Image: Wyndham Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa
Wyndham Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa
Family-friendly resorts like the Wyndham Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa have rain forest on one side and the beach on the other. 
By
Tribune Media Services
updated 12/7/2010 2:12:56 PM ET 2010-12-07T19:12:56

Thank goodness for the glow sticks!

It is pitch black and we are kayaking through red mangroves, trying to dodge the roots. The glow sticks on each kayak and on the backs of our life jackets are our only light.

We are in Puerto Rico on our way to the bioluminescent Bay Laguna Grande at Las Croabas, Fajardo — one of only three bioluminescent bays on the island, according to our GSI Adventures guide, Joel. Who says Puerto Rico is only about sun and surf?

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This bay is home to a large colony — more than a million — of dinoflagellates that light up, producing the glowing waters. We let water slide through our hands and it glows. Crazy!

"So cool!" says my kayak partner Kate Boyce, here from Syracuse, N.Y., to celebrate her mom's 60th birthday and her sister's 30th. "Girl's trip," Kate said happily, adding they wouldn't let their dad come. I was here on a girls' getaway, too, with two of my oldest friends and we met two other moms from Seattle who scored a deal on www.hotwire.com for their annual getaway.

By the end of our excursion, we are soaked and chilled but glad for the unique adventure. After a quick shower at our casita nearby at The El Conquistador Resort (www.elconresort.com/), we head down the road for an authentic Puerto Rican meal at the well-known Pasion por el Fogon (www.pasionporelfogon.net). We feast on Asopaito de camarones — delicious delicate soup, fresh conch salad, fresh snapper and Mofango, which is green plantains fried and mashed, molded in a bowl and then stuffed with whatever you like — chicken, fish, seafood — and covered by a tomato-based sauce. We drink homemade Sangria and toast old friends and a terrific vacation day.

You're missing a lot if you ignore easy-to-reach Puerto Rico (www.seepuertorico.com) in favor of more exotic islands. And you're still in the United States here — Puerto Rico, of course, is a U.S. territory —yet you have the opportunity to explore a rich culture that dates back more than five centuries. (The kids will love exploring Castillo San Felipe del Moro Fort in Old San Juan. And they can practice their Spanish in a place where everyone is friendly ... but also speaks English.)

Take your pick of places to stay, from the 23 small family-owned Paradores to the historic Hotel El Convento (www.elconvento.com), built in a centuries-old convent in the heart of Old San Juan, to family and budget-friendly resorts like the Wyndham Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa (www.wyndhamriomar.com/) with the rain forest on one side and the beach on the other. (Check out rates starting at $99 a night. Call 800-474-6627 and mention the DIS88 rate.)

"Five minutes of serenity," says Maria Arocho, sitting poolside at the Wyndham as her three boys played happily in the water, glad for a place her family could afford. The Arochos, who live in Puerto Rico, had checked in for a weekend. "We come for the pools and room service," she said.

Many families, meanwhile, return again and again to the deluxe 750-room El Conquistador Resort that reminds me of a cruise ship on land with its own Coqui Water Park (www.elconresort.com/coqui_water_park/). Coqui offers water slides and a lazy river, a private offshore island, the Caribbean's largest spa (moonlight yoga, anyone?), Camp Coqui, golf and tennis, a casino, 14 restaurants and even its own excursions operation that can send you kayaking on the bioluminescent bay or out fishing. (Ask about the Coqui Water Park package, which includes airport transfers and breakfasts.)

If you're traveling with grandparents (or girlfriends), consider Las Casitas — a resort within the El Conquistador resort offering 157 villas with killer views, pools, restaurant and butler service. I love that the resort will stock your kitchen for you for just a $25 stocking fee, or have the chef cook for you.

"There is so much to do we haven't even left the resort," said Brian Keenan, vacationing with his family from Syracuse, N.Y. The Keenans, in fact, had to persuade the kids to leave the pools to head 10 minutes offshore to the resort's Palomino Island for snorkeling, mini golf, jet skiing and horseback riding.

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Wherever you stay, there are no worries if it rains. Explore Rio Camuy Cave Park, one of the world's largest underground cave systems, tour Old San Juan's historic sites or head to El Yunque rain forest, like we did, the only rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System and a U.S. World Biosphere Reserve. (Vote for El Yunque to be one of the new 7 Wonders of Nature, www.new7wonders.com.)

Our guide, Wilfredo O'Neill, tells us the 28,000 acres attract more than a million visitors a year who come for the chance to swim under a waterfall, picnic and hike miles of trails amid 1,000 species of plants and animals. (There are no poisonous snakes we're glad to hear.) Listen for the tiny tree frogs with voices as large as opera singers. Tell the kids the tiny frogs don't drink water but soak it up through their skin. Eleven of the 16 species unique to Puerto Rico can be found in this rain forest along with 1,000-year-old trees, flowers and tropical birds.

Back at the El Conquistador, kids snap photos of the beautiful blue parrots that grace the lobby — Biggles and Giggles — before racing to the pools. Their biggest decision of the day? Which pool to choose.

There was just one downside to my weekend here — it was way too short.

For more Taking the Kids, visit www.takingthekids.com and also follow "taking the kids" on www.twitter.com, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.

© 2010 Eileen Ogintz ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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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  1. Francisco Turnes / FeaturePics.com
    Above: Slideshow (12) Picturesque Puerto Rico
  2. Image:
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    Slideshow (20) Caribbean way of life

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