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For today’s Destination of the Week, TPG contributor Melanie Wynne takes us to the Caribbean to a multicultural island boasting wide sandy beaches and tropical rainforests. It is time to take your high school Spanish out for a spin as you explore the city’s powerful Colonial past and the breezy, colorful and elegant cultural scene it offers today. We are heading to San Juan, Puerto Rico!
While there’s currently a tropical storm heading across the Gulf, there’s still a lot of time left in 2013 to visit San Juan, so don’t let it keep you from making plans in the future.
WHAT TO DO
A United States territory with nearly 400 years of Spanish colonial history, San Juan doesn’t require a US passport, but Puerto Rico’s capital still feels like an overseas escape. The atmosphere of this Borinqueño city combines its country’s financial and cultural center, the gently fading presence of a European empire and a Caribbean resort town.
A collection of lush islands and distinct districts curved around a series of bays, lagoons and the Atlantic Ocean, Puerto Rico’s capital is best known as a popular day-trip stop on Caribbean cruises. But if you give yourself a weekend in San Juan (or longer), you’ll find this sleepy, tropical city comes alive after dark, swirling to a salsa beat and cooling off with a rum cocktail.
The most visited part of the city is Old San Juan, a walled-in warren of cobblestone streets paved with distinctive blue-glazed tiles, peppered with fortresses and churches painted in Easter egg pastels. Almost entirely surrounded by water, this area invites you to wander along battlements that skirt the Atlantic and the Bay of San Juan. The best way to get on the laid-back wavelength of this historical quarter – which tends to empty out as afternoon approaches and cruisers return to their ships – is to simply go for a wander.
Built in 1509 by Spanish explorer Ponce de León and his conquistadores as their first major port in the Americas, Old San Juan is bordered by two stone forts, the Castillo de San Cristobal and Castillo San Felipe del Morro. Designed to stave off attacks from British and Dutch marauders seeking treasure-laden galleons, these 16th-century structures have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Other well-preserved highlights of this compact area include the soaring San Juan Cathedral; the opulent Casa Blanca, the former mansion of Ponce de León; the Gothic-style San José Church; and the Dominican Convent (now the Institute of Culture). For a gorgeous view of the sunset at day’s end (especially on Sunday evenings, when musicians perform), head to San Felipe del Morro and claim your spot on the seaside Paseo de la Princesa.
If you get hungry while you’re in Old San Juan, stop into El Jibarito for garlic chicken, baked fish and mofongo, a starchy, garlicky Puerto Rican stew of mashed green plantains, pork and more. If you’re looking for area nightlife, visit a dance club and bar called Nuyorican, which starts to heat up at about 10 pm. With a $5 cover charge and cheap drinks, this hopping place won’t break the bank, but will introduce you to the musical mix of San Juan – bomba, plena and salsa – and to some of the city’s most accomplished dancers.
Just east of Old San Juan, Santurce is the largest and most populated district in town. It’s home to the Plaza Mercado, one of the city’s best spots for local people-watching, with a farmers’ market scene that starts to pick up after 5 pm from Thursday through Saturday; you’ll find about 15 food vendors and several casual restaurants, and as the sun goes down, live music wafts from open bar doors and the salsa dancing scene gets moving.
Nearby, two Santurce art museums (set within a few blocks of each other) tell the cultural history of Puerto Rico: the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, which encompasses religious and secular Puerto Rican artwork from the 17th century through 1990, and stands adjacent to a two-acre sculpture garden with a Koi pond; and just a few blocks away, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico, a two-story series of mixed-media, sculpture, painting and video galleries. Both museums open at 1 pm, so you can make a whole afternoon and evening of the area.
Art Deco architecture can be found throughout the Santurce district, remnants of a style that spread from Miami and Havana in the 1930s and ’40s; what remains in San Juan is often faded and shabby, but some efforts are being made to spruce up and repurpose some of the city’s most distinctive Art Deco buildings.
Santurce also encompasses two of San Juan’s most fashionable areas, Condado and Miramar. Tourist-friendly Condado is the more commercial of the two, with plenty of boutique shopping, restaurants, bars and dance clubs, as well as a few of the city’s most popular beaches, like the eponymous Condado. Some of the Condado area’s best restaurants and bars are on or near the main drag of Ashford Avenue; try the Spanish-style tapas and sangria at Bar Gitano; the juice bar and vegetarian specialties at Pure and Natural; and hit Yerba Buena for a different style of music and dancing every night.
