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

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, An­bal Acevedo Vil¡, 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 Vil¡‘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 Garc­a 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 crªpes, 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
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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