The Komisar Scoop Reports & Analysis by Investigative Journalist Lucy Komisar

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Tax Activists: Big Business Must Pay Its Fair Share

Filed under: Corporate Abuses,Scoops,tax evasion — Lucy Komisar @ 9:42 am

By Lucy Komisar,
Pacific News Service – April 12, 2005

A new global movement is tracking the increasing number of offshore tax shelters and pressuring governments to make multinationals pay up.

As Americans fret over their personal income taxes, there is a movement afoot to reduce the tax burden on ordinary people by getting corporations and wealthy individuals to pay their fair share.

Concern over Social Security has put the problem into relief. In 1984, Congress raised payroll taxes significantly on workers to expand the Social Security trust fund to assure funding for when the baby boom generation retires. Instead of those receipts being put in a lock-box, they were used to offset the federal deficit, replacing lost tax revenues. Now there’s a demand to re-engineer Social Security and cut back benefits or raise taxes on workers.

That’s not needed. The government just has to collect taxes from big corporations doing business in the United States, and from the mega-rich who benefit from living in the United States. Both use fancy foot-work accounting to move assets to tax havens.

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Monday, April 4, 2005

Bringing Business Back Ashore: Buenos Aires issues world’s first ban on offshore shell companies

Filed under: offshore,Scoops,tax evasion,World — Tags: — Lucy Komisar @ 9:34 am

By Lucy Komisar,
CorpWatch, April 4, 2005

In December of 2004, there was a horrific fire in a Buenos Aires disco called the Cromagnon Republic. Three rock fans shot off flares that set fire to the ceiling and engulfed the overcrowded discotheque in flames and smoke. In the rush to get out, 200 people were killed and 700 injured, most from trampling and smoke inhalation. The main entrance had been wired shut, and some of the emergency exits were locked, blocking escape.

In the days that followed, thousands of the victims’ parents and friends marched in the streets and demanded justice. A judge started proceedings for manslaughter and froze $20 million belonging to the “owner,” Omar Chaban. However, investigators soon discovered that Chaban appeared in no official disco documents; he was just the “administrator.”

The legal owners of the property and the disco company were offshore shell corporations registered in the tax haven of Uruguay, the neighboring country. The listed “owner” of the enterprise was a Uruguayan “straw man” in his 70s who had no money.

The tragedy gave political space to a deceptively unassuming lawyer named Ricardo Nissen, Inspector General of Justice for Buenos Aires, who is committed to fighting the system of tax haven shell companies that is the underbelly of illegal global finance.

He told CorpWatch, “We think the owner of the discotheque is a single owner who divided it into offshore companies.” In response, Nissen has taken a step that is the first of its kind, anywhere in the world. Six weeks after the deadly fire, he banned offshore shell companies from doing business in the capital district of Buenos Aires.

Ricardo NissenThe Inspector General’s directives, issued in February and March, build on two resolutions he issued in 2003 and ban offshore companies that cannot prove they have real business activity in their places of registration. The new rules apply only to the capital district of Buenos Aires, the sphere of Nissen’s authority.

Ricardo Nissen, photo by Lucy Komisar

“After the tragedy of Cromagnon,” Nissen says, “It seemed that the legislation had to become stronger.”

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Friday, April 1, 2005

Sailing the Caribbean on the luxury yacht Sea Cloud II

Filed under: Travel — Lucy Komisar @ 5:54 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Putting up the Sea Cloud’s sails, photo Lucy Komisar.

It’s a shimmering sunny morning in the Caribbean, a night’s voyage out of Antigua, and we’re lounging on the Lido deck of the elegant Sea Cloud II. First Mate Hendrik Carlsson is explaining how to set sails and navigate a square rigger. “Tall ships have square sales and are therefore called square riggers.” We’ve been given diagrams and lists of the 24 sails so we can follow the drill as agile crewmen sprint up high poles. The real sailors among the guests and even neophytes love it!

