I’ve been having a love affair with Puerto Rico for at least 20 years and if you count my childhood friend’s stories about her fatherland it’s a lot longer than that. First and foremost, the most attractive quality about this Caribbean Island is its people. Puerto Ricans are kind, helpful and so proud and honored to share their beautiful home with visitors. I’ve been lucky enough to visit many of this island’s great attractions over my various visits. Here’s my list of what I saw, did, and more importantly, what I devoured during my July 2016 vacation.
Ritz Carlton Carolina, PR
No, I’m not made of money but of course that’s what you think of when you think of the Ritz, luckily United Vacations made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. The Ritz Carlton is beautiful property with a luxurious pool area and the beach is well maintained. The artwork throughout the hotel is gorgeous, especially the wonderful piece that’s behind the concierge’s desk. I love entering the hotel and seeing such a wonderful piece of art, it really makes a statement!
The guest rooms are very nicely appointed with large bathrooms. This hotel has an attentive staff and wonderful restaurants, I dined in all the restaurants but the two standouts are the BLT Steakhouse 5/5 stars and IL Mulino New York 4.5/5 stars. Food is expensive in Puerto Rico, much more than downtown Chicago, but that’s consistent for other islands I’ve visited in the Caribbean. The only negative I’d say about this hotel is the lounge chairs in the pool and beach area, I expected the heavy teak lounge chairs more common at five star resorts by the pool. While the metal and plastic strapped chairs at the pool had cushions, but this didn’t detract from my visit, it’s just something I think this luxurious property could upgrade. The other improvement I’d recommend is the exterior area that runs perpendicular to the Lobby Lounge, I think this outside patio could use new seating, the white tubular contemporary chairs and tables aren’t very inviting and while staying on property for a week I only saw the area occupied twice. The biggest reason why no one is utilizing this patio is there are no umbrellas, and the stark furniture made it cold and uninviting. I think furnishings that match the furniture on the veranda right outside the Lobby Lounge would be much more appealing and inviting for visitors. Overall, I’d give the hotel a 4.5/5 star rating. Either way, I get to check off staying at a Ritz-Carlton on my bucket list and I’ll be back!
Old San Juan—Viejo San Juan
I’ve visited the old walled city on numerous occasions. I’ve walked the walls of Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a world heritage site, and this is an excellent spot to take a photo of Bay of San Juan. Afterwards, we strolled Caleta de San Juan that will take you to the massive wooden San Juan gates, my girls were thrilled to stop for another photo opportunity!
We shopped our way along Calle de Cristo and then stopped in the Hotel El Convento for a drink. Hotel El Convento is across the street from the San Juan Cathedral that was built in 1521 and adjacent to the Plaza of nuns. This building originally housed the first Carmelite Convent in the Americas and nuns lived there for 252 years, until 1903. Between 1913 and 1953 it was a retail store, a dance hall and even a flophouse. It became a parking lot for garbage trucks and was slated for bulldozing until in 1959 Robert Woolworth purchased the property from the Archdiocese of San Juan and transformed it into the deluxe hotel name El Convento. Stop by the bar and have a Chi-Chi with one of the nicest bartenders in San Juan.
Our wonderful bartender recommended several local restaurants for dinner so we walked to El Jibavito. We started with Sangria and chicken empanadas that were delicious. My daughters and husband had the Camarones Al Ajillo (shrimp in garlic sauce) and I had the Pollo Al Ajillo (chicken in garlic sauce) both dishes had this fabulous garlic sauce with sweet onions and green peppers, delicious! I had rice and beans and tostones. For dessert I had the coconut flan. This restaurant has excellent food and I highly recommend that you check it out if you visit San Juan. $$
Cats of Puerto Rico
Okay, okay I know I’m a crazy cat lady but after the wonderful dinner I had I felt like I wanted to crawl up on the roof of the car alongside this guy for a siesta! I must say the cats sleeping wherever they liked in Old San Juan was reminiscent of home, but these felines are as friendly and accomodating as any other residents of the island.
