By Ron Kapon.
Columbus discovered Puerto Rico in 1493 on his second voyage. He named the island San Juan Batista. Later the island took the name of its capitol — Puerto Rico (fine or rich port). Only the town was known as San Juan. Spain controlled the island from 1493-1898, during the Spanish-American War. Remember, Puerto Rico is an unincorporated (1898) territory and all its residents are U.S. citizens. However, they do not have senators or members of congress in Washington, D.C.
I am a Professor of Hospitality and Tourism Management at a university in New Jersey.
A senior member of the Hilton management team serves on the board of advisors with me. When he heard I was headed to San Juan, he arranged a two-night stay at the Caribe Hilton for me and the Hilton PR firm (which did all the legwork). Although I was under no obligation to write a great review, I am because everything was perfect.
The hotel staff greeted me and led me to my room on the top floor of the original building. NOTE: This was Conrad Hilton’s dream — the first hotel built outside the continental U.S. by Hilton in 1949. There were several new additions added over the years, with a total now of 916 rooms and suites, including 652 in the original building tower. They also lay claim to having invented the Piña Colada there in 1954. Of course, they offered me one as I checked in. Across the street is Paseo Caribe Center with 264 villas —on Friday night I went there for a free outdoor jazz concert. There are shops and restaurants in the center, and I especially liked El Mercado with a dozen food vendors.
I had breakfast at Palmeras, lunch at the Atlantico Bar & Grill (while relaxing in the hot tub) and dinner at Lemongrass, located by the lagoon rooms with General Manager Pablo Torres as well as my favorite Public Relations person Betty Gonzalez. The restaurant features Pan-Asian Latino cuisine. For a quick snack there was Starbucks and a new discovery for me — Quizno’s subs. I took one to go and ate at the pool. There are 17 acres and again, I believe the hotel has the only private beach in San Juan (built before the beaches were declared public). Along with 8 restaurants, there are also tennis courts, a fitness center, pool, hot tub, spa, and game room. Why leave the property? I did visit Old San Juan, which is only a few minutes away by taxi.
When I was planning my 10-day trip to Puerto Rico, I realized I no longer knew the area that well since my last trip there was 10 years ago. My Delta flight arrived in the early evening and I did not want to deal with a taxi getting me to my family’s condo in Condado, so looked up several transportation companies and ended up calling Green Transportation. The receptionist who answered the phone was quite helpful and agreed to have the driver meet me at baggage claim. Carlo was my driver, and I later found out he was the owner of the company although he never said anything about that. I was impressed by his professionalism and asked if he could come up with a reduced price for all my transportation needs. He answered yes and the next day his company picked me up and drove me to Bacardi and back to Condado. Then it was a pickup at the Caribe Hilton and a ride to my breakfast and site visit at the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel. I decided to walk back along the Lagoon to the Caribe. The next two days I was on tours and the companies offered me round-trip transportation. I was spending a day in Old San Juan so once again it was a round trip. My last trip was back to the airport. Each time I had a different driver, but they were all on time and very professional. I heartily recommend Green Transportation. www.puertoricogt.com
It has been over 10 years since I last visited Casa Bacardi. Wow, they have expanded their operations! It is the largest privately-held spirits company (Dewars, Grey Goose, Bombay, among others), as well as the largest premium rum distillery in the world, and it’s still family-owned. The Puerto Rican distillery, which opened in 1958, is located in Catano, which is about a half-hour drive from the Condado area. In 1960 the Cuban government seized Bacardi’s Cuban assets. In 2003 the visitor’s center opened and has since been expanded. There are three tours available: Historical Tour – $15 (seniors – $12); Rum Tasting Tour – $45; Mixology Tour – $45 (includes the distillery tour as well as the preparation of three cocktails). I was honored that they gave me a private tour with Brand Master Juan Cartagina. Every tour participant gets a rum cocktail before the tour as well as a souvenir Bacardi glass. www.visitcasabacardi.com
Georgina is a privately-owned restaurant next to the visitor’s center, open for breakfast and lunch only. It serves Puerto Rican and Cuban cuisine. Margarita Vera was my host. www.visitcasabacardi.com/ georgina
Caroline Johnson was our guide for the Spoon food and history walking tour of Old San Juan. She was so knowledgeable that I canceled another walking tour of the area two days later. Our group of eight met at the totem pole at Plaza del Quinto Centenario overlooking El Morro Castle. There were historical buildings, plazas, parks, gardens, museums, shops, cafés and restaurants. This area is a National Historic Site (National Park Service). Stops included: Café Don Ruiz, Tortuga Bakery, Hecho en Casa, Cosecha Mia and Deaverdura. Along the way we learned all about the area. We stopped at many historic sites and afterwards, Caroline even walked me over to El Convento Hotel where I had an appointment after the tour. Try to book a tour with her when making a reservation — it is worth the effort. www.spoonfoodtours.com