Then the ship sets a course for Dominica and a guided rowboat tour on the mysterious, lushly verdant Indian River.

A journey on the Sea Cloud II is unforgettable! I sailed on the original Sea Cloud seven years ago. That is the famous 360-foot, four-masted barque built in 1931 for cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post by her second husband, Wall Street mogul E. F. Hutton.

The Sea Cloud, photo Lucy Komisar.

This sister ship, also a stunner, was constructed in 2001 by a German company and faithfully copies the original style, with dark mahogany, rosewood and teak interiors and tasteful, modish cabin furnishings. There’s just a bit more room in the public spaces –four decks and dining room and an extra indoor lounge, designed to hold 94 passengers in 47 cabins.

It’s not a private yacht, but there’s a sense of intimacy on the Sea Cloud II. No feeling of being in a giant floating hotel. Passengers and crew are few enough so you get at least a nodding acquaintance with everyone. Couples and singles mix easily. And the crew takes scrupulous good care of everyone, from the bartender on deck remembering your drink to meticulous attention to the details of fine dining.

Eating on deck, photo Lucy Komisar.

The welcome dinner was a sumptuous feast with smoked trout in aspic and white tomato mousse, lobster Cappuccino, passion fruit sorbet (to clear the palate), then roast beef on truffled cream of Savoy cabbage and potato pancake, and for the sweet, chocolate mille-feuille with mango ragout. Plus cheese for the European taste. And with dinner, South African Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon and Argentine Malbec.

All meals were served buffet style. Lunches were usually taken on deck and featured such dishes as fresh fish or glazed duck and crepe suzettes. One night there was an outdoor surf and turf barbecue with tuna, swordfish, mussels and prawns as well as steak, lamb, and crispy suckling pig.

Crew sings sea shanties, photo Lucy Komisar.

Evenings, people gathered on deck, ranged around the piano bar or gazing over the rail to the sea. One night, the crew in whites regaled us with sea shanties.

Could we move after all that food? Well, yes, and daytime outings tempted even the normally sedentary. For others there was always the fitness room, with exercise machines and sauna. Or just lazing in a deck chair with a book.

I loved the daily printed programs that we found on our beds on return from dinner, each giving a bit of the natural and political history of the place we would visit, as well as exact arrival and sailing times and ship-board events. The mood on board is casual and relaxed, even in the midst of luxury, and the nature of the trip draws people of  interest and intelligence. This is not for people whose idea of a sea voyage is to sit inside a shipboard casino.

Sea Cloud Cruises President Christer Mörn swims off the boat, photo Lucy Komisar

The first visit was to Dominica. Interesting that the briefing paper said, “Like in St Lucia, they lost the 1999 “Banana War” between their supporters in the UK and the big US fruit interests and so no longer get the guaranteed prices which they previously enjoyed as a member of the British Commonwealth.”  Then: “The slow pace of development has helped maintain local ownership of the tourist sector, unlike the majority of West Indian islands where the majority of the hotels are foreign-owned and their profits leave the region.” I found the briefings refreshingly frank.

Sea Cloud Cruises President Christer Mörn, who normally works in Hamburg, was on board this trip, to check hands-on how the cruise went. An enthusiastic man of the sea in every respect, he was the first into the water when the crew let down the bathing dock after we anchored off Iles de Saintes.

Boat tour on Dominica, photo Lucy Komisar.

Dominica, known as the “nature island,” is a combination of mountainous terrain and lush rainforest. The tour takes small boats up the Indian River to see rare plants and, if you are lucky, a few species of indigenous parrots. After a mile of rowing by young men of the island, we stopped at a jungle bar that plied us with powerful drink! From there to a banana plantation. This is the island of Jean Rhys. I remember reading her novels at the start of the feminist movement, the most famous being “Wide Sargasso Sea,” which she wrote in 1966.

