PUERTO RICO -- Palm trees sway in the warm Caribbean breeze.The sound of Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" floats through the balmy air, with the aroma of gingerbread drifting from the open door of Rio Mar Beach Resort and Spa.|
It's Christmas in Puerto Rico, where festivities linger long after the traditional Dec. 25 celebration.
"In Puerto Rico, Christmas actually lasts six weeks," said Kathleen Krumhansl, deputy director for Puerto Rico Tourism. Revelry starts the day after Thanksgiving and lasts until Jan. 14.
Although many people associate snowy landscapes and crisp weather with Christmas, the tropical island of Puerto Rico is a favorite holiday destination for a growing number of celebrants.
In fact, Forbes magazine has named San Juan one of the world's top Christmas destinations.
"We see more and more families and couples coming here to celebrate the holiday," said Sharlene Brenkus, director of marketing for Rio Mar Resort."People come here to get away from the cold and the snow and ice."
They also want to participate in the annual gingerbread extravaganza. "I've been making the gingerbread houses for 13 years but this is the biggest I've ever made," said Rio Mar pastry chef Anibal Rodriguez. "It's not the biggest in the world, but it's probably the biggest in the Caribbean."
At more than 12.5 feet tall, 11.5 feet long and 9.5 feet wide, the gingerbread house dominates much of the Rio Mar Resort lobby. It took the chef and his staff 540 hours to create the masterpiece in time for unveiling the day after Thanksgiving.
"But it's a daily project to keep repairing it," Rodriguez said. "Little pieces fall off or disappear and we need to keep fixing it up … We give away gingerbread cookies in the evening so people don't have to eat pieces of the house."
A life-size Santa stands outside the gingerbread house, two toy soldiers guard it, and a crackling fireplace -- a realistic looking DVD playing on a large flat-screen television -- glows inside.
Homes, businesses and streets are lavishly decorated with lighted trees, garland and poinsettias.
Puerto Rican children get a second round of presents on Jan. 6, (Epiphany) marking the arrival of the Wise Men in Bethlehem following the star to worship the newborn Jesus. On the eve of Three Kings Day, children gather a shoebox full of hay for the camels the Magi ride.
Somehow, the cut grass or hay magically disappears over night and the Three Kings leave gifts behind or under children's beds.
A charming Puerto Rican custom is group caroling, called parranda, where friends gather to share the gift of music. Guitars, tambourines, horns, keyboards and whatever else that can be carried provide accompaniment for singers and dancers as they travel from place to place.
The group gets bigger and bigger as more people join in.
Another Puerto Rican tradition at Christmas is the coquito, a rum and coconut milk drink that tastes like eggnog. Sweet treats, fried green plantains, codfish fritters and roast pork also are part of the feast.
To make Puerto Rico even more enticing for a winter vacation, the island with the dazzling white beaches, rich history, scenic golf courses, top resorts, fun shopping and multi-cultural cuisine is easy to access.
Known as the gateway to the Caribbean, Puerto Rico became a commonwealth of the United States in 1952. That means Americans don't need a passport to visit. The currency is the U.S. dollar and English is spoken almost everywhere on the island.
About 110 miles long and 35 miles wide, Puerto Rico is served by several flights and airlines.
IF YOU GO
Information: Puerto Rico Tourism at seepuertorico.com.
A delicious rum and coconut milk drink is the Puerto Rican version of eggnog.
2 egg yolks, beaten
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
1 (14-ounce) can cream of coconut
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup white rum
1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In the top of a double boiler, combine egg yolks and evaporated milk. Stirring constantly, cook over lightly simmering water until mixture reaches a temperature of 160 degrees F (71 degrees C). The mixture should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Transfer mixture to blender, and add cream of coconut, sweetened condensed milk, rum, water, cloves, cinnamon, and vanilla. Blend for about 30 seconds. Pour into glass bottles and chill. Serve cold, sprinkled with cinnamon or nutmeg if desired.
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