We had an opportunity to go back to Puerto Rico this summer, and you guessed it, we took it! Actually, this all started a couple of years ago when our friends Jeff and Liz (hey ya'll!) started planning their wedding. Well, it started even before that, so I guess this trip was a long time coming.
A few months after Hurricane Maria pounded Vieques and all of Puerto Rico, we met the loving couple. They were vacationing on torn-up little Vieques, and like only a few others, they brought in some much needed revenue to the tourist businesses there. After the hurricane, most of the beaches controlled by US Fish & Wildlife were closed. Debris was everywhere and it was a big effort just to get the roads and parking areas cleared, let alone making the structures safe. But they worked them one by one, and the final step was always a beach cleanup with volunteers, clearing storm debris from the sand.
We volunteered on many of these cleanup days, trying to return the beaches to their pre-storm natural state. On Vieques, this doesn't mean raking the sand into a smooth corduroy resort beach. But it does mean there should be no more man-made junk, trash, flotsam and jetsam. On various cleanups, we've hauled out everything from tiny little pieces of plastic, to boat parts, car tires, and pounds and pounds of rope and netting. One day, Deb even pulled up a nice stainless steel chain and anchor from the mangroves. I guess the anchor rope didn't hold - the boat was long gone.
One early morning we were at the meetup spot with about 15 or so other volunteers, when we spotted this big guy wearing all orange and blue (Go Gators!). I had on my old faded Florida Gators baseball cap and that was that. In that instant, OK maybe it was after the introductions, or maybe after we'd cleaned that beach, I'm not sure, but at some point we had a connection that would last a lifetime. Before they left on that vacation, they were planning their next trip to Vieques, and the next, so we got to see them often.
On one of those trips, after a long beach day, we met for sunset on the rooftop of one of our favorite hotels. Jeff somehow convinced me to use their phone/camera for sunset pics, when alluvasudden he was down on one knee in front of Liz with a ring in his hand! We were all surprised and overjoyed, and I took pictures of them instead of the sunset!
Well, you can see the sunset over their shoulders so I guess I got a sunset shot. It was an enchanting evening which concluded with Deb in a watermelon-eating contest and Jeff in a chicken-wing-eating contest (he won a bottle of rum!).
The next night Jeff proposed to me in the same spot, on one knee, but not with a ring. He had a Medalla Beer for each of us (the beer of Puerto Rico!), and asked me to officiate the wedding. Both Liz and I said yes, and that's how that ball got rolling. They wanted to get married in Vieques, and the date was set for July 4, 2020. But God had a new trick up his sleeve, one that no one predicted, which was of course the pandemic that shut the world down, pushing the wedding date out a year. So like the 2020 Olympics which were held in 2021, so was the 2020 wedding of the year held in 2021.
This all happened in 2019, so that's a long lead-in to this story! Returning to the summer 2021 and our trip to PR, we were looking forward to the wedding and the Beaches of Vieques, but there were some logistical challenges. On the way in, we didn't want to try to catch the last flight of the day over to Vieques, because of travel uncertainty, and on the way home it was a similar situation with tight transfers. So in both directions, we spent a night and a good part of a day in the San Juan area, which is what we really wanted anyway.
To knock off the travel fatigue, before even stopping at our hotel we took an Uber to one of our favorite spots. In the Isla Verde area just outside of San Juan is Ocean Lab Brewing, which is part of the Vivo Beach Club. The Vivo Beach Club is a beachfront resort sans lodging. They have concerts (UB40 was setting up for a night show the last time we were there for lunch), parties, a top-notch beachfront pool area, and generally just a great laid-back resort vibe. The club has paid memberships, and sells day passes, but the brewery/restaurant is open to the public.
Ocean Lab Brewery is a great brew stop with something for everyone. The beer is great, the food is great, and the views are great; there's not much we don't love about this place! We spent a couple of hours at the club, just decompressing from the travel and relaxing before heading to the hotel.
We had booked a nice little hotel room (with rooftop patio!) in the Miramar neighborhood of San Juan. It was a great stop for us, because Miramar has a bit of the big city feel (high rises, etc.) without being over the top crazy/busy. There was a nice small supermarket a few blocks away, and theaters, shops, coffee shops, etc., so it was perfect for us. There was no coffee in the room so Deb stopped at a sidewalk coffee shop the evening before and ordered a double espresso. The man was very nice and gave her a biscotti to go with the coffee. She put the coffee in the fridge to microwave the next morning. I'm not sure what happened to the biscotti...
But we couldn't stay of course, there was a wedding to officiate so we hopped on the little plane in the morning and immediately got into the party mood! There was a beach party the next day in Vieques and a welcome dinner at night in one of our favorite old haunts on the edge of the jungle. We got to know the bride and groom's parents, and really the whole wedding crowd at these events - great crew!