Miramar is one of the city’s best preserved historic residential neighborhoods, with ornate wooden houses and Spanish courtyards; it’s worth a walk around these quiet streets to get a feel for graceful, upscale living in San Juan. One of the city’s main marinas is here, with many yachts available for full- or half-day charters.
Set just across Condado Lagoon from Miramar, the Isla Grande is home to the Puerto Rico Convention Center, San Juan’s main port, including most of the major cruise ship piers, and a small commuter airport that offers flights to nearby destinations like the island of Vieques. East of Santurce, Isla Verde offers more enticements for visitors, with a gorgeous curve of shoreline and many of the city’s finest beach resorts, just a few miles from the city’s main airport. If you’re looking for a romantic night out at a beachside club or restaurant, this is the area you’ll want to explore.
While in San Juan, consider taking a few unique side trips. Take a cab from your hotel or a 15-minute ferry from Old San Juan to Casa Bacardi Rum Factory, where you can arrange public or private tours and tastings on a 127-acre sugar cane plantation with tropical gardens and a small historical museum. Head 45 minutes east of the city to Fajardo, where you can explore a bioluminescent bay (which owes its magical glow to organisms called dinoflagellates) by boat or kayak at night. An hour southeast of the city, 28,000-acre El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest within the US Forest System, and features waterfalls and a large variety of small creatures found only here.
A little over an hour west of the city, at Arecibo Observatory, you’ll find the world’s largest, most sensitive radio telescope surrounded by a lush forest, as well as “The Beast,” a horizontal, 50-mile-an-hour zip-line that’s so long, you can’t see the finish at the start. Fifteen minutes farther south of Arecibo, the Río Camuy Caves are a network of limestone caves, canyons and sinkholes (one of which contains a small forest, replete with butterflies, birds and a waterfall) formed by the third-largest underground river in the world.
San Juan is served by Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU), located about 5 miles east of San Juan in the city of Carolina, on Isla Verde. Most of the airport is either in need of renovation or perpetually under construction, aside from the small and shiny Terminal A, the hub for JetBlue.
Aside from JetBlue, major airlines that fly in and out of SJU include Air Canada, American (direct to Miami, Dallas and JFK), AirTran, Delta (direct to JFK and Atlanta), Southwest (direct to Baltimore, Orlando, Tampa, Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale), Spirit, United (direct to Houston and Washington Dulles) and US Airways (direct to Philadelphia).
Car rental is a good idea for day trips, but most local neighborhoods are compact and walkable, rendering a car largely unnecessary. If you do choose to rent a car, know that you won’t be able to take it into Old San Juan, and that public parking lots are plentiful but sometimes pricey.
While inexpensive public buses run all over town (except within Old San Juan, which has its own hop-on, hop-off trolley), service can be unreliable, so be prepared for a bit of a wait at stops marked with signs that read PARADA. The Tren Urbano is San Juan’s mostly-elevated train, offering one-way service for 75 cents and traveling through some of the city’s more outlying neighborhoods, including Hato Rey (home to the Roberto Clemente Coliseum) and Río Piedras, the area surrounding the University of Puerto Rico. Cabs are a more efficient but far more expensive option, with zone-mandated fares that range between $8-25 US.
Radisson Ambassador Plaza Hotel & Casino San Juan: Set one block from bustling Condado Beach, this modern 146-room, 87-suite hotel features a casino with 400 slot machines and a wide variety of table games. Rooms have a balcony, flatscreen TV and a coffee maker. The rooftop swimming pool looks out over the Atlantic, as does the Ambassador Club Lounge. You’ll find a small spa and state-of-the-art fitness center at this 100% smoke-free hotel, as well as complimentary WiFi throughout the property. Room rates start at $139 per night in October. This is a Category 4 hotel requiring 38,000 Club Carlson Points; or 10,000 points + $83.40 for an award night.
El Conquistador, a Waldorf-Astoria Resort: Situated on a cliff looking over both the Atlantic and the Caribbean, this 984-room property includes a lushly-landscaped 18-hole golf course, several tennis courts, and a 26,000-square-foot Japanese-themed day spa and full-service fitness center. For those desiring larger or more private accommodations, Las Casitas Village offers one-to-five-bedroom villas, with either garden or ocean views. There are 23 restaurants, cocktail bars and cafes on-site, ranging from Starbucks and a juice bar to a poolside grill and fine Italian dining. WiFi is complimentary throughout the resort. Room rates start at $179 per night in October. This is a Category 6 hotel requiring 50,000 Hilton HHonors points for an award night.