Back on board and sailing for St Lucia. The briefing paper told us that the island had been at various times English and French, which is why this member of the British Commonwealth has residents who speak both English and a French patois. They also lost the banana war! Independence from England came in 1978.

Guide tells about La Soufrière volcano, photo Lucy Komisar.

We approached from the sea rather than from the touristic north, and minivans took us to La Soufrière –the sulfur springs, the world’s only drive-in volcano. Don’t worry, the last eruption was in 1925, but the guide worked up as much drama as he could. Then to the Morne Coubaril Plantation, and finally to Diamond Falls Botanical Gardens, built on a hot spring with a waterfall and mineral baths.

Back on deck, there was an exhibition of knot tying and that night a wine-tasting dinner.

Tourist trekking is fascinating, but we were all ready for some time off to wander and go to the beach. That was on order for Terre de Haut, the Iles des Saintes, just south of Guadeloupe. The tender took us to the main town, Bourg (French for town!) and we dispersed to wander through the square, visit shops, and go on to Pompiere beach. Snorkles and masks had been piled on deck for anyone inclined to investigate the sea life. I did. It was satisfying, if not exceptional.

Beach restaurant at St. Bart’s, photo Larry Bridwell.

Finally, St Bart’s. The capital, Gustavia is named for King Gustav of Sweden. The Swedes got the island in trade for French access to the Swedish warm water port of Goteborg. (Nobody seems to have asked the locals.) When sailing declined (not for tourists, just commercially!), the French came back. Their main occupations were rum smuggling, cattle raising and lobster fishing. Now add high-end tourism. This is big time shopping land with Cartier, Hermes and the like. (Here and on Iles des Saintes, Euros are required.)

The tender dropped us on the island, and we were on our own. My companion and I headed for the beach, which featured a trendy restaurant that virtually screamed “Paris chic.” Not to mention Paris prices. As a joke, the restaurant had set a giant bed on the beach.

I didn’t go shopping there, though some more affluent souls did. I waited for the big market near the dock in St. John’s, Antigua, the last port of call and the end of the voyage. (Best buys: bright shirts and shorts and the wonderful pareios that wrap around bathing suits but can double as scarves.)

My favorite remembrance, however, is a Sea Cloud t-shirt with a white outline of the magical ship on its sea of cotton blue.

Sea Cloud Cruises
32-40 North Dean Street
Englewood, NJ 07631
(888) 732-2568
info@seacloud.com

Booking: Sea Cloud Cruises sells individual passage and also charters the Sea Cloud and the Sea Cloud II to German and American travel operators and to groups such as the Smithsonian Institution, the American Museum of Natural History, college alumni associations and private companies for sails in the Caribbean from November to April and in the Mediterranean from May to October.

Our trip lasted five nights and four days, but most voyages are eight and seven.

Safety: There was a lifeboat drill the first day on board. Whenever we left the Sea Cloud, accompanying staff carried walkie-talkies to talk to the ship. A doctor was on board to deal with seasickness and minor illness or injuries. (I recommend taking ginger pills from the day before departure to ward off seasickness.)

Communications: The ship can make and receive satellite and cell phone calls and faxes, and you can send and receive emails. The island towns had internet cafes for which several of us made bee-lines.

Profit Laundering and Tax Evasion: The Dirty Little Secret of Financial Globalization

Filed under: offshore,Offshore Overviews,Scoops,tax evasion — Tags: — Lucy Komisar @ 9:36 am

By Lucy Komisar
Dissent Magazine, Spring 2005

The debate about cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy is a false one. The issue is not whether transnational corporations and the very rich benefit from tax cuts, but that many of them walk away from all taxes. A General Accounting Office report found that between 1996 and 2000, 61 percent of major American companies paid zero federal taxes. They accomplish this primarily through “profit laundering,” a phrase that ought to be on the lips of every social critic.

