Lying a few miles inland, in the centre of Puerto Rico's south coast, the attractive city of Ponce is rich in Spanish colonial heritage and architecture, with a well-preserved 17th century historic heart. Pretty colonial homes and majestic churches surround the lovely city plazas where fountains dance in radiant sunshine.
The preservation of its neo-classical architectural heritage and several interesting attractions makes Ponce a worthy port of call for Caribbean cruisers and holidaymakers. The nearby Playa de Ponce Port is Puerto Rico's principal and busiest trade port. Tobacco, coffee, rum and sugar cane from all over the Caribbean are loaded aboard vessels here, and floods of sightseers disembark regularly from an increasing number of cruise liners that have added Ponce to their itineraries.
The city, dubbed 'the pearl of the south', also offers some interesting excursions, and a short drive out of town will take you to the lovely white sandy Playa de Ponce, where the clear waters are ideal for snorkelling.
The city's built-up beachfront promenade area, a few miles south of the centre, is called La Guancha. The boardwalks, bars, souvenir shops, restaurants, and eateries surround hundreds of yachts and small boats moored in a saltwater estuary, and the area becomes very crowded with locals and visitors at weekends and holiday periods. Despite this, Ponce is laidback and fairly quiet in the evenings, making it a great Caribbean holiday destination for visitors of all ages.
A historic town with a colourful past, San Germán was the second city founded in Puerto Rico by the Spanish. Its mountainous location made it an ideal escape for artists, poets, and revolutionaries, and present-day San Germán still carries that lively spirit. It has a number of pretty buildings dating back to the 16th century, including the Porta Coéli (Gate of Heaven) Church and the San Germán de Auxerre Church.
Because of these, San Germán is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. There are also a few interesting museums, including the Lola Rodríguez de Tió Museum and the Ramírez de Arrellano y Rossell Museum. San Germán also hosts several religious and cultural festivals throughout the year.
The Museo de Arte de Ponce contains one of the largest art collections in the Caribbean, housed in a building designed by Edward Durrell Stone, who designed the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The impressive building is comprised of seven interconnected hexagons topped with glass cupolas.
Inside its walls are more than 1,000 paintings and 400 sculptures covering classical, ancient, and contemporary works. Among the prizes of the collection are works by Velasquez, Rubens, and Rodin, as well as a celebrated collection of Pre-Raphaelite works. Puerto Rican art also features strongly.
On weekends, a ferry carries visitors from the pier at La Guancha on the Ponce waterfront to Coffin Island, a tiny uninhabited island five miles south of the city. The island, also known as Dead Man's Chest, is part of the Reserva Natural Caja de Muertos natural reserve. Its status as a sanctionary is due to its native turtle traffic.
There are five pristine beaches, including Playa Ensenadita, Playa Larga, Playa Blanca, Playa Chica, and the blue-flag designated Playa Pelícano. Beaches on the east side of the island are roped off during turtle-nesting season.
There are hiking trails throughout the interior of the island and visitors can also explore the 19th-century lighthouse Caja de Muerto Light that has been restored and now houses a museum. Coffin Island is a great excursion for visitors to Ponce, and ranks as one of Puerto Rico's best tourist attractions for diving enthusiasts.
The Museo de la Música Puertorriqueña is dedicated to documenting the rich tapestry of the island's music history and pays tribute to Puerto Rican musicians. The museum explains the significance of the romantic danza music style, and the African-inspired popular forms of bomba and plenza. The museum features displays of Indian, Spanish, and African musical instruments, and memorabilia of local composers and performers, all housed in the attractive former residence of the Serralles family, renowned rum producers. Displays are in both English and Spanish.
Perched above the city of Ponce on El Vigia Hill is the restored residence of the Serralles rum-producing family. The multilevel Spanish-revival hacienda, designed by Pedro de Castro and built in 1930, is a beautiful example of the island's post-World War I architecture.
The house surrounds an elegant courtyard featuring fountains, and is renowned for its splendidly carved dining-room ceiling. The mansion is set in magnificent terraced formal gardens with breathtaking views, and makes for a wonderful day-trip destination from Ponce.
Although found rather off the beaten tourist track in Mayaguez on the east coast of Puerto Rico, the Mayaguez Zoo (also called the Dr Juan A. Rivero Zoo) is a world-class establishment and well worth a visit for animal lovers and those passionate about wildlife conservation.
The island's only large-scale zoo, the Dr Juan A. Rivero Zoo has been growing a collection of rare and exotic animals since its establishment in 1954, including lions, tigers, jaguars, hippos, giraffes and rhinos, as well as many species of tropical birds and large and varied collections of butterflies, amphibians, and snakes.
Central to the Zoo's growth has been a focus on conservation and several native species - including the Andean condor and the Puerto Rican crested toad - have benefited greatly from this approach.
Featuring several recreated habitat systems (including the tropical Spider Monkey Island), as well as numerous recreation areas, the Mayaguez Zoo is a wonderful place to take the kids for the day. Budget at least two or three hours to take it all in.
Laidback Ponce is small and easy to explore on foot. Most of its attractions are gathered around the main square of the Plaza las Delicias, which makes for ease of access for visitors who want to see majority of Ponce's major attractions. These include the Parque de Bombas, Casa Alcaldia, Museum of Puerto Rican Music, and the Catedral de la Guadalupe. A beautiful old town with incredible architecture and culture, Ponce will not disappoint.
Although Ponce isn't located directly on the coast, it's near enough that travellers looking for fun on the beach can head to El Tuque, take guided snorkelling tours, and have fun on jet skis, all of which are very popular among tourists. Relaxing in Ponce is certainly not a hard task; the pace is easy and the activities family-friendly.
Ponce is also ideally situated for trips to the beaches at Guanica, or the inland colonial town of San German, so a day out exploring is always an option for the adventurous and curious among travellers. Certainly a worthwhile visit, it's clear why Ponce has been dubbed 'the pearl of the south'.
No direct flights from Heathrow to this Destination