IF YOU HAPPEN to reach for your sheet one night in your cabina in Rincón, Puerto Rico, you'll know the cold front has arrived. No worries: By the time the big lows that rumble out of the Arctic and fling nor'easters at the whole eastern seaboard hit Puerto Rico, they're feeble, welcome whiffs of free AC. But before you snuggle under your sheet and drift back to sleep, listen close—feel—for the detonations, because cold fronts bring good tidings. Far out in the dark, thundering like a thousand derailing boxcars, is just what you came for, and at dawn, you'll have your proof: Pools Beach submerged, seawater raging up into the dry streambed, and the surf...humongous.
If it's early in your trip, congratulations—you've won the raffle! The swell will last three or four days at least. And now you've got a ton of good options. (As for your surf-swell lotto odds, they're excellent in February, good for March, but dicey after April Fools' Day.) There's surf on the whole north coast of Puerto Rico, from San Juan to the Punta Borinquén corner, and more along the west coast south to Rincón. In fact, the northwest corner of the island is Oahu's North Shore writ small—OK, miniature—but also minus the ego wars and the raging King Kamehameha Highway.
Start by heading to Tres Palmas, less than five minutes by car from Rincón, and the island's biggest wave. A deep-water reef and a thousand-mile stare across the Puerto Rico Trench mean you see the real fist-prints of the storm from here. To the south it's all channel, and an easy, if tense and longish, paddle out to the breakers. But unless you're a badass—and even if you are—beware of Tres Palmas: The sneaker sets are sneakier than you are, and even on a ten-foot day (the minimum for Tres), there'll likely be a 15-foot set with your name on it.
For a base of operations, it's hard to top that cabina in Rincón, the Capital de Surf on the island's west end, which has all the amenities of a small resort town tweaked for its surfista clientele. It's Gringolandia, fer sure, but you can rent anything from a Ted Kaczynski cabin under a palm tree to a villa in the lush hills and be within walking distance of dozens of breaks. Rincón is the most bike- and pedestrian-friendly surf destination I know, and the unofficial capital of the Capital, Calypso Bar and Grill, sits within binocular range of Tres Palmas and boasts a commanding view of The Point, arguably PR's best point break. Restless? Take a quick 300-yard hike from Rincón along the tawny, tide-pool-bejeweled beach up to El Faro, a lighthouse atop a grassy bluff where the whale-watchers gather. From there, it's a quarter-mile or so up a rutted dirt road to Domes, site of a defunct nuclear apparatus and a sliver of beach whose first-rate right point has an inside-bowl section perfect for launching aerials. And don't neglect Spanish Wall, a few steps farther north, or Sandy Beach, just around another small point and anchored by its own pub, the Tamboo Tavern.
Meanwhile, a case for day trips can easily be made. Get up early to beat the gridlock in Aguadilla and drive 30 miles north of Rincón to Wilderness, a series of spacious reef breaks at the foot of the old Ramey military base golf course. With its rugged coast of tall causarina pines, Wildo is lovely. Or venture farther north to the less populous dunes around Jobos, or even remoter spots such as Shacks or Middles. Middles is said to be the best all-around wave on the island, an A-frame barrel on its signature days.
Still can't quite picture it? Allow me: It's the third day of a weeklong swell, and you're at the end of an afternoon session. You've been working your way north as the crowd thinned, moving from the overhead right and left peaks of Dogman's, over the shallow reef at Maria's for some tuck-in tubes, and now at twilight you're shading toward The Point itself with just a handful of surfers still out. The sun is slipping down behind Desecheo, the silhouette of the island looking like Captain Nemo's Nautilus. On shore, the lights of the Calypso are twinkling, music wafting out over the water. You take off on a wave that's tall, razor-thin, backlit, and burnished by the setting sun, thinking it might be your last wave of the day. But then it lines up so sweetly, section after section, that when you kick, spray slightly chilling you with that faintest hint of winter, you think, well, maybe one more. And here comes a guy paddling out, wall-to-wall grin, who says he just arrived from Maine. "Took off in a snowstorm," he says. "Man, am I glad to be here."
Access + Resources
GETTING OUTFITTED: TWA (800-221-2000) flies from New York's JFK to Aguadilla (30 minutes by car from Rincón) for $288; or try TWA from Fort Lauderdale to San Juan (two hours' drive from the west end) for $285. American Airlines offers Miami–San Juan flights for $350. The major U.S. rental-car agencies have outlets at both Puerto Rico airports.
OUTFITTERS: Best to bring your own board, but there are several surf shops in Rincón where you can rent or buy used boards in an emergency. Also, if you stay at the Rincón Surf and Board, they'll rent you one.
WHERE TO STAY: I recommend either Rincón Surf and Board (787-823-0610; home.coqui.net/surfsup/), with suites for $85 per night and dorm-style accommodations for $20 per person, or the Lazy Parrot Inn and Restaurant (787-823-5654). Rates at the Lazy Parrot run $85 for a single, $95 for a double, including a pool. For extended stays or more posh spreads, try Island West Properties (787-823-2323), which lists peak-season rentals (lots are oceanfront) from $553 to $3,675 weekly.