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Travelogue

A Week in Puerto Rico: Turtle Babies, Bonfires, and Skinny-Dipping

A Week in Puerto Rico: Turtle Babies, Bonfires, and Skinny-Dipping

The Caribbean isn't completely off-limits to LGBT travelers — with warm beaches and 600 years of history, gay-friendly Puerto Rico is a little peace of paradise you don't have to feel guilty about visiting.

At the St. Regis Bahia Beach resort outside of San Juan, there are 139 beautifully appointed rooms, three top-notch restaurants, pools with butler service, and kayaking tours. But the most beloved feature of the hotel is the presence of green, grumpy land monsters, who are born on its pristine beach and take their first steps into the ocean while dozens of hushed tourists look on.

Watching the tiny leatherback turtles take their first steps was one my favorite memories of Puerto Rico, the almost-51st state that’s a two-and-a-half hour-flight from Miami — a plane ride that gleefully doesn’t require a passport or customs. Exotic while familiar, P.R. remains one of the few gay-friendly Caribbean islands — even if a judge there ham-fistedly ruled against marriage equality in October — with a sophisticated populace accustomed to same-sex travelers.

Staying at the St. Regis felt like an escape from civilization, but one made less daunting by knowing bubbling San Juan was a short drive away. My first afternoon there, I watched the sea turtles scamper to the sea, careful to give them enough space. After the pseudo-baptism ritual, the beach mostly cleared out as people headed to dinner or the hotel’s giant pool, with its luxe bungalows and scurrying waitstaff. I lingered and watched the waves, aware of how far I was from my home in California.

That peace was a recurring theme during my stay at the St. Regis. After emerging from my spacious room every morning, I’d step past the tiny lizards that congregated on the elevated, thatched walkway connecting the guest bungalows and make my way to the beach. From there, I’d take a quiet walk on a trail that paralleled the playa, working up an appetite and I listened to the chirping of birds and croaking of crickets.

My quiet time was pleasantly broken by a champagne sabering—yes a bottle opened by a staffer with a sword—that preceded a walking tour of old San Juan, a requisite for anyone visiting Puerto Rico. My small travel group explored Morro Castle, the massive fort built by the Spanish to defend San Juan, a valuable stop between Europe and the Caribbean during colonial days. Don’t worry, a trip to Morro Castle—a UNESCO World Heritage Site and U.S. National Park—is filled with just as many as gorgeous views and vistas as it is history lessons; anyone with even the mildest interest in the history of the world will be entertained.

We soon made our way to actual urban component of old San Juan, a seven-block collection of cobblestone streets, meticulously-maintained streetlights, colorful two-three story buildings, and romantic balconies with iron railings. While many of the buildings erected from the 16th to 18th centuries, are filled with tacky tourist souvenirs, there are good places for a bite, a glass of wine, or a strong cup of coffee. My friend, fellow writer David Duran, pulled us into Cuatro Sombras, where we ordered espressos and sipped them outside in the sun. Then we walked along an elevated stretch of green near Morro Castle, taking long glances at a small shantytown below us abutting the ocean.

After a breakfast of scones and coffee at Fern, one of the St. Regis’s lovely eateries, we headed to the airport to board a tiny plane to Vieques, a small island off Puerto Rico’s east coast. Once the stomping ground of the U.S. Navy, Vieques is now mostly a nature refuge and travel destination. Gays have flocked to Vieques for decades to enjoy its solitude and welcoming island attitude, which extends to all visitors.

We were booked for two nights at the W Vieques. When I think of W hotels, I imagine trendy, urban spots in the middle of New York or San Francisco. Basically, I didn’t expect to love this hotel so much. My room was decorated in warm colors, and featured an open set-up, meaning the bathtub was actually in the same room as the bedroom. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows looked out to a verdant walkway, with the ocean beyond. I was calmed from the moment I stepped inside. The lobby is drenched in warm wood, partially open to the outside, where round lounge chairs are positioned for optimum beach- and sunset-viewing experiences. There’s no pandemonium, but it’s not so serenely quiet that loneliness sets in. Cabanas, firepits, and an abundance of grass and trees surround the infinity-edge pool. That last point is the most salient; everywhere at the hotel you’re surrounded by nature, but with every convenience at hand.

An island tour was on the agenda for our second day in Vieques, where we explored the sparsely populated, lush isle. We headed to Red Beach, snorkeling, eating snacks, lying in the sun, and, of course, swimming in the clear, warm water. It was mid-week and the beach was deserted, but I have a feeling there are rarely crowds at the beaches of Vieques. At one point, I grabbed a rented bike to check out some other nearby beaches. I came to one completely abandoned, so I whipped off my bathing suit and skinny dipped among the waves. It was a silly, invigorating time.

We returned to the hotel for an outside lunch of fresh chicken, shrimp, and salad. Some of us headed to the beach that fronts the W, others to the pool, some to their rooms to rest. I treated myself at the Away Spa, talking with the pedicurist about why she chose to leave the “mainland” of Puerto Rico and live in this remote island of 10,000 people; looking out the window at the trees, flowers, and simmering sun, I felt a little silly asking why she’d want to live here. Her sweet demeanor added to the general serenity that permeated this trip. That tranquility stayed with me through a nighttime bonfire and even the next day, during the three plane rides it took to get home.

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