouldn't visit, but only if completely covered. I'm sure it's worth the effort, and what's more, it's free.
El Yunque, however, is a far less stressful alternative, and the hotel will help you arrange a day trip there and to the equally enchanting Luquillo Beach close by. Another appealing side trip is to Arecibo about an hour to the east, site of the world's largest observatory and a huge Indian cave decorated with pre-Columbian drawings.