The second group of cats I encountered was at El Yunque rainforest where a feisty group of felines had taken up residence in the parking lot and none of them were afraid to catch and devour lizard’s whole. Hey, a rainforest cat has got to do what a rainforest cat was meant to do! MEOW!
El Yunque Rainforest
El Yunque is the only rainforest in the U.S. National Park system and if you visit Puerto Rico this is a must see and it’s free. Start at the visitor’s center to get souvenirs and determine what sort of trail you’re interested in hiking because there are various difficulty levels.
Stop along the highway inside the park at La Coca Falls and snap a photo before heading to Yokahu Tower observation point where you get an excellent view of the lush vegetation and the Atlantic Ocean. My girls hiked La Mina all the way down and took a dip in the falls. There are places to purchase drinking water and snacks in the park but I wouldn’t eat inside the park unless you just want a quick snack. I’d wait for food because when you exit the park it’s a short jaunt to the wonderful Luquillo Beach.
Luquillo beach’s kiosks are famous for their Puerto Rican delicacies. If you want to eat like a local this is another place to do it, you can get anything from chapin, a local fish, to stuffed mofongo to a three-course meal. We stopped at La Parrilla where we had a wonderful seafood luncheon. My husband and I had the Langosta Fresca La Parrilla, lobster with stuffing and my girls had shrimp. For an appetizer try the lobster empanadas, they are to die for and would make an excellent snack to take away to the beach with you. Make sure you have sunscreen and a passion fruit mojito too! $$$
El Nuevo Acuario, Carolina, PR
Speaking of great local restaurants we went to Carolina and dined at El Nuevo Acuario. Don’t let the location or buildings sideline you from this culinary adventure, Chef Leo will make you the BEST ceviche you’ve ever had. I’m not exaggerating, I’ve eaten all over the world and this was the best ceviche bar none! The presentation was wonderful and every dish was delicious. We ate at a couple of five star restaurants during our stay in Puerto Rico and our girls said that El Nuevo Acuario was their favorite! The drinks were wonderful, I had a guava mojito, superb. We had lobster with a spicy sauce and my husband had the red snapper, it was fresh and so pretty to look at you didn’t want to disturb the plate. Also, we had an awesome taxi driver, Manuel, who was nice enough to come back for us after dinner. Talk about customer service! $$$$
One of the most wonderful things about going back to a place you’ve visited often is discovering something new. Since I’m working on a book about a college student who’s also a renowned street artist every place I visit I look for street art and it’s impact on the community. The heroine in TELL ME SOMETHING REAL, Kami Rosario-Dawson happens to be part Puerto Rican and she grew up traveling back and forth between St. Louis and San Juan.
San Juan is renowned for its artists and Santurce is the district/barrios where art is happening. Santurce is the most densely populated districts on the island and a cultural hot spot for music, cuisine, fashion, hotels, tech, film and startups. The wonderful Museo De Arte De Puerto Rico has this sculpture that welcomes visitors and the area. The façade of the museum is the former hospital with graceful columns at the entrance. The museum has a wonderful sculpture garden, a fine collection of prints and traces the history of Puerto Rican art from Jose Campeche to the present.
Santurce is awash with well-preserved architecture, street art, and graffiti. The area is also home to some of the most unique Spanish design. The neighborhood went through many transitions over its long history, after September 11th the banking industry suffered an economic decline but since 2009 Santurce has experienced a cosmopolitan revival. There are many beautiful buildings just waiting to be brought back to life. I walked the streets during rush hour and it’s a high traffic area at that time of day but it’s worth your patience to explore this unique neighborhood. Art adorns not only the sides of buildings but even electrical boxes like this one. This is a must see area if you are an art and architecture lover and it instantly became part of Kami’s story. I imagined her walking the streets of Santurce and maybe it’s the first place Kami encountered a street artist or where she painted her first mural. So now I’m wondering if I get to write this vacation off? LOL!
Puerto Rico is full of kind, pleasant, and warm people. It’s the kind of place where you can have inspirational adventures. Add Puerto Rico to your must visit list!