Massive profit laundering sucks resources out of the United States and other countries, beggars public programs, and lays waste the social contract on which taxation must be based: that everyone pays a fair amount. It hobbles legislators and officials who want to spend money on social programs but can’t dispute right-wing arguments that “there is no money.” There is no money because it’s been filched from public coffers with the help of the world’s big banks, investment companies, and offshore financial centers. The scam is accomplished via offshore shell companies and bank accounts, and it is happening on a global scale.

Figures on the amount of wealth offshore are hard to come by, as none of the international financial institutions has seen fit to lay out the global picture. In 1999, Merrill Lynch’s “World Wealth Report” estimated that one-third of the wealth of the world’s “high net worth individuals” (as banks like to call them), then $11 trillion, might be held offshore. In 2004, Merrill Lynch revised its wealth figure to $28.8 trillion, but it was no longer estimating how much of that was hidden in tax havens. As the percentage of wealth offshore has been growing, the number would likely be $10 or $12 trillion.

Such an estimate was made by “The Global Wealth Report” for 2003 by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). It estimated the total holdings of cash deposits and listed securities of high-net-worth individuals at $38 trillion and then broke that down by North America-$16.2 trillion, of which less than 10 percent was controlled offshore; Europe-$10.3 trillion of which between 20 percent to 30 percent was controlled offshore; Middle East and Asia-Pacific area-$10.2 trillion, with assets controlled offshore ranging from 10 percent (Japan) to 70 percent (ME); and Latin America-$1.3 trillion, of which more than 50 percent is held offshore.

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London for Businessfolks, Bankers and Book-lovers

Filed under: Travel — Lucy Komisar @ 9:13 am

Where to stay, where to eat

By Lucy Komisar

Hilton Green Park Hotel

Hilton Green Park Hotel.

London has so many moods, so many façades, it could be dozens of different cities. I had recently stayed in the West End theater district and in trendy Kensington. Now I turned to investigate places that appealed to two very different kinds of visitors: business people and intellectuals.

For the first, I chose the Hilton at Green Park, a favorite for business travelers, and Threadneedles’ Bonds Restaurant in the City of London financial center. For the second, I headed for Bloomsbury, site of the British Museum and the University of London, stomping grounds of the famed Bloomsbury literary group, where the Thistle Bloomsbury and the Imperial Hotel offer very different atmospheres.

The Hilton London Green Park in Mayfair is one of those London inventions, a hotel made up of a collection of elegant row houses, with hallways cut through to join them together. Outside you see a row of stylish four-story white clapboard and black brick town houses with wrought iron balconies.

Hilton Green Park lobby.

Hilton Green Park lobby.

Inside, there is the charm of intimate connected rooms, done in modern browns and beiges, with a hint of Britain’s colonial past in the Orient and Africa:  leopardskin fabrics and wood vases with sheaves of bamboo sticks. Shelves hold bowls and flower arrangements with a Far Eastern feel. Narrow stalks are set on a square wood bowl: “I Ching,” someone explained. The public rooms, the dining and lounge spaces, are small and intimate and provide welcome privacy.

Hilton Green Park dining room.

Hilton Green Park dining room.

Perhaps that’s why this hotel is a favorite for businessmen. At breakfast, there were Japanese at one table and Germans and French at the next. The continental breakfast is equally international, including croissants, fresh fruit and my favorite fresh figs.

The Hilton Green Park couldn’t be better located. When a friend invited me out to the trendiest restaurant in town, Langan’s Brasserie, we could stroll to it, just three blocks away. At the end of the quiet Half Moon Street is Green Park, and a five-minute walk takes you to the tube. It’s absolutely central, with Soho to the east and Kensington and Chelsea south and southwest.

Threadneedles lobby.

Threadneedles lobby.

For financial business people however, the place to be is The City, and nowhere better than Threadneedles, the City’s boutique hotel on the street of that name, which opened in 2002. This is bank territory.

The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street is the traditional name for the Bank of England. Built of sturdy grey brick in 1856, the hotel was once the headquarters of the Midland Bank.

