jellyfish, beach outside our hotel, Atlantic Ocean

jellyfish, beach outside our hotel, Atlantic Ocean

My husband and I were looking for a quick, (more or less) mindless beach vacation. We had barely three full days to get away, so we needed a place where there weren’t too many famous, must-see attractions, as we didn’t want to “pack it in.” Hilton Head Island, South Carolina seemed like just the destination — famous for its top golf courses. Unfortunately, it was too cool to swim in the Atlantic Ocean, but the weather was the right temperature for a nice walk on the beach and splashing among the waves outside our hotel.

Where to Stay
Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa – For about $360/night (taxes & fees included), we relaxed in a well-appointed, oceanfront room on the top floor — the best view in the beachfront hotel. We saw a large amount of jellyfish washed up onto the shore and more floating in shallow waters. We enjoyed meals at all the restaurants: Oceans (indoor, oceanfront dining), View 32 (outdoor, poolside dining with fire pits and views of the ocean), The Carolina Room (indoor, fine dining with a lowcountry twist), and Ingredients (the indoor, fast cafe). And we finished our stay with a Couples Massage at Heavenly Spa.

view from our hotel: 1 of 10 oceanfront rooms on top floor

view from our hotel: 1 of 10 oceanfront rooms on top floor

alligator & turtles, Sea Pines

alligator & turtles, Sea Pines

What to See & Do
Sea Pines – idyllic, master-planned resort community that balances lush greenery with peaceful lakes. $6 gate fee. Coastal-style houses line golf courses, and we even saw an alligator lying on the banks of a lagoon next to a couple of small turtles. We drove through most of the streets to admire the scenery, dined at the harborfront Quarterdeck, strolled through The Shops at Sea Pines Center, and savored a double-scoop at Salty Dog Ice Cream at South Beach. We spent two hours walking through the 605-acre Sea Pines Forest Preserve, mostly via unpaved areas covered with leaves, mud from the rain, and thick brush. It’s home to Lakes Mary, Thomas, and Joe, as well as marshes, bridges, Wildflower Field, Fish Island, and the legendary Indian Shell Ring dating back some 3,800 years. Lawton Stables (home to beautiful horses) and Harbour Town Lighthouse are worth a visit. For $4/person, we took the stairs through a museum inside the lighthouse to the observation deck at the top. The most memorable highlight was our 90-minute, sunset Vagabond Cruise from the Harbour Town Yacht Basin through Calibogue Sound, where we saw graceful bottlenose dolphins jumping into the air and diving back into the water, and glanced across to the secluded Daufuskie Island (which has no bridge for access).

Coligny Plaza – more than 60 shops and restaurants, including Frozen Moo (ice cream shop) and Coligny Theatre.

Walking trails along Hwy 278 – winding paths and bridges along this main highway through the island.

Hilton Head was definitely developed strategically and done well. A classy, clean-cut town with barely any trash on the beach, it’s a place that’s absolutely earned a soft spot in our hearts.

Vagabond Cruise, Calibogue Sound: many dolphin sightings

Vagabond Cruise, Calibogue Sound: many dolphin sightings

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beachfront wedding

beachfront wedding

If you have barely four days and a wedding to attend, you can’t do everything Puerto Rico has to offer, but you can get a taste of the tropical island that attracts so many tourists year round. Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, travelers from the U.S. don’t need a passport. But before checking in for your return flight to the mainland, you have to run your bags through the USDA agricultural inspection — no native Puerto Rican fruits allowed back in the U.S. I spent a lot of time exploring the island with other wedding guests, as we all had the same flight itinerary and stayed at the same hotel.

The Beach

The obvious draw of Puerto Rico is its beautiful beaches on the Atlantic Ocean. I spent a weekend and two weekdays in San Juan this month, attending the destination wedding of a childhood friend. The host hotel was beachfront: La Concha, a Renaissance Resort whose name in Spanish means “shell” and which has a uniquely designed building shaped like a shell (sea shell, oyster shell, clam shell). The wedding reception was in this building, which houses the Perla restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows that allow guests to look out of the shell and take in the beautiful view of the ocean and blue sky. The ceremony was on an outdoor platform overlooking the water.

The afternoon before the wedding, I spent an hour lying on a lounge chair overlooking an infinity pool, which overlooked the sand and ocean. The view was so serene that it put me to sleep. The constant sound of waves hitting the shore was wonderful.

A number of piña coladas and mojitos accompanied our visit — we sipped them poolside, beach side, and in the smoke-free casino, where I watched other wedding guests gamble and didn’t waste a penny. We also enjoyed Mahi Mahi bites and Latin sliders with Puerto Rican hot sauce at the hotel’s pool-side restaurant Solera. Tamarind was abundant at Voga’s breakfast buffet, but I wasn’t adventurous enough to try the fruit.

Our hotel room had an incredible ocean view, where daily we saw surfers and swimmers enjoying the waves and sand until a short rain shower interrupted them for just several minutes. We had the same experience on two days — one was cloudier and calmer, the other was sunnier and marked by a higher tide (providing for quite a thrill, as waves crashed farther up the shore than usual). I enjoyed letting the waves crash into me, tossing me around in the water. I ended our last visit to the beach with coconut ice cream from a cart.

me enjoying the Atlantic

me enjoying the Atlantic

Beach-front Tourist Area

We spent an afternoon walking along the street where our hotel was located, Ave Dr. Ashford. The stroll took us to lovely lookout points with pretty palm trees and sculptures, souvenir and beach shops like Piña Colada Club, high-end stores like Salvatore Feragamo and Gucci, and YogurtFit, where we stopped for Naranji, Coco, and other frozen yogurt flavors. A great dining spot we found was Waikiki Caribbean Food & Oyster Bar. I recommend the Empanadillas de Cachín (filled with fish and a tasty sauce), whole red snapper, red beans and rice, and fried Yucca balls.

Old (Viejo) San Juan

Our welcome dinner put on by the bride and groom was at Patio del Nispero in the boutique Hotel El Convento in Old San Juan, about 10 minutes from our hotel. The quaint ambience is what you’d imagine for the older part of an island city. The meal was delectable, complete with plantain soup, Tres Leches, and other zesty Puerto Rican dishes. All the shops we passed were closed by the time dinner was over, but the lights strung from buildings on one side of the street to the other were still on and provided us a charming atmosphere for a nighttime walk. The buildings are old, some dilapidated, but with beautifully intricate Spanish colonial architecture.

We came full circle on our final night, dining in Old San Juan at El Siglo XX — part deli, part restaurant. Lamb chops, chicken asapao (Puerto Rican-style gumbo), and cod with creole sauce were our menu choices. At 7pm, most retailers and other businesses were closed, which surprised and disappointed me for a tourist destination. But then again, it’s Puerto Rico, not Hong Kong (a city of high-speed commerce, much of which stays up all night).

I was also surprised to find the $2 daily maid tip and one-time $4 bell tip were already included on my final hotel bill — a bit deceptive, especially when you’ve already tipped for those services. As extensively as I’ve traveled throughout the world, staying at hotels at various price points over my lifetime, I’ve never seen those gratuities line-itemed on my bill.

People and things move slowly in Puerto Rico. They’re on island time — relaxed, unhurried, and friendly. You can get around fine speaking English, but my Spanish helped often when English wasn’t a strong language for the local I was speaking to.

Guava paste, Yaucono ground coffee, and breezy dresses were among the purchases our group brought back home. Had we stayed longer in Puerto Rico, I would have liked to explore its rain forests, caves, and water adventures. Maybe next time…

Until I write again, safe travels!

Old San Juan at night

Old San Juan at night