From horseback riding to snorkeling to water park slides, this Waldorf Astoria resort with its own private island caters to families.
Located on the far eastern tip of Puerto Rico, El Conquistador Resort overlooks the warm and welcoming Caribbean sea and boasts a private beach on nearby Palomino Island, which is protected from big waves. My girls, ages 2 and 4, loved the gentle surf and even enjoyed the 10-minute, free ferry ride!
KidTripster Tip: Not all beaches in Puerto Rico are created equal. San Juan and much of the northern and western beaches face the Atlantic Ocean, while those in the south and east face the Caribbean. Both bodies of water are beautiful, but the Caribbean is considered to be warmer and calmer. Surfers would be better served to check out Rincón on the west side of the island.
The resort’s facility itself isn’t new, but it’s well maintained. And the service is everything that you’d expect from a Waldorf Astoria property. I was on a first name basis with two of the concierges before we even arrived! I also like the fact that we were able to walk into the bustling town of Fajardo, where the town square is built around a giant pirate ship play structure for kids.
Plus, the Puerto Rican culture is very family-oriented. So if your daughter skins her knee at the pool, chances are that someone will be there to comfort her before you're even up and out of your lounge chair. All things considered, El Conquistador offers the perfect beach destination for families, especially those with small children.
KidTripster Tip: Book your stay over New Year’s Eve! We arrived on December 30, so on the the following night, our jet-lagged kids were still playing in the pool, when the band started up at 10 p.m. We enjoyed the music for an hour or so before putting them to bed. That left us free to ring in the new year with champagne and fireworks from the comfort of our own balcony.
What to do?
By far, the biggest draw to El Conquistador is the private beach on nearby Palomino Island. Sheltered from the surf, it’s ideal for children to paddle in or build sandcastles on the shore. Finding a beach chair in the shade was a challenge at peak hours, so we opted to rent an umbrella that the attendant was happy to set up for us. As a treat, my husband also rented an oversized unicorn floatie that my girls loved, both in the water and back on land. There’s also a number of water sports available on Palomino Island, including kayaks, windsurfers, paddle boards, Wave Runners, Sunfish, and Hobie Cats; extra fees apply. And the island also pony rides for young children and guided trail rides for older kids; again an extra fee applies.
All the pools and hot tubs at El Conquistador are open 24 hours a day! That’s a huge plus for families who still may be operating on a different time zone. Securing chairs in the shade around the main pool was never an issue for us, even during the holiday weekend. Our girls loved the hot tubs and made full use of the ping pong table and oversized chess board around the main pool.
With so many water options, it wasn’t until mid-week that we ventured outside the beach and pool. If we were to do it again, we’d start at the Coqui Water Park. Featuring three water slides and surrounded by a lazy river with plenty of chairs in the shade, this park has something for everyone. We set up camp next to the (nearly flat) toddler slide and watched the girls go down over and over and over again. By far, it was the most relaxing day for mom and dad, as the girls were happy to stay in one place for hours! The park also offers fun for older kids, as the water slides provide a serious thrill!
It wasn’t until the last day that we ventured out for an excursion, and again, we wished we’d have done it earlier. We opted for a snorkel trip to the island of Culebra with Aqua Adventure. Culebra is home to legendary Flamenco Beach; it's well worth the trip for the beach alone. The company generously gave us the discounted “bubble watchers” rate, since we didn’t anticipate actually being able to snorkel with our toddlers. Surprisingly, however, even our 2-year old enjoyed putting on the mask and peeking underwater. The pictures of the girls in full snorkel gear are priceless!
Puerto Rico is home to two bioluminescent bays, best viewed after dark by kayak. We walked to where the tours launch and quickly determined that small children are better off touring on a boat rather than the sea kayaks. But unfortunately, the bay in Fajardo, where we were staying, hasn't been very bright this year. Tour guides are optimistic that the circumstances will improve, but for now, the best bet for bioluminescent tours is off the island of Vieques. Located to the south and east of the main island, it’s an overnight trip but still considered part of Puerto Rico. We met a family with teenagers who loved the bioluminescent tour there. They stayed at the Bravo Beach Hotel, where they had a two-bedroom condo, complete with kitchen, for under $300/night.
Back at El Conquistador, you can take advantage of golf and tennis. If your kids don’t golf, try FootGolf (soccer + golf). Or take part in a walking tour of the rainforest or go on a self-guided scavenger hunt to find all the “points of discovery” hidden around the resort and collect wristbands; ask for a map at the concierge desk.
Finally, if you’re looking for some alone time at the resort, consider enrolling the kids (ages 4-12) in Camp Coqui. Your kids will be entertained with organized activities like nature hunts and sand sculpting. Both half day ($45/child) and full day ($75/child, includes lunch) options are available. With your free time, take in a spa treatment or diving trip.