Caribe Hilton: Surrounded by 17 acres of lush gardens, this 916-room hotel is set between Old San Juan and Condado, 15 minutes from SJU Airport. Rooms feature a flatscreen TV, coffee maker and a desk and chair, while WiFi is complimentary throughout the property. In addition to a 12,000-square-foot spa and fitness center, as well as a kids’ club, you’ll find eight on-site restaurants, including tropical/Puerto Rican, pan-Asian/Latino, and a Morton’s Steakhouse. The lobby’s Oasis Bar bills itself as the birthplace of the Piña Colada, and the extensive outdoor pool features fountains, waterfalls and ocean views. Room rates start at $179 per night in October. This is a Category 6 hotel requiring 40,000 Hilton HHonors points for an award night.
The Condado Plaza Hilton: Located right in the heart of Condado on fashionable Ashford Avenue, this 571-room property overlooks both the Atlantic and Condado Lagoon. All 571 guest rooms and suites are decorated in a vibrant, tropical palette, and feature a flatscreen TV and 100% vegan toiletries. The hotel has a small spa and fitness center, and WiFi is complimentary in all guest rooms and public areas. There are five on-site restaurants, including a noodle bar and a Denny’s, as well as a Starbucks and convenience market. For outdoor recreation, you can set off on the lagoon on a stand-up paddle board or kayak, or lounge by one of the four outdoor pools. Room rates start at $99 per night in October. This is a Category 6 property requiring 40,000 Hilton Honors points for an award night.
San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino: Set along Condado’s tropical beachfront with views of the Atlantic, the grounds at this elaborate property feature two sprawling swimming pools, including a swim-up bar, water slide, several sundecks and private cabanas. All 513 guest rooms and 12 suites are presently being upgraded and streamlined, with renovations slated for completion in December 2013; the lobby and its Red Coral Lounge (which features the unique Dragonberry Mojito) were entirely renovated in late 2012. The 12,800-square-foot, 100% smoke-free casino has 426 slot machines and 26 gaming tables. Room rates start at $169 a night per night in October. This is a Category 7 hotel requiring 35,000 Marriott Rewards points for an award night.
The Ritz-Carlton, San Juan: Encompassing eight acres of prime Isla Verde beachfront, this 416-room resort features a 24-hour casino and a Ritz-Carlton Club Level. Rooms have a flatscreen TV, Frette linens, a marble bathroom, and impressive views. The 12,000-square-foot spa uses several ingredients found in the El Yunque Rainforest, and an outpost of the famous BLT Steak (one of five on-site restaurants and bars) highlights several Puerto Rican and Caribbean dishes on its menu, unique to the property. The Ocean Bar and Grill is currently under renovation and slated for completion in late November 2013. Room rates start at $379 per night in October. This is a Tier 3 resort requiring 50,000 points for an awards night.
La Concha Renaissance San Juan Resort: A more modern boutique-style hotel set right on Condado Beach, this property has 257 rooms and 226 suites all decorated in cooling tones, and an on-site casino. There are five restaurants on-site, including Asian cuisine and a tapas menu, three swimming pools (including one infinity-style), and complimentary WiFi in all guest rooms and public areas. Room rates start at $229 per night in October. This is a Category 7 hotel requiring 35,000 Marriott Rewards points for an award night.
InterContinental San Juan: Located on exclusive Isla Verde, this oceanfront property offers 398 luxuriously appointed rooms and 21 suites, a Club InterContinental, and a casino with live entertainment. Rooms feature a flatscreen TV, a private patio or terrace, and the club area offers complimentary coffee, hot tea and fresh fruit every morning. Cuisine choices at the five on-site restaurants include sushi and teppanyaki, Mediterranean (with ocean views), and Italian, as well as two cocktail bars. The intimate spa features five treatment rooms and a state-of-the-art fitness center, and tropical gardens surround an outdoor pool. WiFi is available throughout the hotel for $12, but is complimentary for IHG Rewards Club members. Room rates start at $135 per night in October. This is Category 9 hotel requiring 50,000 IHG Rewards Club Points for an award night.
Starwood Preferred Guest
Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel & Casino: On the waterfront in Old San Juan, this property features a casino with 350 slot machines, a Hertz rental desk in the lobby, and a rooftop pool with a wide view of San Juan Bay. The 240 guest rooms, all offering touches of rattan and island-theme fabrics, are being renovated in stages through November 30, 2013. They currently feature a flatscreen TV, complimentary WiFi, a coffee and tea maker, and an iPhone dock. On-site dining includes a creative spin on Puerto Rican cuisine and a build-your-own-burger place overlooking the bay. Room rates start at $184 per night in October. This is a Category 4 hotel requiring 10,000 Starpoints for an award night.
Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino: The only major hotel located in the Convention Center District, this 503-room (including 22 suites) property is set beside the city’s main marina. Rooms include a 40-inch flatscreen TV, WiFi access, a coffee maker and a desk and chair. The hotel features a huge casino, a lobby bar with a terrace, a full-service spa and a fourth-floor infinity pool. Room rates start at $130 per night in October. This is a Category 4 hotel requiring 10,000 Starpoints for an award night.
W Retreat & Spa, Vieques Island: About 8 miles east of the Puerto Rican mainland and a 25-minute flight from SJU is Vieques Island, where the W Retreat & Spa is located on an unspoiled paradise. The modern guest rooms feature WiFi, a flatscreen TV, a patio or balcony, 300-thread count Egyptian sheets and a unique-shaped bath tub. Dining options range from healthy and hearty at the W Cafe, to organic Puerto Rican cuisine at Sorcé, or cocktails at Wet or the Living Room. There is also a fitness club, tennis court, beach activities, AWAY Spa and even a special program for pets. Room rates start at $259 per night in October. This is a Category 6 hotel requiring 20,000 Starpoints for an award night.
For more on the W Retreat & Spa Vieques Island, read our TPG 2011 hotel review here.
Other Starwood properties in San Juan are the Four Points by Sheraton Caguas Real Hotel & Casino and the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, Puerto Rico.
When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Ink Plus, Ink Bold, Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire, British Airways Visa, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Plus card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines cards, Capital One Venture, Citi Hilton HHonors and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve, US Bank FlexPerks, Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.
The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, Puerto Rico: One of the most luxurious hotels in the San Juan area, this 139-room (including 35 suites) property is set on 482 acres just outside of El Yunque Rainforest, about 30 minutes southeast of the city. Rooms feature complimentary WiFi, a 40-inch flatscreen TV, Bose sound system, iPod docking station, cherry wood furnishings, a patio or balcony, and a marble bathroom with tub and rainshower. The resort has its own two-mile-long private beach, a children’s club, a spa with seven massage villas, and an 18-hole golf course. Suites and cabanas include St. Regis butler service, and the outdoor pool that is designed to look like a natural lagoon. The on-site restaurant, Fern, offers a menu that highlights the most popular offerings of chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Room rates start at $339 per night in October. This is a Category 7 hotel requiring 30,000 Starpoints for an award night.
The W Retreat & Spa, Vieques Island is also a Visa Signature Property.
Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts
Update: The offer mentioned below for the Platinum Card from American Express has expired. View the current offer here.
Fine Hotels & Resorts is a loyalty program for Amex Platinum cardholders who receive special benefits at participating hotels such as early check-in and late check-out, complimentary breakfast, room upgrades, and other perks.
Dorado Beach, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve: Located 35 minutes west of SJU Airport in a former Rockefeller estate originally built in the 1920s, this 115-room property sprawls across 50 beachfront acres. Guest rooms feature a king-sized walk-in wardrobe, deep soaking tub, spacious indoor and outdoor shower and private outdoor balcony. The extravagant dining options include Caribbean fusion cuisine from internationally-acclaimed Chef José Andrés at Mi Casa, the Encanto Beach Club Bar and Grill for more casual food, or the Positivo Sand Bar for a trendy, outdoor atmosphere. The Spa Botánico is a five-acre sanctuary offering a wide range of treatments using ingredients from the Apothecary Portal both indoors and outdoors in the Tree House. Guests can also enjoy outdoor activities such as tennis, golf, nature trails and water sports. Room rates start at $669 per night in October, with no Marriott Rewards points valid for stays through 2013.
El Convento Hotel: While not an Amex Fine Hotels & Resort property, the El Convento is part of the Historic Hotels of America. This 58-room boutique property set in the heart of Old San Juan was originally built in 1646 as a Carmelite convent and has been run as a hotel since 1962. Rooms feature ornate handcrafted furniture, marble bathrooms, and Andalusian tile floors, along with complimentary WiFi and a flatscreen TV. One of its three restaurants, the romantic and locally popular Patio del Nispero, offers Puerto Rican specialties, and all of the hotel’s hand-crafted cocktails use herbs and fruit from its on-site garden. Amenities include a plunge pool and jacuzzi, sun terrace, and beach and pool privileges at its sister properties, La Concha (in Condado) and Verde Beach Resort (in Isla Verde). Room rates start at $180 per night in October.