A long weekend in Puerto Rico is doable this winter
A new direct flight from the UK means Puerto Rico is within easier reach. James Edgar finds sun, salsa and a swashbuckling past in the Caribbean
IT has just turned midnight on a balmy Friday night in San Juan, and I am getting into my groove.
Drumming troupes are playing along to the salsa beats blaring out of the bar, and I'm swaying my rum-rhythmed hips, effortlessly blending into the dancing crowd. Or so I think.
I feel a tap on my shoulder and I swing around to see a Puerto Rican woman twice my age shaking her head and grinning from ear to ear.
I clearly look like I need some instruction.
My self-appointed tutor takes my hand and tells me to copy her step, and within minutes, it's catching on.
But with the same speed with which it started, my lesson abruptly finishes, and she disappears into the night. I never even got her name...
Emboldened by my newfound expertise, I am now ready to take on the famous nightlife of this Caribbean capital city. I am in La Placita de Santurce, where hundreds of people of all ages have spilled out of the open-fronted bars that are dotted around the square to dance and drink.
By day, this is San Juan's food market, but by night, it transforms into a vibrant fiesta of colour, salsa and food.
I have just three days in Puerto Rico, which admittedly seems like an extravagant trip. But now that low-cost airline Norwegian is flying direct from Gatwick to San Juan, a long weekend break to the Caribbean is not quite as absurd as it initially sounds. With return flights as cheap as £250 return, the twice weekly route opens the opportunity for a truly exotic short holiday, as easy and affordable as a European city break.
I force myself away from La Placita with the party in full flow – not because I want to leave, but because there are so many places to experience during my flying visit.
Next on my agenda is a bar that was voted one of the 50 best in the world in a 2015 poll – La Factoria. No sign hangs above the door to this artistic hangout in the heart of Old San Juan, because this cocktail bar doesn't need one.
Unpretentious and bohemian, La Factoria is the perfect place to dance the night away to the ubiquitous sound of salsa. The challenge is trying not to get lost in this maze of tunnels and tiny rooms, while sipping fresh cocktails made with local rum.
Rum is everywhere in Puerto Rico, and the country is rightly proud of its long history with the spirit. The island is said to be the largest producer in the world, and despite a squabble over which barman came up with the recipe, the world famous pina colada cocktail was invented in San Juan.
My odyssey to the sugar cane-based spirit begins at Bacardi's 'Cathedral of Rum' in Catano, just outside the capital. The distillery, built in 1958, is the largest premium rum facility in the world, where almost 85 per cent of Bacardi's production comes from – it churns out a staggering 21 million cases per year for shipment around the world.
My basic tour scratches the surface of the history of Bacardi, from its beginnings in neighbouring Cuba to worldwide domination of the rum market, but it does give me a platform on which to blag my way around the local bars, and of course, a complimentary Cuba libre.
I am staying at the Hilton Caribe, a historic hotel on the eastern side of the Isleta de San Juan. The first Hilton outside the US, it's where bartender Ramon 'Monchito' Marrero Perez claims to have served the pina colada first, at the hotel's Beachcomber Bar in August 1954.
The true origin of the rum, coconut milk and pineapple juice cocktail will probably never be discovered, but there are certainly few better places to sip one at sunset.
Puerto Rico's geographical position meant the island was a key strategic territory when European explorers arrived in the region. For many ships using the transatlantic trade winds, Puerto Rico was the first land to be sighted after weeks at sea, so it was seen as an important gateway to the riches of the Caribbean.
The Spanish took control in the early 16th century and built impressive fortifications to protect its most valuable outpost from attackers, such as the British and Dutch. They ruled for 400 years until Puerto Rico was declared a territory of the United States.
Three forts – San Felipe del Morro, San Cristobal and San Juan de la Cruz – make up La Fortaleza, which, along with a large section of the old city wall, is a Unesco World Heritage site. San Cristobal, the largest Spanish fort in the so-called New World, stands guard on the eastern side of the walled city of Old San Juan.
With its thick walls, dungeons, strategic tunnels and sentry boxes, it's easy to imagine what life was like for the soldiers – and prisoners – here. Breathtaking views along the coastline and out across the Atlantic are a welcome reward for the hike to the top of the ramparts.
Away from Puerto Rico's main town, there is so much more to explore. My next hotel stop is on the north-eastern tip of the island at the El Conquistador resort, which has its own private island, Palomino, with pristine beaches and a range of water sports.
A short drive away is El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the United States national forest system. Measuring 28,000 acres, hundreds of plant species live here, including 150 ferns, 240 tree species – 88 of which are endemic or rare and 23 are exclusively found in El Yunque.
A huge amount of rain falls here, so taking a natural shower under one of the forest's spectacular waterfalls is reason enough for a visit. Also nearby is Laguna Grande, where billions of bioluminescent plankton light up the water when they are disturbed.
I take a tour across the water with Kayaking Puerto Rico, who guide me through a tunnel of mangroves as I drift over the jet black seawater. Before long, I notice the mystical effect my paddle has on the microscopic creatures, which glow as the blade cuts through the surface. It's no wonder the ancient civilizations here believed this lagoon had higher powers.
Measuring just 110 miles wide and 40 miles high, Puerto Rico is easy to get around, making it a potential candidate for a long weekend break. In three days, I'm able to experience some of the country's key highlights – although learning how to salsa like a local might take me a bit longer.
:: James Edgar was a guest of Norwegian (www.norwegian.co.uk) who now operate two flights per week (Wednesday/Saturdays) from Gatwick to San Juan throughout winter 2015/16.
:: Fares start from £159 one-way or £250.10 return.