I recently had a reader write in asking about San Juan as a Spring Break destination... and when you think about it, the island has everything you need for Spring Break: it's easy to get to from colleges all over the east coast; it's got beaches, nightlife and beautiful people.
But in truth, this isn't a huge destination for college kids looking to escape the cold and let loose a bit. You won't find throngs of students partying on the beach with DJs, wet tshirt contests and general hedonistic revelry. You will find plenty of idyllic spots in the sun, all the rum you can drink (and remember, the legal drinking age in Puerto Rico is 18), and clubs that don't close until the wee hours of the dawn.
If you're looking for the Cancún or Miami Beach experience, Puerto Rico isn't the best place to be (except perhaps the Señor Frogs in Old San Juan). But if you want to escape to a warm Caribbean island with plenty to see and do, this is the place for you.
There's music in the air this month in Puerto Rico. The Casals Festival is in full swing, with premier classical artists and performers delighting audiences at the Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Center in Santurce. The Heineken Jazz Festival is just around the corner, bringing world-class jazz acts to the capital. And three live acts bring local music (at the Taste of Rum Festival), Top 40 Rock bands (Paramore at the Coliseo) and electronica (courtesy of Coors Light Soundfields) to San Juan.
If you prefer sport to music, you can catch world-class golfers at the Puerto Rico Open or surfers taking to the waves at the 25th Corona Pro Circuit in Rincón. And speaking of world-class, who wouldn't want to see Jerry Seinfeld live? He'll be in town this month at the Coliseo de Puerto Rico in San Juan.
All that and more takes place this month in a very busy and entertaining calendar of events.
Puerto Rico gets a long list of celebrities visiting the island every year, whether in town for a movie or just to get away from it all. Johnny Depp has been a frequent visitor, thanks to The Rum Diary and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. And the latest "celebrities" to make some news on the island are the "Real Housewives" of Beverley Hills, who were on the the island just a few days ago.
Joyce (Miss Puerto Rico, TWO TIMES, okay!) orchestrated the trip, but the whole crew came with. They chose to stay at Las Casitas at the El Conquistador Resort, and Joyce in particular seemed to appreciate the continuous serenade of the coqui tree frog, the food and the beaches.
There are many hotels where celeb-watching can be a rewarding pastime. I saw one of my favorite actors, John Malkovich, at the El Convento Hotel in Old San Juan; New York Knick Carmelo Anthony has been known to frequent the St. Regis Bahía Beach Resort, and I ran in to Baseball player Carlos Beltrán at the El San Juan Hotel & Casino... and I've seen my share of stars on Culebra and Vieques Islands.
So whether it's a housewife, a sports star or one of the most revered actors of his generation, Puerto Rico is host to many celebrities throughout the year.
Who have you seen on the island?
March 2014 kicks off in grand style with the Taste of Rum Festival. One of the biggest food and drink events on the island, Taste of Rum is the official rum festival of Puerto Rico, and takes place on March 1 along the Paseo de la Princesa Boulevard that stretches from the docks to to the Raíces Fountain at the foot of the old city.
Beyond the island's favorite spirit, you can enjoy local food from restaurants like Perrurican and Soleil Beach Club and enjoy live music, this year featuring a tribute to The Police and Marc Anthony. Tickets are $45 for the rest of the month or $60 on the day of the event.
When it comes to travel, Condé Nast Traveler sets the standard for everyone to follow. And their annual Gold List sets the standard for excellence. Voted by their readers, the Gold List reflects the popular choices for the best hotels in the world.... and this year over 80,000 people voted.
The 2014 Gold List included three Puerto Rican properties:
1. The St. Regis Bahía Beach Resort: close to 500 pristine acres of land, a living wildlife sanctuary, a breathtaking stretch of beach, and all the luxury and comfort you could ask for make this a unique and elite destination.
2. The Horned Dorset Primavera: One of my favorite hotels in Puerto Rico, the Horned Dorset is a true escape, with meticulously appointed accommodations, a stretch of Rincón coastline that absolutely dazzles at sunset, a staff that is friendly and attentive, and an absolutely fabulous restaurant.
3. Las Casitas: A ritzy enclave within the El Conquistador resort, Las Casitas are a string of fully equipped cottages on the East coast of the island. Along with relative privacy and perks like butler service, guests get also get all the amenities of the resort, like the private island, water park, casino, spa and numerous restaurants.
Three properties worthy of the Gold List label; three hotels worth getting to know in Puerto Rico.
One of the newcomers to the dining scene in Condado, Bibi Ké occupies a busy stretch of Ashford Avenue. Located next to Ummo Argentinean Grill (and owned by the same folks), Bibi Ké skips the parrilla and returns to its native roots with a purely Puerto Rican menu. Even the name comes from the indigenous Taíno language, and the artwork on the walls celebrates the colors and flavors of the island.
Speaking of flavors, you'll find all the Puerto Rican classics here; mofongo, arroz con gandules, asopao and all manner of fritters and crisp bites (predominantly made with plantains) can all be enjoyed at this casual spot, which has a pleasant outdoor patio if you want to dine al fresco.
