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Puerto Rico offers an easy, relaxing reprieve

The beach at the San Juan Marriott Resort

The beach at the San Juan Marriott Resort in Puerto Rico is minutes from the airport. Credit: Don Riddle

We were that couple whose ideal winter escape usually began at the top of a ski trail. This year, though, was different. We were both feeling a little frayed, shivery-cold.

So we resolved: Instead of packed powder, we'd seek warm sand. And veg out -- something a type-A personality like me doesn't easily do.

"Puerto Rico," advised a friend who makes a yearly pilgrimage to the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino in Condado Beach for reasons that suddenly made sense: Guaranteed warm weather. An easy nonstop flight. A beachfront location, minutes from the airport, along a strip filled with restaurants and stores. A reasonable overall tab. A comfortable, but not glamorous, hotel with a low-key vibe.

So we booked what we thought would be the most relaxing five days on Earth.

Which it might have been -- any other week. But, as nobody told us at check-in, Hollywood had taken over the place to shoot the movie titled "22 Jump Street." This we learned when we showed up at the beach bar for lunch and found the pool off-limits to guests and overrun with scantily-clad extras. Another revelation: Half the beach was cordoned off and transformed into spring break at a fictional resort in Mexico.

Not what we'd signed on for, but interesting in its own way. So what if the beach was cluttered with a big sound stage and plastic beer can blowups? We'd fled New York minutes before a big snowstorm hit. Now, in 85-degree weather, we were relaxing on our oceanfront balcony watching waves lap the shore as extras partied loud and hard on cue between long spells of standing around looking bored.

Our holiday took another unexpected turn at the concierge's desk, where we met up with another couple on the same quest for authentic Puerto Rican fare. We were all directed to Orozco's, two blocks away. There, over shrimp gumbo, pernil (roast pork) and sangria, the four of us found common ground. Which led to two days of jaunts in their rental car to places like El Yunque National Forest and, at the other end of the island, Rincón, a surfing nexus. There were several alfresco meals and lots more sangria.

When they departed, we got into the rhythm of hotel life. Buffet breakfasts (which were included in our package) were highlighted by made-to-order omelets, punctuated by banter with our affable waiter, Sonny. Later, lazing in the non-Hollywood sector of the beach, I got deep into Amy Tan's "The Valley of Amazement," nearly (but not quite) oblivious to the helicopters overhead, one dropping stunt men into the sea, the other filming the action. Still, I never got to see the movie's star, People magazine's 2012 pick for Sexiest Man Alive, Channing Tatum.

More important to me was the food. We ate fairly, if not fabulously, well. One realization: No matter what kind of cuisine you're eating in Puerto Rico, garlic predominates. Best meal: the churrasco (skirt steak) at Ummo Argentine Grill, a steakhouse two blocks away.

With all that eating, drinking and lazing about, I did some working out -- OK, less than half an hour -- in the hotel's fitness center. We popped into the casino for a few minutes and I promptly lost a dollar in a slot machine. When we heard salsa music in the lobby lounge, we did a little of our Latin dance thing.

On our final full day, we ordered lunch to be brought to our lounge chairs by the pool. A grilled chicken-bacon-avocado sandwich in one hand, a frozen mojito in the other, I was able to see what a truly restful vacation is all about: Balance.



San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino 888-236-2427;

AMENITIES 513 rooms, two-thirds of which have ocean or partial ocean views, plus 12 suites. Five restaurants, two pools, fitness center and spa, kids' activities. Transport from airport, $20

RATES From $229 a night for a double plus 16 percent resort fee and taxes. Packages available.

DINING Ummo Argentinian Grill, 1351 Ashford Ave., San Juan, Puerto Rico;

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