Puerto Rican Renaissance: A Review of Dorado Beach, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve
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To The Point
A once-in-a-lifetime resort, though I’m already planning my return. Pros: beautiful location, excellent service, great food, the quintessence of the tropical beach vacation. Cons: staggering price tag, an equally eye-watering resort fee and doesn’t participate in Marriott Bonvoy.
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At the end of 2012, in the middle of my sophomore year at the University of Michigan in bitterly cold Ann Arbor, Michigan, a then-new resort opened on a gorgeous stretch of beach on the northern shore of the island of Puerto Rico, about 45 minutes west of San Juan, that immediately caught my attention and became the object of my travel dreams. That resort was Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve — the first North American iteration in a portfolio that now includes only three properties but is continuing to expand with a couple more properties slated to open this year (though all bets are off as to whether they will open on time or not).
The resort has an illustrious past. It was originally developed in the late 1950s by Laurance Rockefeller (yes, those Rockefellers), while Puerto Rico was at the height of its glamour as a travel destination. Ritz-Carlton Reserve designers and engineers set out to recreate and enhance the original resort’s emphasis on luxury, tranquility and sustainability when they were redeveloping the property, and it quickly became one of the world’s most talked about resorts.
Five years after opening, though, Dorado Beach became one of many thousands of tragedies that Hurricane Maria dealt to Puerto Rico. That storm will live in infamy among Puerto Ricans as one of the worst to ever hit the island.
A little over a year after the storm, Dorado Beach opened again, and with its reopening came a symbolic rebirth of Puerto Rico as a top destination for travelers seeking a luxurious beach vacation. So, in late January, roughly six years after the resort originally opened, I found myself on a flight down to San Juan with TPG creative director Isabelle Raphael to review the property. See? Dreams really do come true.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Dorado Beach is that you can’t redeem points for stays, and the cash rates for rooms are frankly exorbitant. In the low season, it’s normal to see the cheapest rooms selling for $899 or more per night. I can’t stress how much of a bummer this little detail is — the resort is truly incredible, but not being able to use Marriott points for stays really hurts.
Anyway, we traveled to Dorado Beach at the end of January, right in the middle of high season, which meant rates were accordingly high. We paid $1,557 per night for my two-night stay through Hotels.com with a Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card. This excludes the daily $95 resort fee, which actually rings up at over $100 after taxes. This is by far the priciest resort fee I’ve encountered on my travels, and paying yet another $100 on top of the already sky-high room rate is a hard pill to swallow.
It’s with bookings like these where the Venture card really shines, as it earns 10x miles per dollar spent on hotel reservations when booked through the special link at Hotels.com, through Jan. 31, 2020. You can also stack this with Hotels.com Rewards, which awards one free night per every 10 paid nights. Since the free night is based on the average price of the 10 nights, when stacked with the 10x miles from the Venture Rewards, it effectively gives us a 20% return on this reservation. That’s one of the very best credit card returns you can get when spending cash on hotels.
Since Ritz-Carlton Reserve properties don’t participate in the Marriott Rewards program, you’re not eligible to earn points, either. Another major bummer.
You have to pay cash no matter what when staying at this resort, so another great way to book would be through Amex’s Fine Hotels & Resorts program, as it entitles you to a room upgrade and a special amenity, which is usually a food-and-beverage or spa credit. The room upgrade alone could go especially far at a resort like this: It could land you in a room with a private plunge pool.
The resort was in the city of Dorado, about a 45-minute drive from San Juan’s Luis Muñoz International Airport (SJU). We took a taxi from the airport, which cost $90 including the tip. The resort itself was very large, meaning we didn’t have time during our two-night stay to explore the local area, though on the way in I noticed that the area immediately surrounding the resort consisted of a lot of gated communities with individual homes, golf courses and other beachfront resorts.
As soon as our taxi pulled up to the impressive entrance to the resort, we were greeted with fresh fruit popsicles, which I gladly devoured.
Immediately behind the porte-cochère was a lily pond flanked on one side by the reception area and a golf course on the other. It made a grand first impression and illustrated how the resort focused on a seamless integration with its surrounding environment.
