SAN JUAN – The flight from Orlando to San Juan takes approximately three hours. The plane was over the Atlantic coast of Florida in a matter of minutes, and followed the shore until somewhere near Fort Lauderdale. It was a half hour or so before I could see any of the islands of the Bahamas, but they were beautiful from the air. The deep blue water of the open ocean fades to a bright turquoise within the shallow lagoons. In some places, the patterns in the sand below the surface of the water made it seem as though the Creator had taken a giant brush and painted a scene in broad strokes. From the shore, or even a ship, the design must be imperceptible, but from 39,000 feet it’s gorgeous.
Our cruising altitude was nearly 40,000 feet, but for the most part I wished it could be much lower. At that height, and at nearly five hundred miles per hour, one has a hard time discerning anything very specific on the surface of the Earth below. Superhighways and large buildings are clear, but identifying an individual vehicle is impossible, and even entire cities pass by so quickly that you have no time to venture an informed guess as to its name. On a flight last year to Chicago, I flew over what I believed might have been Indianapolis (it had a large racetrack), but I couldn’t be sure. This trip, however, small monitors on the back of each seat allowed passengers to view the plane’s location in real time, similar to what I experienced on a flight from Paris to Miami long ago. I suppose the high cruising altitudes allow for faster, more stable flight. And it’s true that once the scene outside my window became one exclusively of white clouds, the urge to nap was strong – made possible by the smooth and steady flight. But, just as I began a dream, I was jolted by heavy turbulence, and the gasp of a hundred passengers around me. The plane jerked violently and suddenly dropped. The sensation of free-fall, familiar to anyone whose been on a roller coaster, filled me with instantaneous dread. We leveled out almost immediately, and I doubt the whole affair lasted more than fifteen seconds, but a quarter of a minute can feel like a quarter of an hour when, half-asleep, you are jostled and made to fear for your life.
From so high, the open ocean is a deep blue blanket. But, upon our descent into San Juan, the white caps of waves became apparent, and near the island were omnipresent. The captain had said that winds at the airport were a steady twenty-five miles per hour, so I can imagine that on the open sea the water was quite choppy. Near the island, small boats and giant cruise ships soon appeared, and, while I had not yet spied land from my seat on the port side of the aircraft, in an instant the peninsula of Old San Juan, with El Morro at its tip came into view. It was thrilling, just as it was to make the river approach into Washington-Reagan Airport, where the fields, forests and neighborhoods of Maryland and northern Virgina suddenly give way to the famous monuments in the heart of the District of Columbia.
The airport in San Juan was crowded everywhere, and the lines outside the bathrooms were long. We had no checked baggage, so made our way outside to hail a taxi, but a hundred other people had the same plan, and the wait was long. Meanwhile, around us were hundreds of others, there to pick up friends and relatives. Since no one without a ticket is permitted inside, they wait patiently outside, noses pressed against the glass, staring at the baggage carousels. It was refreshing to be given a printed receipt for our taxi ride even before the driver took our luggage. The ride to our hotel would be $12, and there were no surprises, except, perhaps, that our hotel is so close to the airport.
Our hotel sits along a vast strip of dozens of other hotels and resorts that line the section of town called Isla Verde. The compound is lush with trees and flowers. The lobby and common areas are typical of this level of accommodation, which is to say that there are floral arrangements on tables, and appropriate but relatively pedestrian art on the walls. It cannot match the Omni Shoreham in Washington or the Westin at Hilton Head Island. Our room is large and attractive, the bed enormous and plush, the furniture handsome and stylish, the seating generous and comfortable, and the view beautiful and still more beautiful. If it cannot match the stunning panorama of the Marriot in Salt Lake City, with its sweeping views of two snow-capped mountain ranges, it is nevertheless the best ocean view we’ve had in the United States.
Coming up: the city, the mountains, the caverns, the rainforest, and the beach.