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Old San Juan is gateway to southern Caribbean cruises

OLD SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO

If taking a Caribbean cruise from Florida is a part of your winter routine, consider shaking things up this year. Try leaving from Old San Juan.

The convenience of the state's five cruise ports is a draw for many cruisers living in the Sunshine State. But that proximity also limits the possibilities.

Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Jamaica, the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands are the staples of standard Sunshine State seven-day cruises. But destinations such as Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, St. Lucia and Barbados stay well beyond the horizon.

Those enticing islands can come into play if your ship leaves from San Juan. And because ships routinely leave that city's two ports between 8 and 11 p.m., there is another advantage. Old San Juan, with a rich history dating to the early 16th century, becomes another port of call.

Walking the narrow and steep blue-cobblestoned streets of Old San Juan is the best way to explore the second-oldest European-founded city in the Western Hemisphere. Six plazas, a host of small parks and an ample array of sculptures provide opportunities virtually each time you turn a corner.

Plaza de Armas is the main square, with four statues representing the four seasons. Not far away is Plaza de San Jose, with a statue of Juan Ponce de León cast from the metal in cannons captured during an attack by the British in 1797. Just a few steps farther is Plaza del Quinto Centenario with a 40-foot totem-pole-like sculpture dedicated in 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus reaching the New World.

To defend the settlement, which sits on a narrow island along the northern edge of San Juan Bay, the Spanish encircled it with a protective wall that took more than two centuries to complete. A series of forts served as the sentries, protecting the people and history of San Juan.

Visitors flock to the largest fortifications, Castillo de San Cristóbal and Castillo de San Felipe, that overlook the Atlantic along the north coast.

San Cristóbal, which guards the eastern land approach to Old San Juan, is the largest fort built by the Spanish in the New World. Most of the fort was built from 1765 to 1783.

To the west, standing watch over the entrance to San Juan Bay, is Castillo de San Felipe. Designed to be visually intimidating as well as powerful, the fort, more commonly known as El Morro, towers about 150 feet above sea level.

The Cathedral de San Juan, the second-oldest church in the Western Hemisphere, is south and a little downhill from El Morro. Work on the original church began in 1521, but five years later a hurricane destroyed the building. After it was rebuilt, another storm caused heavy damage in 1615. The present building was completed in 1917.

Down a steeply sloped, tree-shaded cobblestone street from the cathedral is San Juan Gate, once the main entrance for travelers arriving by water.

Outside San Juan Gate, a concrete walkway follows the massive protective wall along the water's edge, leading to a spectacular fountain at the Paseo de la Princess, a shaded promenade that is often the site of festivals and celebrations.

Following the promenade east points you toward the cruise terminals, and more island adventures.

Kyle Kreiger can be reached at kreiger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8565.

>>visiting old san juan

Getting there

American Airlines has a daily direct flight from Tampa to San Juan in the morning, and a nonstop return flight in the evening. American and United offer flights that make connections in Miami.

Cruising

Carnival, Holland America, Princess and Royal Caribbean cruise lines all offer seven-night cruises out of San Juan. Ships sail from two terminals, the Old San Juan terminal in the historic area and the Pan American terminal that is a five-minute cab ride from the heart of the old town.

Lodging

Options range from chain hotels to rental units. We opted for the Gallery Inn (thegalleryinn.com), a creative merging of four residences overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The inn is decorated with sculptures (including a bust of Michelle Obama after the family visited) and paintings by the artist-owners, and is home to an array of parrots, including the cockatoo Campeche who greets visitors in the lobby. The Sheraton is across the street from the Old San Juan cruise terminal and has a casino, while a Howard Johnson Hotel (hojo.com) is a few blocks up the hill. If you want more history, Hotel El Convento (elconvento.com) is a former convent built in the 17th century. A little research can uncover residences for rent, such as Caleta 64 apartments (caleta64.com).

The sites

Castillo de San Felipe (El Morro) and Castillo de San Cristóbal are part of a National Historic Site run by the National Park Service. The forts are open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily (www.nps.gov/saju). The Cathedral of San Juan is open to visitors from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.

Old San Juan is gateway to southern Caribbean cruises 11/03/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 5, 2010 4:59pm]

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