The first impression was great, but the second was even better. As soon as we ascended the steps to the main lobby, I was blown away by the view. The open-air lobby had a direct view through the heart of the resort out to the thundering ocean. I could already tell this place was going to be special.
The lobby was also surrounded by a water feature, which had a calming effect and also worked to bring the outside inside. Unfortunately, our rooms weren’t yet ready, but we were introduced to our team of embajadores, (literally “ambassadors”), who were available for us throughout our stay for any requests.
We received a quick tour of the main part of the resort before heading over to the poolside restaurant to eat lunch. The rooms took a couple of hours to get ready, which was surprising, as the resort didn’t feel all that busy when we arrived.
The majority of rooms at this property were arranged in individual buildings containing just four rooms spread between two floors. Base-level rooms were on the top, since those didn’t have individual plunge pools like the ground-floor rooms did.
If a hotel charges $1,500 per night for a base room, they’d better be anything but “base.” Fortunately, when I opened the door to my room, it didn’t feel entry-level in the slightest.
My first impression was that it was absolutely massive — the smallest rooms on the property are almost 950 square feet, almost double the size of my Brooklyn apartment.
The room was filled with light, thanks to the floor-to-ceiling window that spanned the width of the room. This window opened completely, bringing the sights, sounds and smells of the beach into the room.
This was by far my favorite feature of the room. The building was so close to the ocean that I really did feel as if there was hardly a distinction between the inside and the outside.
The room’s balcony was also one of the largest I’d ever experienced at a resort — there was plenty of room for the table and chairs, as well as the chaise lounge. I actually found the chaise to be on the small side — Isabelle’s balcony had a lovely sofa that I wish I’d had.
The bathroom was another example of the resort seamlessly blending the inside and out. It was phenomenally spacious and also had floor-to-ceiling glass windows, though here it didn’t open up the entire width of the room.
Instead there was a door that was adjacent to the indoor shower that opened into the outdoor shower area. Who doesn’t love a hotel room where you have to distinguish between indoor and outdoor showers? The pressure and temperature in both showers were excellent for me, though Isabelle did report that her outdoor shower never heated up, even after letting the water run for about 10 minutes.
The outdoor shower immediately became one of my favorite features of the room — there was something so very peaceful about a warm shower on a warm night surrounded by the sounds of the abundant wildlife at the resort.
Back inside, the bathroom featured a large soaking tub, double sinks and a separate WC.
Amenities were by the on-property Spa Botánico and were stocked in large, reusable plastic containers rather than individual-use bottles, as part of the resort’s commitment to more sustainable practices.
The predominantly white king-sized bed was beautifully offset by a rich wood headboard that had a slatted design feature that you could keep open or close to not allow light in from the bathroom.
Light switches were clearly labeled and located conveniently for in-bed control. There were a couple of outlets adjacent to the bed as well: a necessity in today’s world.
The room’s closet was large and located in a sort of “foyer” that contained the room’s minibar and was between the bathroom and the main part of the suite.
The minibar was expectedly high-end, with prices to match, though I did grab a Diet Coke one day — desperate times. The provided water bottles were complimentary, though, and the housekeeping staff left several more each day.
There was a Nespresso maker, too, which I know that coffee drinkers would appreciate. Confession: I don’t drink coffee … I know. What’s wrong with me?
Food and Beverage
Since we only had a two-night stay, we did most of our eating on the property. Luckily, there were more than enough options to keep things interesting on our short stay. The resort offered three full-service restaurants and one deli-style shop for quicker meals.
Like I mentioned earlier, our rooms weren’t ready when we arrived at the resort, so one of the embajadores suggested that we grab lunch at Positivo Sand Bar, the restaurant adjacent to the resort’s Positivo pool, which I considered to be the resort’s main pool. The space itself was gorgeous, with most of the tables placed in the sand, so you really felt like you were on a beach vacation.
