A distinct culture and golf await visitors to Ponce

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PONCE, Puerto Rico -- There is a saying in Puerto Ricos second-largest city: Ponce es Ponce. Simply put, it translates as Ponce is Ponce, an expression of residents pride in their citys uniqueness.

Now, with a new golf course, the possibility of more flights and expansion at a major resort, Ponce is eyeing a greater image with the traveling public.

Ponce is a virgin in terms of tourism, said Gunther Mainka, general manager of the Hilton Ponce & Casino, which opened the regions first golf course and will add 100 new rooms.

The Fox Delicias, a lovely old movie theater, will be reborn as the 29-room Hotel Fox Delicias  this summer, with double rates from $75 per night.

The 60-room Hotel Ponce Plaza will open 160 new rooms by May 2006, according to Vangie Rivera, Ponces director of culture and tourism. 

The [new hotel] rooms are opening because of demand, said Marisaida Morales, a spokeswoman for the city government. Tourism keeps growing; we have never had a decrease in visitors. We currently receive 14,000 visitors monthly.

Ponce hopes for additional airlift into Mercedita airport. Although Cape Air has service between Ponce, San Juan and the U.S. Virgin Islands, officials are in talks with Continental Airlines for nonstop U.S. service.

A $4.9 million airport renovation program now under way includes runway repaving.

Ponce, known as La Perla del Sur (the Pearl of the South) and the Ciudad Senorial (the Noble City), was founded in 1692 and named after Juan Ponce de Leon, Puerto Ricos first governor.

However, Ponce is not a smaller version of San Juan. For years, it was a two-day trip between the two cities, reduced today to a 90-minute drive.

Ponce developed its own culture and traditions. It served as the capital of Puerto Ricos southern region until Spain ceded the island to the U.S. in 1898.

With a population of nearly 200,00, it is noticeably smaller than San Juan but equally historic. Its streets are lined with colonial, Creole and art deco architecture.

A landmark and attraction in Ponce is the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadelupe in the town's main square.The citys heart is Plaza de las Delicias, a tree-shaded square boasting two landmarks: the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadelupe and the Parque de Bombas, a black-and red-striped 1882 wooden firehouse that now serves as a small museum with antique firefighting equipment.

Horse-drawn buggies ply the streets from Thursdays through Sundays. Trolleys offer free transportation around the historic city center.

Among Ponces museums is the Museo de Arte de Ponce, designed by Edward Durell Stone and containing more than 3,000 pieces from the 14th to the 20th centuries, ranging from Italian Baroque to contemporary Latin American works.

Other museums include the Museo de la Arquitectura Poncena (Ponce Museum of Architecture), Museo de la Historia de Ponce (Ponce Museum of History) and Museo de la Musica Puertorriquena (Museum of Puerto Rican Music).

For an overview of the seafront city, its best to head for the hills -- El Vigia, to be exact. Here, atop a hill where guards once stood watch for attacking ships, visitors can ascend (by elevator) La Cruz del Vigia, a 100-foot, cross-shaped tower offering panoramic views.

Nearby is the Seralles Castle, a Spanish revival mansion built in the 1930s by the Seralles family, who dominated the local rum and sugar trade and founded brands including Don Q rum. Today, it is open for guided tours.

Another landmark is, perhaps, the hippest hotel agents will never book: the El Ponce InterContinental. When it opened in 1960, its mod architectural style welcomed glamorous guests like Celia Cruz and Harry Belafonte. The property closed in 1975 and has not operated as a hotel since; numerous proposals to restore it have not come to fruition.

Luckily, there are good hotels to fill in where El Ponce left off. These include the 148-room Hilton Ponce & Casino, the 116-room Holiday Inn Ponce & Tropical Casino, the 120-room Ponce Inn, the 75-room El Tuque and the 75-room Melia, which is adding a small courtyard pool.

La Guancha is Ponces boardwalk, the port district that once bustled with trade and today bustles with locals and visitors on weekends, sampling seafood and outdoor concerts.

Water lovers should head for Caja de Muertos, an island off Ponces coast with snorkeling and an 1887 lighthouse.

Puerto Ricos pre-Hispanic heritage can be seen at the Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center outside the city. Tibes, the site of the oldest cemetery discovered in the Antilles, dates to 400 B.C. and has ancient ball fields and a re-created Taino Indian village. 

Numerous annual events highlight Ponces heritage, including Carnaval, the pre-Lenten celebration where participants wear handmade masks, and Semana de la Danza in mid-May, which commemorates the danza, a ballroom dance created at the turn of the 19th century.

The citys Tourism Fair is held in April.

For information, call the Ponce Tourism Office at (787) 841-8160, visit www.ponceweb.org or the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. at www.gotopuertorico.com.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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