Today’s post features an important aspect of travel in the Midwest – that of seeking a warmer climate in the cold, winter months. You’ll want to participate in this long-standing tradition. A visit to the tropics in January or February revives your spirits and has you looking forward to spring with renewed hope.
In the farming community where I grew up, a winter get-away was built into the calendar, right along with spring planting and fall harvest. It was a reward at the end of each growing season for a job successfully completed. So after the holidays were celebrated and the Christmas decorations packed away, the town emptied out for a few months. The most popular vacation state was Florida.
As winter came to an end, the return home was exciting, too. There was bounty to share – bags of oranges and grapefruits, carved coconut heads, straw purses, and knick-knacks made with shells. Farmers met at the local grain elevator to compare suntans and re-live travel adventures. Then it was time to think about spring planting and begin the cycle all over again.
My parents started right off with the farm-to-Florida tradition. They were getting married in January 1950 and making plans for a honeymoon destination. An older fellow in town told Dad about a trip he had taken to the South and how impressed he was with the Atlantic Ocean. Mom and Dad had never traveled beyond the Midwest. So on January 15, 1950, the newlyweds set out in their light green Pontiac coupe to discover Florida and the Atlantic Ocean.
Mom liked the drive through the Smoky Mountains with its beautiful scenery. Motel rooms along the way were $5.00 a night. At one place, there was a kerosene heater in the room that Dad had to light himself. “It’s a wonder we weren’t asphyxiated!” he’d say.
Mom and Dad both loved Florida and would return again and again over the years. Dad always said he got to enjoy Spring twice in the same year – once in Florida and later in Illinois when he and Mom returned home.
While Florida is surely a fine state for a winter escape, I would also recommend heading further south to San Juan, Puerto Rico. It has a winning combination of warm temperatures, historic sights, and of course, an ocean. I was fortunate to spend several days there, and really enjoyed the island.
As the name Puerto Rico suggests, its heritage is Spanish; it was a colony of Spain from 1493-1898. As an outcome of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States. Today it’s still a U.S. territory, more formally known as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Spanish and English are the official languages, and the U.S. dollar is their currency.
Our resort was next to the El Yunque Rainforest. It’s the only tropical rainforest in the United States National Forest system and definitely worth a visit. The trails are well-maintained with lots of interesting plants along the way. The waterfalls are lovely, too.
Puerto Rico Wildlife
The most common creatures you’ll encounter on the island are iguanas. They have a scary, prehistoric look about them, but they’re not aggressive. They appear to be on the same level as squirrels in the Midwest. Just like squirrels, iguanas are on the ground and in the trees, and occasionally you’ll see one ironed out on the road. Nobody gets overly concerned about them.
Old San Juan
Along with the rainforest, be sure to spend some time in Old San Juan. It’s a popular tourist spot with a variety of things to do – restaurants, shopping, museums, etc. There’s usually a cruise ship or two at the dock, so you’ll be sharing the cobblestone streets with lots of other vacationers. It makes for a lively, fun experience.
Among the excellent historic sights:
Castillo de San Cristobal was built by the Spanish in 1783 to protect the city of San Juan. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a chance to wander around in the sunshine and take in the history and views. Displays throughout the fort are nicely done.
The sentry box was used by watchmen who were guarding the seashore. They’re an iconic symbol for Old San Juan.
Cathedral of San Juan Bautista
The Cathedral of San Juan Bautista is one of the oldest buildings in San Juan, dating back to 1540. It contains the tomb of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon (the guy who was looking for the Fountain of Youth.)
Capitol of Puerto Rico
While you’re in the area, you’ll want to see the Capitol of Puerto Rico. It’s located on the edge of Old San Juan. The handsome, Classical Revival building was completed in 1929. Architects competing for the project were instructed to choose materials suitable to the island’s tropical climate. As a result, there’s lots of granite and marble throughout the building. Ceiling murals and mosaics depict Puerto Rico’s rich history.
And the ocean . . .
Besides the warm temperatures, we Midwesterners also want to experience the beach and water. Our resort and adjacent properties offered long stretches of sandy beach to walk and enjoy the rolling waves of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s all the better when you know it’s snowing and below zero at home!
Bon voyage! Best wishes for a fun and relaxing winter get-away!