The space itself was gorgeous too — it gave me 1950s-Caribbean-beach-club vibes. Plus, the music, which I’ll call “ambient beach beats” contributed to the relaxed atmosphere. I ordered a Caesar salad with churrasco as well as a glass of rosé — it was the perfect way to kick off our stay at Dorado Beach.
That night, we ventured to the resort’s other beachfront full-service option, Encanto Beach Club Bar and Grill. The restaurant was set just steps from the beach and featured a large, circular bar in the center surrounded by tables and booths for larger groups.
The menu focused on grilled meats and seafood. We shared a burrata-and-tomato appetizer, and I ordered grilled chicken with vegetables for my main course along with a Cuba Libre — it was excellent. Many times, chicken dries out and becomes flavorless, but this dish was bursting with flavor.
During the day, the Encanto Beach Club Bar and Grill served as the restaurant for the Encanto pool, which seemed to have significantly fewer guests than the Positivo pool. It also seemed to cater to families more — on one end was a zero-entry feature that would be appealing to small children, for sure.
The following day, we ventured over to Coa for breakfast — it was the hotel’s signature restaurant and offered breakfast daily from 7am to 11am and dinner from Tuesday through Saturday from 6pm to 10pm.
When we had breakfast, there were only a handful of other guests in the restaurant, though it looked like it could handle a crowd.
Connected to the main restaurant was a sumptuously appointed bar area that open Tuesday through Saturday from 6pm to 12am, featuring live music Thursday through Saturday from 7pm to 10pm.
A buffet was set up in a room adjacent to the main dining room, which offered the typical breakfast buffet, though the food looked very fresh.
We both ordered from the a la carte menu — Isabelle went with the oh-so-Australian avocado toast, while I went with a breakfast mainstay: an omelet.
On the last night of our stay, we went back to Positivo Sand Bar for dinner — whereas at lunch the restaurant served light poolside fare, at dinner time it focused on sushi and Japanese cuisine. We arrived around 7:30pm and asked for a table for two, which the restaurant couldn’t accommodate, as they said the restaurant was fully booked. One look around, though, and I questioned the validity of that statement, as there were plenty of open tables. This happened at the Encanto Beach Club as well the previous night — both times we ended up sitting at the bar. Totally fine for us, but make sure you make reservations in advance, or at least when you arrive on property, even though you probably don’t even need them.
I ordered room service — another omelet with local Puerto Rican sausage — on the morning of checkout, and it was delivered within three minutes of the estimated delivery time — I was impressed. The food arrived hot and fresh, too.
I enjoyed my breakfast with the huge glass door open — I had to take in that phenomenal view one more time.
When we found ourselves with a couple of hours of downtime, we spent it sitting by and swimming in the pool, which, of course, works up an appetite. We ordered chips and guacamole, as well as a round of “skinny” mojitos (a typical mojito but with less sugar) to keep us going until dinnertime.
Pool service was attentive and friendly, and each day the staff wheeled around a cart with coconuts ready for drinking — it was a refreshingly tropical touch.
One books a stay at a resort like Dorado Beach with one objective in mind: relaxation. What better way to achieve that goal than by a pool or the beach? Dorado Beach definitely had us covered in that department. The Positivo pool was my favorite spot on the resort — it’s hard to get more picturesque than that.
The pool had infinity edges that gave way to the roaring ocean further beyond, and the water itself was a spectacular blue, thanks to the tiling work.
It was kept at a warm-enough temperature that I didn’t recoil at all upon entering, like I do at so many other pools. Plus, there was hardly anyone in the pool at one time, so it really felt like we had the place to ourselves. I suppose that was arguably one of the best features of this resort: It didn’t have a tremendously high number of rooms, so public spaces didn’t feel crowded, and there was never a mad dash to reserve a pool chair at 7am.
We visited the stretch of beach adjacent to the Positivo pool for a couple of hours one afternoon. The resort offered full service on the beach, so we were tended to within a few minutes of sitting down. The server brought a tray with sunscreen and lotion, several water bottles and wet, cold washcloths. I thought this was a nice touch, and something that went above and beyond a typical beach resort, where sunscreen alone can be a significant cost. Then again, with the room rates at Dorado, sunscreen should be included.
