RINCON, Puerto Rico -- A massive wave breaks off Sandy Beach, carrying surfers by palm-shaded guest houses, seaside bars and grills, and thickets of bougainvillea. At noon, the March sun is hot and this splendid stretch of beach is nearly empty as I gaze at the stream of summer types gliding by on their boards.
''Why do surfers come to Rincon?" says Jeff Yost, repeating my question as we stand by a collection of vintage surfboards in his Rincon Surf Museum. ''Because it's tropical, it's warm, there are many different surf breaks, and it's a lot closer than Hawaii."
Though I am not a surfer, I had felt comfortable riding the waves on my boogie board that afternoon. Now, at dusk at the Vista Vacation Resort, the coqui frogs serenade from below the balcony of our self-catering apartment and my mood is light.
It's great to be back in Puerto Rico, where the sea is bathtub warm, and the landscape a dazzling aquamarine. English is spoken here, the dollar is legal tender, and vacationing is a bargain.
I often meet Caribbean travelers who say the only sight they have seen in Puerto Rico is the Luis Munoz Airport in San Juan. Yet in the same time -- roughly two hours -- that it takes to board another plane and fly from San Juan to St. John, Anguilla, St. Martin, or the Dominican Republic, they could drive to Rincon. En route from the airport to this westernmost corner of Puerto Rico, you have the feeling of being at the end of the earth as you approach the point of the peninsula.
Rincon is everything the Caribbean ought to be: palm-shaded beaches, fabulous sunsets, friendly people, and a quiet little town. The vegetation is rough, the terrain rugged, and there is an eclectic mix of local and expatriate cultures. As a destination, it offers tranquillity as well as action, with opportunities to hike and bike by the sea, ride horses through the hills, and snorkel and dive among the corral reefs on Desecheo or Mona islands. Nighttime options include relaxed dining, dancing to reggae music, or gambling in the casinos in nearby Mayaguez.
When we wanted to flee a long Boston winter, my family decided on Rincon for its accessibility and the appeal of its secluded beach town. We would have time to chill. Our daughters would have stretches of uncrowded beaches for tanning, with a steady stream of surfers an added amenity. Rincon's surfing draw has attracted a relaxed breed of tourist and kept prices reasonable for everyone.
Most of the folks we meet have vacationed in Rincon before, enticed by value as much as by the surfing and beaches. There are mainly couples and families staying at Vista Vacation Resort, which consists of two hillside buildings of studios, one- and two-bedroom apartments, and a small swimming pool. Just beyond Vista, high in the hills of Barrio Puntas, Rincon Surf and Board, a budget accommodation, caters to surfers. On the other end of the spectrum is Horned Dorset Primavera, a five-star boutique hotel featuring rooms, suites, and villas, many with private pools. A Relais & Chateaux property, it sits on 7 acres at the edge of a very pretty beach and is one of the most elegant hotels in Puerto Rico. Most Rincon accommodations fall in the midlevel category of quaint guesthouses, inns, and condominiums or self-catering apartments.
With limited options for public transportation, we rented a car. But even in downtown Rincon, where four streets offering supermarkets, dive shops, drugstores, and a few tourist shops crisscross, parking is not a problem.
Much of the tourist action occurs at Sandy Beach. A rustic beachcomber setting, it offers a handful of good restaurants serving grilled fish and meats as well as local fare. The Tamboo Tavern hosts live music on the weekends and a daily happy hour.
Punta Higuera Light House is a perfect place to watch a sunset or to shop in an ecofriendly gift shop. Built in 1892 by Spaniards to mark the island's westernmost point, the lighthouse stands in the middle of a beautiful park overlooking the surfing at Domes and Indicator beaches. In March, the park was the site of ''Contra el Viento" (''Against the Wind"), a bicycle festival that brought hundreds of cyclists hoping to qualify for international races.
The Rincon Surf Museum offers a more sedate view of the sport. Built by Yost, who, along with his wife, Cathy Beck, owns and operates Vista Resort, the museum exhibits more than 100 boards from the '50s and '60s. Many were shaped by Dick Brewer, whom Yost describes as ''the most famous surfboard shaper in the world." Housed in the back of the complex, the museum is open when Yost isn't busy with other commitments, but he is happy to guide people by appointment.
In light of how close Puerto Rico is to Boston, and how much Rincon has to offer -- tropical beauty, reasonably priced accommodations, beaches, and water sports -- it is a perfect destination for a relaxed Caribbean vacation.
Rincon bills itself as Puerto Rico's best-kept secret. It's hard to imagine why word hasn't gotten out.
Marie C. Franklin can be reached at email@example.com.
How to get there
Rincon is approximately two hours by car from the San Juan Airport, where rental cars are available. Lowest round-trip air fare between Boston and San Juan available at press time was $357 on US Airways. From San Juan, take Expressway 22 to the end and continue west on Route 2 beyond Aguadilla to Route 417. Follow Route 417 for 3 miles and turn right onto Road 115, which goes to Rincon. American Airlines and Continental also offer service from Boston to Aguadilla and Mayaguez, both about 25 minutes from Rincon. For travel to Aguadilla, the lowest round-trip fare from Boston available at press time was $456 on Continental, with connections in Newark and San Juan. The lowest round-trip air fare between Boston and Mayaguez was $481 on American, connecting in Fort Lauderdale and San Juan.
What to do
Punta Higuera Light House
The lighthouse area has been restored into a beautifully landscaped park overlooking the surfing at Domes and Indicator beaches. It's a perfect spot to watch spectacular sunsets and for viewing humpback whales off the coast, January to March.
Desecheo and Mona islands Twelve miles west of Rincon, Desecheo Island is a federal wildlife reserve. Uninhabited Mona Island is 40 miles offshore. Desecheo Dive Shop offers guided day trips to both islands for diving, snorkeling, and nature adventures.
Where to stay
Sandy Beach Road
Beautifully restored oceanfront guesthouse with its own restaurant and small bar. Island motif and pool. Double rooms range from $105 to $155 a night.
Beside the Pointe
Sandy Beach Road
Small guesthouse on the beach, casual accommodations and studio apartments. Rates start at $45 a person, double occupancy.
Horned Dorset Primavera
Apartado 1132, Rincon
A five-star resort with a formal French dining room. Rooms have marble baths and private sea balconies. Rates range from $440 to $1,000 a night.
Rincon Surf and BoardGuesthouse
Casual guesthouse serving a mostly surfer crowd with rooms $45-$65 a night, apartments $55-$175 a night, and a dormitory $15 a night.
Vista Vacation Resort
Vista Nuclear Street, Barrio Puntas
Air-conditioned, self-catering apartments with fabulous views. Pool, cable TV, BBQ. Nightly in-season rates: studio $95; one bedroom $110; two bedrooms $185.
Where to eat
Lazy Parrot Restaurant and Bar
Road 413, Barrio Puntas
Dinner only, dining in a beautifully landscaped open-air dining room features specials of fish, steaks, pasta, BBQ, and vegetarian dishes; entrees $10-$17.
Tamboo Tavernat Beside the Pointe
Sandy Beach Road
Lunch and dinner daily, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; weekend reggae bands, in a casual beachside grill under a thatched roof dining room. Salads, sandwiches, and entrees, $3-$12.
Casa Islena Inn Grill and Bar
Sandy Beach Road, Barrio Puntas
Breakfast, lunch only; salads and lunch plates, $5-$13.