The bank’s old grand hall, with its high ceilings and marble pillars, is now a lounge. The furnishings are contemporary browns lit by shaded bank-style lamps. They could fill the reception room of a law office or stock brokerage. In fact, men and women in dark suits who have spent the day in front of computers and ticker tapes wander over after work and occupy the brass and glass bar. If you’re in the business, here’s a place to meet colleagues.

Threadneedles Bonds restaurant.

Threadneedles Bonds restaurant.

It stands to reason that the restaurant would be named Bonds! The dining room is stunning, with long and round tables and low hanging lighting that sparkles off ruby glass vases filled with tall dried flowers. The high ceilings afford plenty of room for the cool abstract paintings.

Bonds presents a delectable bill of fare for people whose palates appear to demand the best that money can buy. The tasting menu, for example, includes scallop with shell fish daube, foie gras with pureed quince and carmelized cream, truffle and artichoke salad, roast wild duck with sour cherries. ($105. Conversions are made at the current £1 = $1.91.)

Threadneedles Bonds restaurant.

Threadneedles Bonds restaurant.

Or choose from “starters” such as crab with avocado and caviar, pheasant boudin with garlic puree, or pumpkin and sage mouse with buffalo mozzarella. ($20 to $31.50) Main courses include venison with black berries and chocolate sauce, braised Charlolais beef with Hermitage and bay leaf sauce, sea bass with caramelized cepe (mushroom) and vanilla cappuccino. ($33 to $91). I tried venison, which was superb.

From pursuit of the dollar (and pound) to pursuits of the mind. Bloomsbury is a very special part of London, connected in history to writers and scholars. It was made famous by Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. It’s also the site of the British Museum, which holds the great London library. And it’s where the University of London sprawls.

Thistle Hotel.

Thistle Hotel.

Fitting right into that history is the Thistle Hotel, an old Victorian building with red bricks and curved windows built in 1898. Then it was called the Kingsley, known as a Temperance Hotel, “in one of the healthiest districts of London” said its brochure of the time. It still has a homey atmosphere, including bedrooms designed with warm-colored print fabrics, though you now can get a “pint” at the bar.

There’s some important intellectual history here and nearby. In the early 1700s, a former pupil and assistant of Sir Christopher Wren (England’s greatest architect, who built Saint Paul’s Cathedral) designed the Parish Church of St. Georges Bloomsbury, which occupies the site next door. And in 1902, the novelist E.M. Forester (“A Room With a View”) stayed at the Kingsley.

Thistle Hotel lobby.

Thistle Hotel lobby.

The lobby is wonderfully British elegant but “comfy,” with overstuffed chairs, potted plants, 19th century paintings, even an old grandfather clock. Just the place to relax after a visit to see the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles at the nearby British Museum. They are now at the center of international controversy.

East Frieze of the Parthenon.

East Frieze of the Parthenon.

Two hundred years ago, Lord Elgin, British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which then occupied Greece, took the friezes from Athens’ Parthenon. The figures were later sold to the British Museum, and the Greek government has been lobbying for their return for more than two decades. A good reason to see them in London soon!

Imperial Hotel.

Imperial Hotel.

The Imperial Hotel overlooking Russell Square Gardens is of a completely different style than the Thistle, a tourist hotel with wifi in the back lobby, a large dining room, and numerous lounge areas, one with potted plants, columns and a marble statue providing a calm spot to gaze out at the gardens. The Emperor Bar also overlooks the square. The tube is a block away.

Imperial Hotel lounge.

Imperial Hotel lounge.

Russell Square is one of those many verdant oasis that Londoners were smart enough to place throughout the city. This one has a café with indoor seating for rainy days and outdoor tables for good weather. Russell Square is an unofficial campus for the University of London, just the other side of the gardens from the hotel. It’s a popular place for all sorts of gatherings. The day I arrived at the Imperial, I peered out the window and discovered demonstrators lining up for the march that followed a meeting of the European Social Forum. Naturally, I snapped a shot!