My favorite dish at Bibi Ké was their chicken pasteles, faithful recreations of homemade food and perfect for the holiday season, when I was there. But this is a reasonably priced newcomer that serves solid food. It's not the kind of Puerto Rican food that will wow you, like Casa Lola or Pikayo (both nearby in Condado), but it will definitely give you the flavors of Puerto Rico.
In fact, the food I enjoyed the most here were among the simplest dishes on the menu: the aforementioned pasteles, the arroz congri (rice and beans with green peppers) and the yummy garlic shrimp.
Is it among my favorite eateries in Condado? I can't go that far... but I can say that Bibi Ké offered plenty of good taste on a late night out in San Juan.
On my recent trip to Puerto Rico, I had the chance to try several restaurants that I'd been meaning to visit. And one of my favorite dining experiences was at Blonda. In Condado, which is pretty saturated with restaurants of all kinds and qualities, Blonda is one of several Italian eateries competing for your attention. Here are five reasons why it deserves your business:
- Everything's homemade: And by that, I mean the bread is baked fresh, and the pasta is handmade and fresh. An Italian restaurant that doesn't make its own pasta will always take second place in my book to a place like Blonda.
- The braised ribeye lasagna: There were five us at the table during our meal. Hands down, this was the consensus top dish. The crusted cheese coating takes it to another level of deliciousness.
- Brunch: A good brunch isn't the easiest thing to find, but Blonda comes through with flying colors and a menu that features classic Brunch fare, a few welcome dishes like Croques Monsieur and Madame, and hearty entrees for those who want lunch.
- Quality of ingredients: Blonda prides itself of locally sourced, organic and high-quality ingredients. And it shows. Everything we had was tasty and flavorful.
- The artisanal pizzas: Blonda, you had me at meatballs, caramelized onion, crushed tomato, pecorino and mozzarella.
If I told you Puerto Rican coffee was once considered one of the best in the world, you probably wouldn't believe me. But during the island's agricultural boom years, coffee was one of its primary exports. The hill country in the island's interior proved excellent ground for the cultivation of this bean, and numerous haciendas thrived on the island.
Over time, the coffee industry shrank to a fraction of what it once was, but the land remained, and coffee became an artisanal trade carried on by the sons and daughters of generations of coffee growers. Fortunately, many of these artisanal blends can be found in Puerto Rico today, and they bear witness to just how good the local coffee is.
Actually, don't take my word for it; try one of these five destinations in San Juan, and taste for yourself. I'm a huge fan, and I rarely leave Puerto Rico without a supply. Artisanal coffee is a struggling industry, with the high cost of labor, the laborious task of cultivation and the challenge of competing against international brands.
But I fervently hope it prospers, and that more and more tourists discover what might be their next favorite cup of coffee.
If you're in San Juan this Valentine's Day, you have a chance to enjoy something truly special. The incomparable Rita Moreno will be in concert at the majestic Condado Vanderbilt Hotel. The iconic singer, actress and Puerto Rican native is the only Latin woman to garner an Oscar, Grammy, Tony and Emmy win.
Winner of the 2014 Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, Rita Moreno needs no introduction to music lovers and theatergoers the world over. Your ticket includes an 8pm welcome reception from Chef José Cuevas, who will have wine and appetizers from his excellent 1919 Restaurant. The concert starts at 9 and will be followed by cocktails, live Latin jazz and happy hour in the lobby.
This is a chance to watch one of the most celebrated artists of her generation in a setting that recalls the golden age of Puerto Rico. If tickets are still available, don't miss it!
I've always been a fan of Santurce. Far from the tourist crush of Old San Juan, the glitz of Condado and the resorts of Isla Verde, this low-key neighborhood reminds me of Brooklyn; among its blue-collar residences and unadorned avenues lie cultural treasures like the Puerto Rico Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Science and the Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Center.
But that's not the main reason I find myself in Santurce every time I hang out in San Juan. As lovely as those institutions are, they take a back seat to Santurce's outstanding collection of restaurants, bars and local hangouts. And if you feel like stepping off the beaten San Juan path when you're in the capital, here are a few unique experiences worth the taxi ride.
1. La Casita Blanca: Perhaps no place epitomizes Santurce quite like La Casita Blanca. On a recent trip, I had avocado stuffed with ground beef. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it was. And delicious. For years, this place has been an institution.
2. Abracadabra: This casual café's playful, whimsical setting takes you far from its somewhat drab surrounding in Santurce as soon as you walk in the door, and the brunch menu is among the best I've had on the island.
3. La Cueva del Mar: I admit, I'm not quite sure if Loíza Street falls more in Condado or Santurce. It seems to be the line of demarcation between the two neighborhoods, but I'm going to go ahead and include it on this list. And that makes La Cueva del Mar a must-visit destination for its seafood empanadas, tacos and other tasty bites.
4. Bebo's Cafe: If La Casita Blanca and Denny's were to merge, you'd get Bebo's. The place looks like a diner, complete with giant laminated menus and bright colors, but the menus is authentic Puerto Rican fare.
Of course, these four eateries merely scratch the surface of where to eat in Santurce. And La Plaza del Mercado deserves its own space for its culinary offerings. But they serve as a good introduction to the authentic, casual and affordable choices available to you when you dine here.
Enjoy Santurce. Your belly and your palate will thank you.