Ola Lola’s Garden Bar

While researching what/where exactly Shack’s Beach was, I came across some old blog posts by a couple from Michigan who’d made the trip down to this exact same area about 5 or 6 years ago.  They had several informative blog posts about the beach, the Blue Hole, eating Mofongo, and falling in love with a little bar in the middle of nowhere near the beach, called Ola Lola’s.  But there were only a few entries about their trip, then a gap.  One of the last posts said that they were moving their blog to a new home, because they had bought Ola Lola’s from the original owner and were going to move from Michigan to start a new life on the beach in Puerto Rico.

So that right there is enough to make them heroes, right?  Well, they kept on blogging about owning a bar, and also becoming a part of the community down here by Playa Shacks.  The blog showed what a great place this part of the world is, and the Flickr account was full of amazing photos of Kite Surfing, Horses, Dives and Snorkeling trips.  Just the sort of thing you hope to find when trying to decide to visit a place for the first time.  Without really doing it on purpose, the work of this couple at Ola Lola’s had done what every Chamber of Commerce hopes for, enticed some people to come from far away and spend some time in their community.

So when we pulled in on Saturday night, we drove right past Ola Lola’s on the way to the house.  After a long day of travelling, we needed some food and some drinks.  Where better to start?  Now, the only concern with kinda having cyber stalked somebody without knowing a lot about them personally is what they’re going to be like in person.  When we got there, the bartender came out and said hello, and the first thing out of Beth’s mouth was, “You’re our hero.”  Well, far from being freaked out, a big warm smile spread across his face, and he said “Well, I’ve never been anybody’s hero before, my name’s John.” as he extended his hand.  I introduced myself and explained how we’d found this place, and their blog, and he was genuinely pleased.  He asked where we were staying, and I told him, “The pink house with the pool.” “Oh sure, Ted and Sherry’s place.  That’s great.” 

Soon his wife Elaine came by and he explained how we’d come to find them, and she too was genuinely welcoming to us.  She took our orders and learned all of our names, including the boys.  It was as if, in 10 minutes, we’d been welcomed in as a part of the community.  Even though we’d travelled 7 hours to get there, the fact that we’d taken the time to learn about this place and them was enough for them to return to favor and find out a little about us.  There’s nothing to make you feel better at the end of a long day of travel than the friendliness of strangers like that.

We spent that first night, having a great meal, and wonderful drinks and John gave us all kinds of information about things to see, where to eat, even where to get the fresh fish and how to expect to buy it.  That first night, he even asked me if I might be interested in a discovery dive, about a 40 minute dive to introduce you to SCUBA that you don’t need to be certified for.  I wasn’t really up for it then, but he said he had a guy if I did get interested.

We were back at the bar again on Monday night, and there was no need for introductions this time, they’d remembered all of our names.  This time, I’d spent 2 days in the snorkeling in the beautiful waters off Shack’s Beach not believing all the beauty that was down there.  So this time, when John brought up the discovery dive, I said I might be interested, and he walked me to the bar and introduced me to Darryl.  With a couple of drinks in me and the need to make an immediate decision about if I wanted to do this, I agreed.  We’d do a dive on Thursday at noon.  John mentioned then that he thought I might be going with his son Jason as well, who was due in the next day. 

The dive story will follow here later, but when I came out of the water with Jason, there was John waiting to hear all about it.  He was almost as excited as the two of us that we’d seen a manatee on our very first dive.  From there on out when he saw me, I was introduced as the guy who’d seen the manatee.  Something that was incredibly rare around these parts.

Our last night here, we spent at Ola Lola’s again.  It was just a good capper to a last good day of what was a great vacation.  We got hugs from Elaine and hearty handshakes from John and were encouraged to not be strangers.  I have no idea if I’ll ever see them again, but I know for sure that there are very few people who would be considered strangers to them.

More Pictures from Ola Lola’s

The Trip Begins

First thing we had to do was get to Puerto Rico. Neither of our boys had ever flown, except when Auggie was a little tiny baby, and that was a bit of a nightmare. The bonus was that both boys were totally jazzed about flying on a plane. Both were totally cool through both legs of the journey and couldn’t have handled it better.