European Social Forum march.

European Social Forum march.

 

Wherever I was in London, I seemed to be right in the middle of what was happening!

If you go

Hilton Green Park
Half Moon Street
Mayfair
London W1J 7BN

44 (0)207 627-7533 or 629-7522
Fax 44 (0)207 491-8971
Toll-free 800-HILTONS

Bonds
Threadneedles

44 (0)207 657-8080
Fax 44 (0)207 657-8100
resthreadneedles@theetongroup.com

Thistle Bloomsbury
Bloomsbury Way
London WC1A 2SD

44 (0)171 242-5881
fax 44 (0)171 831-0225
toll-free 800-847-4358
Bloomsbury@Thistle.co.uk

Imperial at Russell Square
London WC1B 5BB

40 (0)207 278-7871
Fax 44 (0)207 837-4653
info@imperialhotels.co.uk

Langan’s Brasserie
Stratton Street, Picadilly
London W1

44 (0)207 491-8822

Recommended guide

“Top 10 London,” by Roger Williams
A DK Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guide, $10
Slim, easy to carry, with maps and color and a focus on what to see, where to eat and shop.

Photos by Lucy Komisar
Partheonon frieze by the British Museum

Exotic San Juan: trendy hotels, historic old town, beaches, casinos & sumptuous food.

Filed under: Restaurants,Travel — Lucy Komisar @ 8:20 am

By Lucy Komisar

Puerto Rico Governor Vila at inauguration, photo Lucy Komisar.

How do you know you’ve picked a trendy hotel? In San Juan, it’s where the new governor of Puerto Rico, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, chooses to have his inauguration party! Just my good luck to arrive there on that festive day. Loud speakers drew me to a nearby park where the political movers and shakers of the island had gathered for the swearing-in.

Then people headed for the tall white Caribe Hilton a short walk away. They had picked my hotel!

Vila inauguration crowd, photo Lucy Komisar.

This landmark of the San Juan beachfront would first be the site of private cocktails and some hours later a grand buffet and dance in a collection of connecting ballrooms. Puerto Ricans being laid back and welcoming, my companion and I joined the revelry. OK, I told them I was a visiting journalist and flashed a press pass.

Ladies in elegant dresses mixed in the open-air lobby with the shorts-clad guests, a few airline crews and bright caged parrots, then with their escorts moved into a swirl of Latin music and seafood paella. It was a buffet, so we could engage the guests, and the political conversation was fascinating. These were Democrats, though not exactly working class.

The Hilton pool, photo Lucy Komisar.

Later that night I stepped out on the balcony of my room to gaze at the lit stone remnants of a fortification at the edge of the sea: a bit of old history to end a day of modern history.

The next day, it was time to spend some lazy moments at the pool, an azure, palm-tree studded oasis looking out to the Atlantic.

I regretted not having time for the tennis courts or spa, just for a bit of wandering through the patio, along the quiet private beach and out to the end of a jetty.

San Juan old town, photo Larry Bridwell.

But there were other attractions calling me. What I love most about the city is Old San Juan, the village of narrow streets and surprising gardens and the wonderful mysterious fortress called La Fortaleza set on a cliff looking out on the sea. And it made a very good connection to the party we had just gone to.

It was once the residence of a Puerto Rican governor, Acevedo Vilá’s long-ago predecessor. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to live there now – it might not get cold in San Juan (the winter weather is 80 degrees perfect), but the fortress’s stone walls look like they’d make the interior damp! Perhaps for nostalgia, the government house is also called La Fortaleza.

La Fortaleza, photo Lucy Komisar.

The Caribe Hilton is the closest beach hotel to the old town, but if you want to be in the middle of it, stay at the Sheraton as we did for a few days before checking out the Caribe.

It was past midnight New Years Eve when we arrived, and there was a party going on, in the dining room a scruffy group of musicians on drums, bass and guitar happy making music for guests quaffing champagne and rum and coke and moving dreamily to the Latin beat.

