LAS CROABAS, Puerto Rico -- There are more luxurious resorts in Puerto Rico than the El Conquistador Resort, a Waldorf Astoria Resort.
There are better golf courses than El Conquistador's demanding Arthur Hills design. There are more convenient resort beaches found elsewhere on the island than what's available at El Conquistador.
But as a total package, no resort in Puerto Rico delivers a vacation as fascinating and diverse as El Conquistador. The sprawling "El Con," home to 23 bars and restaurants, sits atop 300-foot cliffs overlooking the Caribbean Sea on the northeast corner of the island.
El Conquistador feels like three resorts in one. The lower-level La Marina Village along the water, reachable by a unique tram ride, and the private beach on Palomino Island, accessible only by resort ferry, provides a nice change of scenery from the main resort atop the cliffs. Exploring is half the fun of a stay.
El Conquistador: The resort experience
A $120 million enhancement project completed in 2008 revamped the resort's rooms, built the Coqui Water Park near the marina and upgraded the Las Casitas. Bars, shops, restaurants, pools, secluded hot tubs and places to lounge keep many guests from leaving the resort's main upper floors. The breakfast buffet at Las Brisas is stocked with good choices, and the views are inspiring.
The 25,000-square-foot Waldorf Astoria Spa actually saved my trip from turning into a disaster. Fighting an ailing back, I signed up for a massage. My therapist performed some additional stretching techniques. I felt great for golf the rest of my stay.
The largest space off the main lobby used to be a casino but has been converted into a versatile family friendly hangout with a bar, pool table, model train set and more. Thumping salsa music, a Puerto Rican specialty, ups the energy after dark.
The Chops Steakhouse serves the best meal on property in an intimate setting with live music. The La Marina Village, though, cooks up the best ambiance. The salmon I ate while sitting on the water at the circular open-air Ballyhoo Bar & Grill was just as fresh and delicious as the lobster served the night before at the nearby fine-dining Stingray Cafe at half the price.
Arthur Hills did his best to tame the wild hills of the resort to build an interesting golf course. It's a challenging journey of awkward lies, one that doesn't really offer much forgiveness. The slopes of the narrow fairways kick balls into ponds and bunkers and jungle. Rare is the round without a single lost ball.
With that said, playing golf at El Conquistador never gets boring. When the bounces go your way, scoring well will feel like a present from the island's golf gods. The views from its elevated tees are a sideshow that actually steals the show. The 15th tee seemingly overlooks the entire island. These panoramic vistas help make up for the lack of oceanfront holes and beachfront greens.
Away from the main resort
As much as you'll love the beach at Palomino Island, it is unfortunate there is no beach at the resort. The new water park (which costs extra) fills in admirably for those families that don't want to make the free 10-minute ferry ride to the island.
A day trip to Palomino Island is a must. Scout About, a new scavenger hunt launched for kids and families in 2012, features 13 points of discovery, including hiking on the island. Iguanas, the island's beach shack, feeds lunch and snacks to hungry sunbathers. Multiple beach bars mix potent umbrella drinks. Visitors can rent paddleboards, kayaks and water runners or even go horseback riding.
To get away from the meat heads playing a competitive game of volleyball, I paddled a kayak to a tiny island of sand that was filmed in a "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie. It was an exhilarating, hour-long adventure.
Kayaking by night in a bioluminescent bay gets the juices flowing even more. There are only a handful of bio bays in the world, and two of the brightest and best are near the resort. Guided tours of the magnificent Laguna Grande in the Cape San Juan Nature Reserve launch just outside the resort's gates.
I had toured this bio bay before, but a full moon prevented the tiny dinoflagellates from putting on the proper show. These tiny water organisms that glow with a simple splash or stroke of the paddle shined brighter this time. Navigating a dark narrow passage in a mangrove swamp to reach the bay might sound treacherous, but it's quite a cool experience. It's just another highlight offered at a resort that delivers nonstop fun, both day and night.