If you’re thinking of heading south for your next vacation, consider visiting Puerto Rico. Yes, the region was devastated by hurricanes in 2017, but what you may not realize is that the island is already up and running and eager to welcome visitors.
“Puerto Rico has been on a steady path of recovery since day one,” says Peter Hopgood, vice president of sales and marketing for International Hospitality Enterprises, which manages several hotels on the island. “We had early issues with power generation, but today 98 percent of the energy on the island has been restored. Old San Juan is looking great, with major attractions open to the public, and many bars and restaurants are eager to serve its visitors.”
One such enterprise in Old San Juan is Hotel El Convento, a former Carmelite convent dating back to 1651 that is now an exquisite butter-yellow hotel with arched doorways, handcrafted Andalusian tile floors, and rooms featuring exposed mahogany ceiling beams, ornate Spanish furniture, and balconies. In the past, the hotel hosted such celebrities as Rita Hayworth, George Hamilton, and Spanish musician Pablo Casals, who often played his cello in the hotel’s courtyard. Nowadays, Hotel El Convento accommodates guests looking for Old World luxury, including dignitaries, heads of state, and, on a recent visit, Sting, who hung out at the courtyard bar for several hours talking to guests after giving a concert.
Just outside the hotel you’ll find the cobbled streets of Old San Juan, a beautiful fortified town settled by the Spanish in 1521 that is now a UNSESCO World Heritage Site. The best way to see the area’s cathedrals, monuments, and museums is via a historic walking tour, either with a guide or on your own using an Old San Juan city map, available at the Tourism Information Center at Plaza Dársenas in front of Pier 1. Spoon Food Tours explores the culinary side of Old San Juan, with local guides bringing you into various restaurants for tastings. (Spoon Food Tours also operates in the Santurce district.)
Puerto Rico’s food scene has exploded in the past several years, thanks to several well-known chefs reinterpreting classic dishes with local ingredients. One such chef is Gabriel Hernandez, who was nominated for a James Beard Award in 2018. His restaurant, Verde Mesa (Green Table), in Old San Juan is a favorite of former Bostonian Jenny Besser, who now lives in Puerto Rico with her husband and young children. “The restaurant is located inside this old colonial building, and Gabriel serves wonderful farm-to-table food,” she says, like scallops in a velvety corn sauce.
Another one of Besser’s favorites is Marmalade, run by husband and wife team Peter and Henriett Schintler and known for its exquisite five-course tasting menu. For sweets, Besser suggests Señor Paleta. “Push open the door and you’ll find a case filled with popsicles that are a lot more creamy than icy. They’re all handmade and come in flavors like banana, Nutella, strawberry cheesecake, Oreo, and strawberry lemonade. Chocobar Casa Cortés is another gem—a little touristy, but great for brioche French toast stuffed with chocolate, frozen and regular hot chocolate, and coffee. The chocolate is locally made.”
Beyond Old San Juan, Besser has several top restaurant picks, including aMare, “a beautiful seafood restaurant with ocean views,” located inside the newly open Serafina Beach Hotel. She also likes Santaella, configured around a lush central garden and serving upscale Puerto Rican specialties like caramelized braised pork shank and shrimp in a garlic cream sauce with plantain mofongo. Another favorite is Jose Enrique, set “in a pink house on a funny block” but offering wonderful fresh fish and local ingredients. Soon after Hurricane Maria, Enrique and Spanish-American chef José Andrés teamed up to feed thousands of locals fresh hot meals from Enrique’s gas-powered kitchen.
Since no trip to Puerto Rico is complete without visiting the island’s powder-white beaches, head to Condado, a chichi community in Santurce set along a ribbon of beach with azure waters. All of San Juan’s beaches are open to the public, which means you can lay down a towel in front of any of those stylish waterfront hotels, like La Concha Resort or Condado Vanderbilt Hotel. The latter has a sumptuous spa and 1919 Restaurant, masterminded by Michelin-starred chef Juan Cuevas, who cooked at Blue Hill in Manhattan and has earned accolades for his island-rooted cuisine, like local fish with local greens and tamarind-balsamic emulsion.
For lovely, calm swimming with no waves, visit Condado Lagoon, which is protected from the ocean and known for its warm, clear waters. Standup paddleboards are available to rent, and if you’re lucky, you’ll spot some local iguanas. For an island adventure, head to the eastern tip of Puerto Rico for a day trip via East Island Excursions. “They operate out of all the major hotels and you can go on this 18-person catamaran to this desolate island and then visit this gorgeous reef, with lunch in between,” says Besser, who recommends the excursion to all her out-of-town friends.
Come evening, Puerto Rico’s nightlife kicks into gear, because no act of nature can dampen the indomitable, joyous spirit of Puerto Ricans, expressed so keenly through their music. Throughout the island’s banyan tree–lined plazas, you can hear the infectious beat of salsa, which is also played in clubs and bars, particularly around La Placita, a popular market area in Santurce brimming with eateries.
“Puerto Rico’s residents are resilient and have shown their grit in making sure we bring back the island and put it in better shape than it was before,” says Hopgood. “The locals want to showcase the island and make sure you have a great experience in order to spread the word about Puerto Rican hospitality. As Puerto Rican–born Lin Manuel Miranda [creator and star of Hamilton] recently said, ‘The best way to support the island is by going to visit it.’” ihepr.com/ihe-portfolio