The water itself was fabulous — there was a natural rock barrier so the water we swam in wasn’t nearly as rough as it was a little farther out, but it was wavy enough to really make you feel like you were in the ocean. It was truly one of the more spectacular beaches I’d visited — and I’ve got quite a few under my belt by now. There was something about its perfect crescent shape and the tall palm trees arching towards the water that made it magical.
The Encanto pool, like I mentioned earlier, seemed geared more toward families — it was large, freeform and had a zero-entry side.
The pool deck was large, and there was plenty of space between seat clusters.
The larger stretch of beach was adjacent to this pool, which made sense, as the area was branded as a beach club.
As you could imagine, the hotel featured an expansive (and expensive) spa called Spa Botánico, which was completely reimagined with the reopening of the resort. It was set back from the beach and surrounded by lush greenery. You entered the spa through a building that resembled a temple of sorts — in the front of the main building was a mindbogglingly large tree that really set the tone of the whole place as a sanctuary within nature.
I honestly didn’t have time to book myself a treatment, but I did have a peek at the public areas of the spa (most of it was off-limits to photography, as the space was clothing-optional).
Inside, the building was perfumed by fragrant incense, and then through the other end of the building was the spa’s reflecting pool, which had a number of loungers spread around it.
Farther back was a large lawn area, where guests can take walks and really connect with the serenity all around.
A fitness center was part of Spa Botánico as well, but, you guessed it, no time for that!
Another one of the resort’s standout features was the Rockefeller Trail, an 11-mile walk that encompassed the forest and all its wildlife, the beach, the golf course and more. The resort also offered a variety of water sports, including kitesurfing, sailing, windsurfing, paddleboarding and regular old surfing — the lessons were designed by Olympic windsurfer Karla Barrera and her husband, Phil Morstad, and offered through their company, Goodwinds.
There were plenty of other activities to take advantage of, like playing tennis at the five-court tennis center and a children’s waterpark, but you definitely needed more than a two-night stay to experience everything. Perhaps, though, the best amenity of all was the magical location: Relaxation came easy at Dorado Beach!
The resort also has one very special, very exclusive amenity — an entire private villa that can be rented out for a nightly rate that includes five figures. It’s called “Su Casa,” and, according to the hotel, it’s a five-bedroom, 8,000 square foot villa from the 1920s that has its own private gardens as well as an infinity lap pool. Su Casa has a very interesting AvGeeky history, too — Amelia Earhart stayed there before she vanished in 1937. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to check out Su Casa myself, since it was occupied when I stayed at the resort, but I’m inclined to believe that we must give it the full review it deserves in the near future… right?
My stay at Dorado Beach was a long time coming. Ever since I’d first caught wind of the resort several years ago, I knew I somehow had to make it there. Now that I have, I’m hooked. The resort is so far above and beyond typical Ritz-Carlton resorts that it doesn’t even feel like the same chain.
And, in many ways, it’s really not part of the same chain. Reserve feels like a completely different hotel brand — and it has the price tag to match. Arguably the most disappointing thing about these properties is that it’s impossible to redeem points for a stay. But it seems like that decision was purposeful: Upon my departure, I expressed my sadness that I couldn’t redeem points. In response, the employee said, “Well, yeah, if you could redeem points, then everybody would be staying here.” To me, that summed everything up: The Ritz-Carlton Reserve is supposed to be an ultra-exclusive place, one reserved only for those who can afford it and expect the best of the best.
So, if you can swing the high price of entry, you won’t be disappointed. The resort’s location is truly magical, the rooms (even the most basic ones) are at once sumptuous and casual, and the pools, beaches and views are sublime. I’m holding on to a sliver of hope that someday Reserve properties will find a home in Marriott’s new Bonvoy program, though I know that’s probably naive. Regardless, while I wait (im)patiently for that to happen, you’d better believe that I’m plotting all possible paths back to Dorado Beach.
All photos by Nick Ellis and Isabelle Raphael for The Points Guy unless where noted.
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