Sheraton dining room, photo Lucy Komisar.

Evy García was there for Tishman Hotels, which owns the Sheraton, to welcome guests at the door and make sure everything ran smoothly. The Sheraton is strategically located. The balcony view from our room looked onto to the docks where cruise ships drop anchor. And inside, you couldn’t miss the casino! But the next day was much too nice to spend inside. We decided to skip the outdoor pool as well and move straight into touring.

After breakfast at the Sheraton’s Spanish style café, we took a five-minute stroll to la Casita (the little house), the tourism information center, to pick up a walking tour map and guide.

U.S. Customs House, photo Larry Bridwell.

Old San Juan is a charmer. It was restored in the early 1970s, so the palaces and colonial houses have regained their old elegance. The intricately carved wood of what is now the U.S. Customs House evokes the Moorish influence of Old Spain.

Just up from la Casita, local residents engage in the “paseo,” the promenade along the royal palms of the Paseo de la Princesa, the walk of the princess. La Princesa, once a prison, how has a gallery of works by local artists.

Music in the plaza near la Casita, photo Lucy Komisar.

In late afternoon, we joined townsfolk gathered at the nearby waterfront Plaza de la Marina for a band concert and community dance.

The old town is full of carved 17th-century gates and churches and statues and pastel row houses with balconies. A full walk around the historic district would take about two hours. Unless you stop for a rum drink at one of the cafés or decide to hang out at the Plaza de Armas across from the City Hall. Or visit any of the 33 art galleries, 12 museums, and 79 shops. Museums of art and history cluster near the Fortaleza.

Ritz Carlton brunch fish table, photo Lucy Komisar.

So sometimes it’s a good idea to relax, and for self-indulgence you can’t beat the sumptuous champagne brunch at the Ritz Carlton San Juan Hotel Spa & Casino in Isla Verde at the eastern end of San Juan’s long oceanfront. The beach at the Caribe Hilton and hotels in the Condado area to its east drew tourists for years. Then a new section of beach was developed, in Isla Verde, spiffier than Condado and home to new sophistication.

Ritz Carlton brunch room, photo Lucy Komisar.

The Ritz stands out here, its cool white walls with brown trim encircling subtle elegance, a casino and spa, and outside the artistically designed pool area, tennis courts, and a smooth beach dotted with palms.

We started the champagne brunch with caviar. And then we went on to a groaning board of oysters and other seafood, made-to-order crêpes, salads, deliciously sauced meats, fish and chicken, and scandalous deserts. The cool room with rattan chairs looked out on trees bordering the pool area.

Ritz Carlton beach, photo Lucy Komisar.

As the champagne flowed, we were glad that just outside there was a pristine beach with chaises and hammocks where one could snooze away the bubbles.

But it’s clear by now that San Juan is not just a beach place to visit in winter; it’s full of history and culture. And it’s both foreign and familiar. People speak Spanish, but of course they also speak English. And the currency is dollars. Hey, this is America.

Hilton terrace, photo Lucy Komisar.

Caribe Hilton
Los Rosales Street
San Geronimo Grounds
San Juan, Puerto Rico 00901
(787) 721 0303 Fax: (787) 725 8849
Toll Free (877) GO-HILTON
reservations.caribe@hilton.com/
For the paella the Governor’s party got, to the Madrid-San Juan Restaurant and Tapas Bar, one of nine hotel eateries.

Sheraton Old San Juan, photo Lucy Komisar.

Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel
100 Brumbaugh Street
San Juan, Puerto Rico 00901
(787) 721-5100 Fax (787) 721-1111
Toll Free (888) 625-5144

The Ritz-Carlton, San Juan Hotel, Spa & Casino
6961 Avenue of the Governors
Isle Verde
Carolina, Puerto Rico 00979
(787) 253-1700 Fax: (787) 253-1111
Toll Free (800) 241-3333

 

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