Puerto Rico: (U.S.) Passports Optional

In his latest book, 100 Places That Will Change Your Child’s Life, Traveler magazine’s editor in chief Keith Bellows proclaims that the passport is the new diploma — that a child who learns to travel will travel to learn.

The sad reality is that only about a third of all Americans have passports. Sure, the U.S. is a great country to explore, but if you don’t have the proper paperwork, popular family-friendly destinations like Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, and most of the islands in the Caribbean are off limits.

With or without a passport, however, there exists a place where American families can go for a little sunshine and a little exposure to a culture much different from their own: Puerto Rico.

Once you’ve reached the island, which is easily accessible from most major East Coast cities via San Juan, the range of activities you’ll find there includes most things you’d expect from a warm-weather getaway. Beautiful white sand beaches and turquoise waters top the list, but there’s also plenty of snorkeling, sailing, fishing, golf, tennis, biking — you get the idea.

If your needs end here, you might as well head to southern Florida. But if you’re looking for an opportunity to make your trip a teachable moment for you and your kids, you should consider going beyond the resort walls to find out what makes Puerto Rico so unique.

Any family traveling to the island should visit El Yunque National Forest, a tropical rainforest that rivals any you’d find in the Caribbean. The kids will really dig hiking the many trails that snake through the jungle, and discovering waterfalls, natural pools, and plenty of wildlife (especially birds, frogs, and insects) along the way. Just try to get there early to avoid the crowds.

If you’re in search of a hotel near the rainforest, but still want a beach-side base, the St. Regis Bahia Beach is the place to be. Located only about a half hour from San Juan astride an old coconut plantation, this resort has all the luxurious trappings you’d expect from the St. Regis brand, along with the giant green iguanas that that have taken up residence there. There’s even a restaurant by Jean-Georges (Fern) on site if you’re celebrating a special occasion.

Though it might be tempting not to, you should get away from the resort to walk around Old San Juan to soak up a little culture. Even if the kids don’t fully appreciate its history — not to mention the great cafes (try the PR Tea Co.) and local art shops — they can burn some energy running around the well preserved El Morro and San Cristobal forts (and learning a bit about life under Spanish rule in the process).

When you’re ready to wow your children with something truly special, you simply must visit one of Puerto Rico’s three bioluminescent bays. There is one located in Fajardo, about a 45-minute drive from San Juan, and another in the southwestern corner of the country, but the most spectacular bay, by far, I was told, can be found on Vieques, a small island–municipality just eight miles off the mainland that’s easily reached by ferry or small plane.

Vieques is what much of the Caribbean must have been like before the big hotels and cruise ships started arriving, which makes it a unique place to spend a a few days, if you have the time. Though it’s the only resort on this 55- square-mile island, The W Retreat & Spa certainly isn’t a bad way to go. But if you’re looking for something more rustic, there are plenty of vacation rentals to choose from.

Even though we took our nighttime excursion to the bay when the moon was almost full (it’s best to go on or around a new moon for maximum effect), we still experienced the magic created by the dinoflagellates that thrive in this unique and very rare ecosystem.

As our guide from Bieque Eco Trips led us along the shores of (appropriately named) Mosquito Bay in kayaks, the most amazing thing happened: When our paddles hit the water, these single-celled organisms emitted a flash of bluish light that lit up the water below our boats in what looked like a cloud of pixie dust. We splashed each other, and a spray of glowing sparkles showered over us.

I’ve been all over the world, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that this experience was one of the top five highlights from all my travels. I was also quite content knowing that my kids realized they were now in another country, if not another world!

Rainer Jenss is a featured contributor for Intelligent Travel. Follow him on Twitter @JenssTravels.