Al Bello  /  Getty Images
A view of Isla Verde Beach in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Along Isla Verde Beach are hotels, restaurants and amenities that make it a popular destination for tourists and locals.
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Special to msnbc.com
updated 1/8/2007 11:18:06 AM ET 2007-01-08T16:18:06

Puerto Rico will surprise you. If you think you’re heading to a standard Caribbean isle, where the sights don’t extend far from the sands, the food bland as oatmeal and the pace drowsy, well, you haven’t done your homework. This is a bustling island, circled by highways (often jammed with cars), and while it has lovely beaches, tourism isn’t the only game in town; people here also work in the pharmaceuticals industry, in electronics, textiles and petrochemicals. In a day, you’ll get a jolt of its unique energy, a peek at its history, and still have time to laze on the beach. Hey, you are in the Caribbean after all.

8 a.m. - 9 a.m.: Grab breakfast at your hotel. There’s no point in making a special visit anywhere for this meal.

9 a.m. - noon: Hit the beach. Sandy, powder-white beaches are the island’s claim to fame. If you’re not happy with the one at your hotel, head to Luquillo Beach , about 30 minutes from San Juan. A coral reef hugging the lagoon creates a calm, swimmable surf and serves as a sort of natural aquarium, perfect for snorkeling. Clean facilities—toilets, changing rooms, lockers—are another perk. If you’re planning on visiting El Yunque in the afternoon (see below), you can easily get there from here; instead of returning to San Juan for lunch, simply grab some tacos from the food stands that line the beach.

Morning Alternative
Hit the links. Though Robert Trent Jones’ two courses at the Hyatt Dorado are arguably the most celebrated on the island, they’re also incredibly pricey. Instead, try the Greg Norman course, which has the challenges of a river coursing through its center and the occasional iguana sunning itself in the grass, a refugee from the nearby mangrove swamp. At 6145 feet it’s shorter than the other two mentioned above, but significantly cheaper. You’ll find the Greg Norman course at the Westin Rio Mar .

Noon - 2 p.m.: For lunch, classic comida criolla (or Caribbean cuisine) is on the menu at the Casa Borinquen in Old San Juan. You’ll know it by the famous mural of Puerto Rican activist Don Pedro Abizu Campos, painted in a Saint Sebastian-like pose on the front wall. Don’t let the sight of all those arrows piercing flesh spoil your appetite, as you’re about to be spoiled big time with food fresh from the sea and the garden, perfectly spiced and cooked. Octopus salad, barbecued pork ribs and Mofongo (a luscious combination of ground plantains fried with either pork, chicken or shrimp), and other Puerto Rican specialties, are all lovingly prepared here.

2 p.m. –7 p.m.: Get lost in Old San Juan, the largest concentration of historic buildings in all the Caribbean (except for Havana). Cobblestone streets, ancient churches and sherbet-colored colonial buildings with elaborate grill work over the windows, all combine to create the illusion that you’ve time traveled back in time some 400 years (if only the darn cars and tacky souvenir stores would disappear, the experience would be near perfect). Include a tour of El Morro , a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to learn about its bloody history (the British and the Dutch had a habit of attacking it every several years, just to poke at the Spanish) and see its dungeons, turrets and lookouts. Finish up with cocktails at El Convento , a former Carmelite convent (built in 1650) with castle-like proportions and more than a dollop of colonial charm.

Afternoon Alternative
Head inland to El Yunque Rainforest . Home to 240 species of wildlife, trees and flowers (26 of which are found nowhere else), it’s a superb hiking destination, and you don’t have to be George of the Jungle to find your way through the trees. Trails are extremely well-marked; in fact you’ll often see small signs with information on the flora and fauna you’ll be passing. Wear a bathing suit with shorts. That way you’ll dry off quickly when it rains—and you will encounter short bursts of rain (you’re in a rainforest after all)—and you’ll be able to take a dip in one of the waterfalls that flank the trails. One, in particular, is terrific for swimming (ask for info at the visitor’s center).

7:30 p.m. - 10 p.m.: Reservations aren’t accepted at Dragonfly , so head there a bit earlier than is cool in this town (between 7 p.m. and 7:30) to avoid the chic hordes who swarm the place come 8:30 p.m. and later. What’s all the fuss about? It has a lot to do with the atmosphere, which is sexy in the extreme, all red lights, hanging drapes and pretty wait staff. But that wouldn’t keep diners’ interest if the food wasn’t topnotch, which it is. A fusion of Caribbean, Latin and Asian flavors with a heavy emphasis on the fresh produce and seafood of Puerto Rico, the menu runs the gamut from tempura to ceviche to Asian pizza with smoked salmon, wasabi and salsa (sounds weird, but it’s delish, just like the rest of the menu).

10 p.m.  - on: There’s nothing old about “Old San Juan” once the sun sets. It becomes a buzzy party spot for 20-somethings (and some folks in their 30’s and 40’s), who hop from bar to bar. The epicenter of all the activity is on the Calle San Sebastian, which is lined on both sides with happening nightspots blaring island music. If you’re not into reggaeton or the pick up scene, gamble the night away at the glitzy El San Juan Resort and Casino .

