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Puerto Rico's Top Ten Stories of 2012

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2012 was a milestone year for Puerto Rico. Two new elite hotels opened their doors, restoring a bygone golden era of tourism. The island held an important political referendum. And a major culinary award takes a big leap toward legitimizing Puerto Rican cuisine as truly world-class. And Hurricane Isaac took a watery bite out of the island.

It was a big year for me too. I tried (and loved!) a new sport for the first time, celebrated my dad's 70th birthday on the island with my family, tried an amazing new restaurant, and discovered a side of Loíza and Piñones I never knew about.

So my list of top 10 stories of 2012 is a mix of my big moments in Puerto Rico (as far as tourism goes) as well as the biggest moments and milestones from the island.

1. A Milestone Birthday Trip

Photo © Wyndham Rio Mar
I have to start with my father's 70th birthday trip, which we as a family decided to celebrate in Puerto Rico. Our journey took us from the Wyndham Rio Mar Beach Resort to the Sheraton Old San Juan. Culinary highlights included Vejigante Restaurant in Luquillo, Palio at the Rio Mar, and Casa Lola in Condado. And the beauty of Puerto Rico made my dad's vacation all the more special.

2. Puerto Rico Welcomes Porta Atlántico

Photo © Ritz-Carlton
The Puerto Rico Tourism Company introduced a new tourist region in 2012. And they called it Porta Atlántico. Located along the island's north coast, the region is comprised of the municipalities of Camuy, Hatillo, Arecibo, Barceloneta, Manatí, Vega Baja, Vega Alta, Dorado and Toa Alta. And it includes some of the best attractions in Puerto Rico, like the Camuy Caves, Arecibo Radio Telescope, outstanding golf courses and several new hotels.

3. The Condado Vanderbilt Opens

The stylish and opulent Condado Vanderbilt has a storied history. Opened in 1919 and once the grande dame of the capital, the Vanderbilt closed its doors for decades before a hundred-million-dollar renovation resurrected it. It opened at the end of 2012, and even though guests will not get to stay here until 2013, the buzz around its elegant lobby, five-star restaurant and stunning architecture already has it among the most intriguing and exciting destinations in Puerto Rico.

4. And So Does the Ritz-Carlton Reserve

And speaking of new hotels in Porta Atlántico, none was more anticipated than the Ritz-Carlton Reserve in Dorado Beach, Puerto Rico's first 6-star hotel. Opened in December 2012, it's already one of the most sought-after destinations by travel experts and tourists alike.

5. Puerto Rico Votes for Statehood

To say that Puerto Rico and the U.S. share an unusual relationship is an understatement. There aren't a whole lot of commonwealths left in the world, but Puerto Rico is one, and it has been the source of contention, debate and speculation for over a century. In 2012, the question of Puerto Rico's political future was put to a vote (not for the first time), on the same day as the U.S. elections. While the poll was controversial (many felt the way the questions were stated forced the issue), the results indicated a strong sentiment for statehood. Nothing may come of this vote in terms of actual progress, but it was a historic moment for the island.

6. Isaac Soaks Puerto Rico

This summer, Puerto Rico suffered a most unwelcome visitor in Tropical Storm Isaac, which gave the island's eastern and southern regions a heavy lashing of rain. Mudslides, collapsed bridges, power outages and obstructed roads were only part of the problem, as the storm visited billions of dollars of damages before moving north.

7. James Beard Welcomes Rican chefs

Photo © Zain Deane
I've always been a strong advocate of Puerto Rican cuisine, which I believe is world-class. Apparently, I'm not the only one who shares this view. The James Beard Foundation, bestowers of the much-revered James Beard awards, have made a few changes to their restaurant and chef award categories. And one of those changes is that chefs from Puerto Rico will now be eligible to compete for a Best Chef: South medallion. It's a major recognition of the local culinary talent from one of the world's most respected culinary authorities.

8. I Become a Kiteboarding God (Ok, Not Really)

Photo © 15 Knots
Kiteboarding was easily the most exciting, exhilarating new sport I tried in 2012, and I owe it all to Juan Carlos. The man behind 15 Knots is a great teacher, a true ambassador for his sport, and determined to make kiteboarding a mainstream activity on the island. And he's got a convert in me.

9. The Royal Isabela Opens

A welcome addition to Puerto Rico's west coast, Royal Isabela opened in 2012 with an 18-hole golf course, a residential community and an inn. Perched along the cliffs of Isabela, it offers a dramatic landscape on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and luxurious clubhouse accommodations for guests.

10. Puerto Rico Elects a New Governor

In a hotly contested and narrowly won election, the Popular Democratic Party's candidate, Alejandro García Padilla, ousted Republican Governor Luis Fortuño. It was an interesting (and for many, surprising) result, especially considering that Fortuño, a strong advocate for statehood, seemingly shared a common political vision with those Puerto Ricans who voted in this year's referendum (see #5 above). Padilla, on the other hand, favors self-determination through maintaining a commonwealth status but with greater sovereignty.

What does this mean for tourism? Much as Padilla's party, I'd say it's pretty much status quo: Puerto Rico will continue to be a warm, welcoming, and wonderful destination in 2013 and beyond.

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