San Juan, Puerto Rico: Exotic and Surprising Get-Away
by Cathy H. Burroughs, journeyPod’s Adventure and Travel Blogger
Home to Marc Anthony, Benicio del Toro, Zoey Saldana & Joaquin Phoenix, San Juan, Puerto Rico has many surprises in store for you. With the tropical exotic-ness of the Caribbean, combined with 16th and 17th century European brilliance, San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital is a city resplendent with original architecture and a fortressed multi-colored cityscape of breath-taking beauty. Harkening back to Columbus’s second journey to the New World, San Juan is the oldest European city under U.S. jurisdiction and the 2nd largest sea port in North America. On one side of San Juan, find lovely beaches, gentle sea and ocean waters, resort life with lively casinos; and to the other, uncover the mysteries of the walled Old City with its heart-stopping views atop a 6-level fortress, 140 feet above the sea on a rocky promontory, and its more than 400 restored Spanish colonial buildings – all rarely found on this continent.
It is no wonder Spain appropriated this fair city and port, pouring its riches into procuring and protecting her resources and invaluable sea portal to the rest of their territories and the New World – to no avail. San Juan, the largest cruise port in the world, and home to America’s favorite rum Bacardi, also boasts North America’s only rainforest. All this set against the backdrop of wonderful restaurants, nightlife and casinos, and a rich cultural landscape matched by the warmth and welcomeness of its inhabitants – and all without need of a passport. What’s not to like?
Discovery #1: Hotel La Playa – A gem worthy of discovery
Ten years ago I found myself in San Juan just back from a cruise in search of affordable accommodation. As I threaded my way through the dark to the furthest point on the beach, I discovered an unlikely and off beat small hotel where you could sit all night in the bar/restaurant on water’s edge while the waves crashed at your feet, feasting on an ocean view that went on forever: Hotel La Playa.
Nearly a decade later, I returned in search of that same locale only to find Hotel La Playa’s present incarnation exceeding all expectations. Under the sophisticated and inspired redesign by relatively new owner Alberto Perez, Hotel La Playa has been transformed from a funky and welcoming inexpensive place to hang your hat to a posh and elegant, still affordable, luxurious boutique oasis in the already Utopian beach of Isla Verde.
Intimate, friendly and with only 15 rooms – each one different, subtle, comfortable, and often featuring original art, this hotel is the closest you can get to the ocean, without actually being in it with full blown beach access just steps away on either side. Ask for one of the three ocean view rooms with King beds, sitting areas and lovely appointments. Its deck and restaurant/bar alight beginning at dusk is certainly one of the island’s most romantic night spots.
With a menu that boasts fresh takes on authentic Puerto Rican fare, to contemporary salads, appetizers and a 70 bottle wine selection, La Playita, the hotel’s appealing bar/restaurant is the perfect spot for a wedding, reception, birthday, rehearsal dinner or anniversary. Don’t miss their famous burger lunch special – a great deal. And try the Coco Frio drinks – whole coconuts with or without alcohol.
With landscaping evocative of its neighboring rainforest, and most rooms featuring water views, this intimate, charming and understated venue is most definitely one of San Juan’s lesser known gems. Check out our Hotel La Playa video!
Discovery #2: Al Dente – Who would have thought Italian food in San Juan?
Everywhere I asked, “What’s your favorite restaurant in San Juan?” Two words were repeated over and over: Al Dente. Italian food in Puerto Rico? You betcha. Founded 23 years ago, Al Dente features a truly delicious menu of affordable Italian food and 200 plus delightful international wines (there are monthly wine tastings and other events), as well as a panoply of home-made desserts.
One sublime evening under the watchful eye of owner and food connoisseur Giancarlo Amenta, we enjoyed the fruits of this scrumptious menu which has attracted three of Taste Magazine’s Chef’s Hat awards. The delightful and affable staff encouraged us to try excruciatingly yummy appetizers of potato, leek and bacon soup coupled with the Malzane Imbottite sensual eggplant rolls in a punchy marinara sauce.
Following the entrée of favorites – the sweet and savory Pumpkin Ravioli and the visually compelling Mediterranean Chicken, were the desserts. A pecan tart that will long linger on my tongue for sheer buttery resonance and the most unique tiramisu I’ve sampled: a Christmas version made with pannettone with texture both smooth and alluring. The ambiance is enhanced by the original art of the owner’s wife, the accomplished painter Margie Alcaraz whose primary colors and abstracted dream visions of San Juan houses smiled down on us from the equally engaging decor of Al Dente.
We liked it so much we had lunch there the next day. By the way, we hear the Escargot Spaghetti is to die for. During high season and when the cruise ships are in port, reservations are recommended.
Discovery #3: A Segway Adventure Tour of Old San Juan
What more exhilarating way to see Old San Juan but upon this odd solo erect scooter – a Segway Tour adventure? As we mastered the nuances of navigation and the nooks and crannies of Old San Juan, we zipped up cobbled adoquine slopes, and dashed down blue stone bricked byways.
While we maneuvered precarious hair-pin turns, fearless, knowledgeable and erudite owner/guide Jose Alvarez entertained us with mesmerizing details of history fraught with conflict and little known insider info. As we buoyantly flew up and down the seven square blocks of Old San Juan, we soaked up more than 28 vistas: plazas, fountains, parks, cathedrals, forts, dramatic views and more, celebrating 500 years of colonial history.
Rapt at the exquisite monument of Queen Isabella; Speechless at the expanse of killing fields converted to golf course playground in the early 20th century by US Navy against a panoramic overhang – an ocean view right out of a movie. With special permitted access to the historic fort, we bobbed single file down palm-lined boulevards that once welcomed Ponce De Leon on his first assignment as governor and commander in the New World, and possible search for eternal youth. We witnessed the heart-breaking wall drawings of ships in the fort’s dungeon drawn by one poor Spanish sailor dreaming of impossible rescue.
Yes, there is a free and bumpy trolley, a $.50 ferry trip across the bay to a nearly free (but for two taxi rides) Bacardi tour, a $.75 bus ride to the Old City BUT the Segway Tour – either the 45 minute or two hour version is unforgettable, exhilarating, thrilling, informative and incredibly fun – a not to miss if you get to San Juan. You may not want to take a walking tour again. Please tell Jose, we sent you. Check out our Segway Tour video!
In addition to the Segway Tour, don’t miss Teatro Tapia, also in the Old City, the recently completed Museum of Contemporary Art, and, nearby, El Yunque, North America’s only rainforest, as your schedule allows.
September and May (if you got as lucky as we did and not only averted hurricanes, but actually met with perfect tropical weather) is a wonderful time to visit – the off season – where you often have the place to yourself and can often negotiate wonderful deals.