I did three other hotel site visits during my stay. The Condado Plaza Hilton was about half a mile from the Caribe Hilton. Their PR firm arranged this and the tour was conducted by my new favorite person in Puerto Rico, Betty Gonzalez from the Caribe Hilton. There are 4 pools and 5 restaurants here. All the top executives here are women, led by the General Manager Sharyl Toko. www.condadoplaza.com
The PR firm for the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel arranged a breakfast at Ola Oceanfront Bistro with Albert Charbonneau, Director of Food and Beverage. In 1919 Frederick William Vanderbilt built this hotel, which has 319 rooms and is built in the Mission/Spanish revival style. It closed in 1996 and reopened in December, 2014 with the regal feel of the old hotel, but with modern accents. There is Veritas, an oceanfront wine and cognac bar offering live music and small bites, as well as Avo Cigar Lounge and Marabar Martini Bar and Lounge. www.condadovanderbilt.com
After finishing the Spoon food tour, I went to El Convento Hotel where Senior Sales Manager Neisha Martinez gave me a tour and allowed me to rest while catching my breath. She also bought me a Mojito and some snacks. This 58-room boutique hotel is located next door to the cathedral (it used to be a 17th century convent, hence the name). There are marble bathrooms, ornate handcrafted furniture and a rooftop terrace with hot tub and plunge pool. www.elconvento.com
Viator had arranged a 4 p.m. tour aboard La Paseadora II at the last pier (#6) along the promenade. After I finished the Spoon food tour of Old San Juan, I had an hour to wander around before my boat tour left. I decided to walk along the piers and noted that four cruise ships were docked. I thought about taking a taxi, but a very helpful police officer told me I was better off walking past all the other piers. Traffic was bumper to bumper with buses and taxis picking up cruise ship passengers. The Puerto Rico Information Center is along the walkway just before Pier 1. El Morro and San Cristobal Forts are about a half-hour walk from each other. Along with the Palacio de Santa Catalina, they are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
San Juan Water Tours at Pier 6 includes six companies that have combined to use the last pier. There are fishing tours, inflatable boats, paddleboards, kayaks, jet skis and more. When I arrived, the attendant told me I was the only passenger on the 4 p.m. tour and asked me if I could instead take the 5:30 boat tour. Because I had another appointment back in Condado, I was unable to do that, but the General Manager Luis Barreto told the attendant I was welcome to a complimentary one-hour tour on La Paseadora II and he would be right there. Now that is service! I had a fabulous time and was back on shore in time for my next appointment.
I am 81 years young and walk with a cane due to neuropathy and arthritis. That doesn’t mean I am not in good shape. I have had private yoga lessons every week for 11 years, regular massages and I do physical therapy. Bespoke Lifestyle Management invited me to spend a full day at El Yunque Rainforest, the only tropical rain forest in the United States National Forest System. The Forest covers over 28,000 contiguous acres, with the peaks of the Luquillo Mountains, escarpments, steams and waterfalls, and lush green vegetation. http://bespokeconcierge.com/
They picked me up at my family’s condo in Condado and the driver made several stops for other participants. There was a rendezvous with another pickup van at a stop near the entrance where we could have something to eat and drink. Alex Alvelo was our guide inside the forest. He was concerned that the 1,000-foot trail down to the waterfall and back could be slippery and wet — it is a rain forest after all. It did shower twice while he spoke about the forest and its inhabitants and vegetation. The rain forest gods smiled on our group and there was nothing but sunshine after the showers. We were able to spot native flora and fauna, many of which are not found anywhere else on the planet.
This may have been my proudest day, as I walked the entire trail and never once fell. I skipped the swim in the waterfall. Yes, I needed a bit of assistance where there was no handrail and Alex was both knowledgeable and very helpful to me. After the hike, we climbed the 96 steps to the top of Yokanu Tower for a great view of the forest. We stopped at the same restaurant where the pickup groups met for some classic Puerto Rican food (not included in the tour). Then everyone was dropped off at his or her pickup point. www.elyunque.com
Thanks to Dragonfly Tours for arranging my all-day water tour from Fajardo with East End Excursions. At 7 a.m. I walked to the Caribe Hilton (5 minutes) to be picked up (more pickups on the way) for an hour’s drive to Fajardo at the east end of the island. The catamaran took our group of about 25 people to the deserted island of Cayo Icacos for sun, swimming, paddleboarding, kayaking and just plain relaxing. Snorkeling was canceled due to the high winds and rough seas of the Caribbean. The captain and three-person crew were great. Lots of both alcoholic (rum) and non-alcoholic drinks were available. Snacks were always refilled. Around an hour into the fun it was lunch with unlimited portions of cold cuts, salad and fruit. I needed some help getting ashore and back. All I had to do was ask and it was done. www.dragonflyadventurespr.com www.eastislandpr.com
What to do on my last full day in San Juan? It is the first day of the Festival of San Sebastian. All auto traffic in and out of Old San Juan stops at noon. I decided not to go there because all the action starts later in the day and I am not a crowd person. Talk is of hundreds of thousands of people jamming the streets. I went back to the Caribe Hilton to swim and sun. I’m sorry to leave but can’t wait to come back.