Arriving in Puerto Rico, there’s one thing that either I hadn’t fully processed, or that was under represented in the stuff I read. This is a Spanish speaking island. Yes, many people also speak English, but certainly not everybody, and almost none of the signs are in English. Beth right away says, I wish we’d been more serious about learning some Spanish. Ah well, we just put our shoulder into it and headed off, picked up a rental car and got rolling, thanks to the good coverage of AT&T and the heaven sent GPS of the iPhone.

Our travelling companions had been talking to somebody during the layover in Charlotte and mentioned that we were headed to Puerto Rico. “Oh, they drive crazy down there, nothing like here in the states, be careful.” We laughed about that, at least until we started driving. Because we were trying to avoid some traffic, we started off detouring through some San Juan surface streets, and it became immediately apparent that we were in a foreign land. Thank god for the hours I’ve spent playing Need For Speed, Colin McRae Rally, and GT Racing. Because I immediately needed all of it. Drivers don’t so much stop at side streets as use their cars to menace you into letting them out. Drivers will suddenly swerve or slow down without reason or warning. You’ll see cars here that you haven’t seen on the road in the states in 20 years. I saw not one but two Datsun B210’s. And it’s not like these have been kept in some kind of vintage auto collection, they’ve been driven and crashed a lot.

The paradise of Shack’s Beach was advertised as being 90 minutes from the airport, but really, with the drivers we saw, I don’t think you could make it in less than 2 hours. If it’s offered by your car rental company, I highly recommend getting the toll pass. Waiting to pay the exact tolls at the booths seemed to stack up cars 10 deep every time. By getting the electronic pass, you could jump past 40 or 50 of these potential maniacs in one fell swoop. The driving is better on the 2 lane highways of the country, just because there’s fewer places for people to come at you from, but if you’re driven crazy by people going slow in the left lane so you have to pass on the right, chomp some valium before getting behind the wheel.

Once off the main roads, the other thing of note is that some of these streets are narrow. We didn’t come across any gravel roads or anything like that, but it was not uncommon to encounter roads that were only a lane and half wide or less. Combine this with the unpredictability of the oncoming drivers, and you can see how that can cause some tension. Pulling up to the house at the end was probably less climatic than it should have been, just because I was glad to be off the road, and the place looked every bit as advertised.

We got unpacked, and decided our first stop was going to be at Ola Lola’s. One of the thing that finally sealed the deal of us coming to Shack’s Beach.

Puerto Rico

So we decided to take our first big family trip, and wanted to go to the ocean.  After looking at a variety of places, we ended up choosing Puerto Rico.  No passports, reasonable airfare, and lodging is cheap in the summer because it’s the off season.  Once the location was decided, I had to go to work looking for a place to stay.  We were headed down with another couple and their two boys.  I headed to Home Away to find the right place.  Knowing almost nothing about Puerto Rico, it also started my education about the island.

The eastern side is much more developed for tourists.  It’s closer to San Juan, and there a number of very large resorts that we could try.  But none of them really spoke to us.  Next up was the west coast, near Rincon.  This area is known for the bigger waves and is loved by surfers around the world.  These places were looking better.  Houses on the beach with pools, but I was having trouble finding any with open dates for our vacation.  Finally, there was this listing for a cool looking little place on Shack’s Beach.  It had 3 bedrooms with a pool, and said it was 30 meters from the beach.  Problem was, the map didn’t really show that.

I contacted the owner and found that the area where this house is doesn’t really exist to Google Maps.  Located in the farthest northwest corner of the island, the house is in a little collection of about 20 houses, nestled at the bottom of the cliff to the north of the small town of San Antonio, and about halfway between the larger towns of Isabela and Aguadilla.  The owner sent us some information about the place, and I was able to pinpoint it by finding the location of the nearby Villa Montana resort.
View Larger Map

The biggest draw for this little spot of paradise is a beach called Playa Shacks.  A pretty well kept secret, it is home to a beautiful coral reef about 100 meters offshore, with a big opening in the middle of it called the Blue Hole.  After a finding bits and pieces of additional information, we committed to renting the little pink house with the pool, and hoped.

What follows is the story of having our vacation wishes fulfilled, and then some.

Shack's Beach
Shack's Beach and the Blue Hole