The ceremony itself turned out better than we'd hope for, even after Hurricane Elsa did a fly-by and brought surf conditions dangerous enough to close the beach where it was to be held. There was no Plan B until the bride and the green-eyed wedding planner took a drive (the day before the wedding!) and settled on the most beautiful location you can imagine, a 175 year old fort (El Fortín Conde de Marisol). It has cannons and block walls (to hold off the Pirates of the Caribbean!), and it overlooks the ocean from the top of the hill. Just like that, we had our outdoor wedding as planned, and as every guest arrived, they gasped at the beauty of the place, one commenting, "This was Plan B? Wow!". They'd thought of everything too, including booze-filled coconuts to help the crowd to stay cool in the afternoon sun. Yay for boozy coconuts! 🙂
So the ceremony began, and it was truly one of the great honors of my life to be a part of it. My main goal as a first-time officiant, and after worrying about this thing for a year and a half, was "Don't screw this up Norm, don't screw it up!". And I am thrilled to report that, in fact, I did not screw it up. I told some stories, quoted Winnie the Pooh, and generally moved things along. The best part was that the bride's and groom's vows were so moving, there were tears of happiness everywhere, and all I had to do was stay out of the way. I'm pretty good at that!
So we got them married then partied like rock stars into the night. There was music and dancing and singing, special effects, and a bit of beer and rum. More parties the next day, and then we sent the newlyweds off to the Virgin Islands for their honeymoon. It's only a few miles away but there are no direct flights so they went through San Juan to get there. That's when Deb and I slowed down and settled back in to a peaceful island vacation. Whew.
OK, it didn't exactly work out like that either. After all, we were staying with our Puerto Rican friends (hola Ricardo y Sandra!). And I'm here to say that rock stars cannot keep up with Puerto Ricans. I don't even want to think about Puerto Rican rock stars. So we partied and partied, trying to keep up with the beer, rum, and high-velocity Spanish. They had a beach party planned (of course!) and it was a busy day on all the beaches, so we tried out a small little west facing beach called Playa de los Muertos (Beach of the Dead) - because it is just below the old cemetery. It's also known as Sea Glass Beach but the only sea glass we saw were beer and liquor bottles in our coolers. Well, that west facing beach was hot, very HOT, all afternoon, so we just spent more time in the water. I'm a sucker for a sunset picture so I set up to take several as it peacefully drifted below the horizon. That's when my Puerto Rican friends got into the act, and here are the hilarious results! (for best effect, click the first picture and then click the right arrow to scroll through them)
We had many more get-togethers with those guys, with lots more music, dancing, laughing, drinking, eating, and more high-velocity Spanish! We also saw many other old friends from the island. We had a dinner party with friends at their house on a hill overlooking the ocean. That evening was wonderful. Also, one of our great island friends came down to meet us from Virginia - it was a wonderful reunion for all of us.
So we went back and forth between cultures a little bit, but the time we spent with our Puerto Rican friends was magical. We spent a lot of time with them while we lived in Vieques, but this time we were living on their property in their travel trailer (el camper!). It's permanently chained down (in case of storms) and has electricity, water, gas, and even connects right into their septic system, so it's a just like a normal house in many respects. Being right there really gave us a chance to get to know them on an even deeper level. Everyone had privacy but we could see each other and talk and do what we wanted every day. We also got to spend lots of time in their super cute "negocio", which means "business". The building next to their house used to be a bar with music and dancing. It's not a business any more but there sure is music and dancing!
We also went to some of our favorite beaches, because after all, we had to do some research for the Beach Map. And quiet time on a beach together is something we truly cherish.
Of course, many days were spent with our hosts on the beach, and that was nice because that's where we could walk down the beach and meet other friends! Sundays are Fundays on Vieques and we know the spots where people have their Sunday beach parties. I was fortunate to see a bunch of people at one of our old regular beach party spots; that was really nice. Besides the beach, we ran into several other people on the street, in a restaurant, or in a shop (it's a small island). Alas, we failed in our attempts to see everyone, and those we did see, we didn't get to see long enough. Before we knew it we were heading back north again.
Well, first it was a stop-off in San Juan again for a day and a night. This time we stayed in Old San Juan, with it's blue cobblestone streets and buildings dating back to the 1500s. It has large stone walls surrounding it for protection and the famous Castillo San Felipe del Morro, or simply El Morro, which is a citadel built over a couple hundred years to protect the city and the port from naval attacks. We stayed in an old convent, a hotel appropriately named El Convento. That's an understatement; it's not just "an old convent". Construction of El Convento began in the 1600s, and it was rebuilt and renovated many times since then. The conversion to a hotel began in 1959, and in the 60's El Convento became a famous destination, serving the likes of Rita Hayworth, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, and Gloria Vanderbilt. And now, Norm and Deb, write it down!
We had a great time in OSJ, walking the town, drinking piña coladas at the restaurant that invented the piña colada, buying cigars, drinking craft beer at an excellent beer bar, and just enjoying something really different from the norm. We also got to meet an old friend there, a young woman who was our neighbor and babysitter back in Colorado (she was a teenager then). She'd spent years traveling the south seas and was living in OSJ all during the pandemic, which made for some interesting tales.
Once again, time ran short and we had a plane to catch, but we vow to return to OSJ as well as explore other parts of Puerto Rico (Barceloneta, Arecibo, Borinquen, Rincón, Cabo Rojo, Boquerón, Luquillo). We've been to some of these places, but they deserve a deeper look. If you look at a map, you'll note these are all coastal places, big surprise right? But there are several mountain towns we could check out as well. There is so much to see in PR it could take years. Hasta luego Puerto Rico!