Where to stay?
A sprawling estate cut into a hillside, El Conquistador offers some breathtaking views, but there are some things to consider when choosing where on the property to stay. The Las Brisas area is on the level with the lobby and main pool. To get to all other parts of the resort, you have to take a little tram called the “funiculator.” With the wait, it can add ten minutes to your trip to the pool. But on the upside, being at the bottom means closer access to the marina and water park. Plus our girls enjoyed the ride, and, again, I can’t say enough about how friendly the entire staff was to our children. The tram operators were no exception.
KidTripster Tip: No need to bring all your baby gear. The resort has car seats and pack-n-plays to use.
Another option to consider is the Las Casitas Villas area, where you can book a one-, two- or three-bedroom condo with a fully-equipped kitchen and tantalizing upgrades like butler service and personalized grocery shopping ($25 delivery charge plus cost of food). Definitely an option I’d consider on my next visit.
Room rates at El Conquistador start at $239/night during low season; holidays and peak season dates will run considerably more.
KidTripster Tip: Feel free to ask for a different room. We arrived in the dark on a Friday night and were given a first floor room overlooking the marina. When we woke the next morning, we realized our view was of boats instead of the ocean. We called the front desk the following day and were able to move to a fourth floor room at no extra charge.
KidTripster Tip: Be sure to check out the all-inclusive family package online that includes food and drinks, plus perks like child care and access to the Coqui Water Park.
Where to eat?
Mufungo! I actually considered opening this article with that one word. Something like: “Why go? Mufungo!” It’s catchy, right? I’m considering having t-shirts made up.
Okay, in all seriousness, Mufungo is Puerto Rico’s de facto national dish and my new comfort food of choice. A mixture of deep fried plantains that are then mashed with butter, I first tried it on my birthday, when we walked off the resort into the town of Fajardo. I’d seen the dish on every menu that I’d opened all week, so I took the plunge. And, oh my! You had me at “fried.” The restaurant was Pescaderia Don Candi, where owner Mags greets guests in person and serves fish that her husband catches fresh each day. It was truly a birthday to remember!
KidTripster Tip: The word for Mahi Mahi in Puerto Rico is “Dorado.” You’ll see it on many menus, prepared with a mango chutney. It’s out of this world! As a rule, the seafood on the island is fresh and amazing, anywhere you go.
On property, we enjoyed the breakfast buffet at Las Brisas. The service was impeccable, and the omelet bar was delicious. But, at nearly $100 for a family of four, it was spendy, considering the fact that two of our diners opted for Cheerios! The rest of the week, we stuck to the $4 waffles at the Sweet Heaven Bakery. Lunch and dinner was generally bar food from the various grills, conveniently located around the property. Our favorite was the Ballyhoo Bar and Grill that offers covered outdoor dining with a view of the marina.
KidTripster Tip: Consider making sandwiches for your children in the room. After ordering uneaten kids’ meals for the first two days, my husband came back from one of the property’s convenience stores with peanut butter, jelly, and a sleeve of bread. The girls generally ate them in the room, but no one gave us a second look when I broke them out on the beach.
KidTripster Tip: Pack a soft-sided cooler to take to the pool. My husband and I preferred the convenience of ordering drinks from the bar. But at $10 a piece, it added up quickly. We met another family who had bought a case of beer, again from the convenience store, and drank it by the pool. No one gave them a hard time.
Located in the beachside town of Fajardo, El Conquistador is on the eastern tip of Puerto Rico. We flew into San Juan and then took a hired “limousine” (aka Mercedes Sprinter van) to the resort. There are also shared shuttles that can be booked through the concierge. One-way cost: Youth (3-12) $29; Adult $39; Family (2 adults, 2 kids) $200 for round trip. Whatever option you choose, the trip is a solid hour from the airport, so I highly recommend booking your transfer before you arrive.
KidTripster Tip: Plan for jet lag. Puerto Rico is an hour later than Eastern Standard Time. Coming from the west coast, that 4-hour time difference had us sleeping until noon on the first day. It’s a good idea to save any early morning excursions until later in the week.
KidTripster Tip: Expect a language barrier. Puerto Rico is a United States territory, so there’s no need for a passport, and the dollar is the national currency. Having said that, most of the locals speak Spanish, and many of the road signs are not translated into English. I would feel comfortable renting a car, but I’d definitely want to have a back-up in case the GPS failed.
Read about another one of our favorite Caribbean resorts. Click here.
Corinna Allen is a Emmy award-wining journalist, living in Las Vegas, Nevada. She spent her junior year of high school as an exchange student in Finland, and she’s been traveling ever since. These days, she travels with her husband and two young girls. You can read more of her adventures on her blog.