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer guides in bookstores now.

To get to the Luquillo Beacharea, take Route 3 east towards Fajardo. Once there turn north to Las Croabas. The Westin Rio Mar is the big hotel on this stretch of sand, so you can follow the signs for that to get to the beach. For guided snorkeling and scuba diving tours, call The Dive Center (787-888-6000 a PADI certified dive shop for information).

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The Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort and Golf Clubis located at 600 Rio Mar Boulevard, 19 miles east of the Louis Munoz International Airport of Puerto Rico Highway 3. To book a tee time, call 787/888-7060 (or go to www.westinriomar.com/)

Casa Borinquen, 109 Calle San Sebastien, phone 787/722-7070. Closed Mondays.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, better known as “El Morro” is located at the end of Calle Nozagaray, overlooking the water. It’s open daily from 9am-5pm, admission is $3 adults, $1 seniors. Phone 787/729-6960 for more information.

El Convento, Calle de Cristo 100, 787/723-9020 or www.elconvento.com.

To get to El Yunque Rainforesttake Route 3 East to Route 191. Take that south for 3 miles going through the village of Palmer. You’ll see signs to the visitors center for El Yunque. The center is open from 9am to 5pm daily, offers English-language information and videotapes, and is an excellent place to pick up hiking maps. Admission to the center is $3.

Dragonfly, Calle Fortaleza 364, phone 787/977-3886, www.oofrestaurants.com/dragonfly. Closed Sundays.

El San Juan Resort and Casino, Av. Isla Verde 6063, phone 787/791-1000; www.thesanjuanhotel.com/.

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer guides in bookstores now.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

Photos: Picturesque Puerto Rico

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  1. Eye on the word

    The Castillo de San Felipe del Morro in San Juan is a 16th century citadel. It was designed to keep seaborne enemies of out San Juan (thus the gun turret pictured). In 1983, the United Nations declared "El Morro" a World Heritage site. Today, it is Puerto Rico's best known fortress, with more than two million visitors a year. (Francisco Turnes / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Hidden beauty

    Isabela is a coastal city in Puerto Rico whose main industries include tourism due to it's classic and secluded surfing beaches, panoramic views, rainforest, rivers, caves archaeological sites and more. (ervphotos / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A beacon of the times

    The Punta Higuero Lighthouse in Ricon, situated on POint Juguero, was built in 1892 by the Spanish and rebuilt in 1922 by the U.S. Coast Guard after a 1918 tsunami hit the coast of Puerto Rico that also damaged the structure. The lighthouse still works and employs an unmanned 26,000-candlepower rotatintg beacon. The beaches around the Punta Higuero Lighthouse are also popular surfing destinations, and visitors converge in the area to see the annual migration of humpback whales. (fotoamateur / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Buried in history

    The Cementerio de San Juan (San Juan Cemetery), located between El Morro and the cliffs above the Atlantic of Old San Juan, is known for being one of the most picturesque burial grounds. The cemetery is also noted for its elaborate tombstones and the neoclassical chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene, which dates to the 19th century. Many of Puerto Rico's earliest colonists are buried here. (tank bmb / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Staying afloat

    Tourism is a big component of Puerto Rico's economy, and supplies about $1.8 billion annually, with millions of visitors visiting the island. It is estimated that about a third of the tourists come on cruise ships. (Ritu / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Traveling back in time

    A church stands on the grounds of La Fortaleza in Old San Juan, the original capital city of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The old city is a historic district of seven square blocks made up of ancient buildings and colonial homes, massive stone walls and vast fortifications, sunny parks and cobblestoned streets. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Withstanding time

    Old San Juan in Puerto Rico is the oldest settlement within the territory of the U.S., and spans just seven square blocks. Here, the La Fortaleza (the governor's mansion), a part of the old city wall and a gate are pictured. (tank bmb / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Historical colors

    Colorful homes line the cobblestoned streets in Old San Juan, the original capital city of San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Popular pastime

    Locals often gather at the many plazas of Old San Juan to chat and play dominoes. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Room with a view

    In Old San Juan, one of the oldest cities in the Americas, embellished balcony doors, such as the one pictured, are not unusual in the city that dates back to 1521. Most buildings are more than 150 years old and are evidence of the Spanish architectural heritage. (capricornis / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Natural beauty

    The El Yunque National Forest is the sole rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System, according to the park's Web site, and is relatively small at 28,000 acres. It features a year-round tropical climate and immense biodiversity. About 600,000 tourists each year enjoy all that the forest has to offer, including wildlife, waterfalls, hiking and camping opportunities, and more. (ervphotos / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Guiding light

    A 19th century lighthouse -- called the Los Morrillos -- sits atop a towering cliff that overlooks the waters of Cabo Rojo, located at the southwestern tip of Puerto Rico. The cliffs around the lighthouse drop more than 200 feet into the ocean. The lighthouse was originally built in 1882 to guide ships from the Caribbean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Today, the lighthouse is completely automated, and a renovation cleared the interior of everything of historical significance. (ervphotos / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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