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Trip Report Back from San Juan

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We just returned from a 9 night trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico. We spent the first two nights at El Convento in Old San Juan and then 7 at the Ritz Carlton in Isla Verde.

We flew US Airways from Buffalo to San Juan via Philadelphia on a very early flight (left Buffalo at 5:30am) and arrived in San Juan around noon. Taxi to Old San Juan was about $23 plus tip and takes about 15-20 minutes. Taxi service from the airport is really easy to navigate as the fares are all based on zones and you receive a ticket with the price prior to getting into the taxi.

We arrived at El Convento Hotel in Old San Juan a little before 1:00 pm. Our room wasn't ready so we walked around Old San Juan and got some lunch at Barrachina restaurant, whose claim to fame is that it is the original home of the Pina Colada. Who knows if that's true or not but we had a nice lunch there. Food was good and it was pretty crowded at lunch. We had previously eliminated this place as a dinner option because we thought that it sounded a bit too touristy. But it was perfect for lunch. After lunch, we were pretty beat since we had been up since 3:30 am and headed back to El Convento. Our room still wasn't ready so we walked the grounds for awhile. El Convento is a boutique hotel that was once a convent (hence the name). It's a pretty cool looking place, open courtyard, high ceilings, heavy doors, fairly ornate. The rooms are individualized and furnished with locally made furniture and artwork. Our 5th floor room (the hotel only has 5 floors) had french doors opening to a view of the city and, in the distance, the water.

Since we were exhausted, we took a nap, then showered and got ready for the complimentary nightly wine reception that the hotel provides from 6:00-7:00. The reception was pretty nice - several different choices of reds and whites and cheese and crackers, grapes, etc.

Following the reception, we headed out to dinner at the Parrot Club, one of many restaurants in the area known as SOFO (South Fortaleza). SOFO is around a ten minute walk from El Convento. We've eaten at this restaurant before but it had been several years. Glad to discover that it's still as good as ever. The Caribbean Spiced Grouper was particularly good, as were the mojitos.

Following dinner, we strolled around some and there was live Caribbean music and dancing in the square right down the street from the restaurant so we stopped and watched for awhile, We then headed to Dragonfly (another restaurant in that area) for some drinks at the bar. Ended up talking with the bartender for a couple of hours and, a few drinks later, we wrapped things up and headed back to the hotel.

End of Day One. (if this is excruciatingly boring, please feel free to tell me to stop. I won't be offended).

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    Day 2:

    Woke up around 9:30 and went down to get a couple of coffees that the hotel provides for free and brought them to the room. We planned on having breakfast in the courtyard at the hotel. It's a very pretty open air area but unfortunately there was a wait. This brings me to a criticism of the hotel. They have 60-something rooms and they pride themselves on service but there were very few tables in the courtyard area. They could have easily fit at least 8 more tables. As it didn't look like any of the tables were going to open soon, we decided to look for a breakfast place outside the hotel. It was close to 11 at this point and it was more difficult finding a breakfast place than we expected (should have asked at the front desk). We finally found El Mason Sandwiches, which is a fast food place that serves breakfast sandwiches all day long. It was actually a pretty good sandwich. After breakfast, we explored around Old San Juan, stopping at the Catedral de San Juan, which is right across from El Convento, browsed some art galleries, including the Butterfly People Art Gallery, did some shopping at some of the designer outlets, walked down to a park like area at the water and then headed back for lunch. We had lunch at Pizza Birra, a casual restaurant at El Convento, which was very tasty.

    All that walking had us sweaty and tired, so we relaxed in the room for a couple of hours before showering and getting ready for the wine reception. For dinner, we chose Toro Salao, which is owned by the same restaurant group which owns the Parrot Club. This restaurant group actually owns quite a few restaurants in addition, including DragonFly, Aquaviva, and Koko's (in Isla Verde). We've eaten at Parrot Club as previously mentioned,as well as Dragonfly and Kokos and always had good meals, so we were pretty confident about Toro Salao. Alas, it was not meant to be. Just one of those meals that was off. We had a choice of inside or outside dining and we chose inside because it was still pretty warm and humid out. We thought the nice cool a/c would be more relaxing. As it turns out, it was so warm inside (being seated 10 feet away from their brick oven did not help) that it was really uncomfortable. We were actually sweating. Hard to enjoy the food when you are sweating. About the food, it is mostly a tapas place which we normally like. We started with four different tapas, all of which ranged from pretty good to eh. We had the Spanish Serrano ham croquettes with guave rum glaze, the pork carne frita, the shrimp taco rolls, and the white corn gnocchi. Probably our favorite out of the four was the pork carne frita. The croquettes were a little too creamy in the middle and the gnocchi were just too heavy. The service was also off. When we first sat down, three different waiters came over to ask if we wanted drinks. It was just disorganized. I think it was difficult for the waiters because they were simultaneously working the outside patio and the inside. After dinner, we walked around again and stopped in a couple of restaurant/bars for some cocktails.

    Back to the El Convento. Next day we left for the Ritz Carlton.

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    Not boring at all. I'm following along. We stayed for one night at El Convento on a trip a few years ago after getting stuck overnight at SJU due to plane mechanical difficulties. We've intended to go back but we haven't made it yet. In fact, we've been to the Caribbean many times but have yet to vacation in Puerto Rico. I'm not sure why. I look forward to your Ritz Carlton review.

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    Days 3-9.

    Taxi to the Ritz Carlton early Sunday afternoon. It was a pleasant surprise that our room was ready, even though we arrived at 1:00 pm. We booked an oceanfront balcony room for a really good price. The Ritz Carlton was running a summer special whereby if you booked 7 nights, the room rate was reduced by 40%. It happened to be available the week we were planning on going, so the price for the oceanfront balcony room was $209 per night (plus taxes). The room was great. Recently remodeled, they got rid of the previous "island" look that was starting to appear dated and replaced it with a light colored modern look. We had a big balcony with the ocean in front of us and the pool to the left.

    Since the rest of our trip was mainly beach and pool during the day and restaurants and casino at night, I won't do a day by day report but will give my impressions of the hotel, area, restaurants etc.

    I don't have time to do that right now (I wish Fodors had a "save as draft" feature). Hopefully, tomorrow.

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    So, what happened next? Still want to know, as I am trying to work out whether to take my family to PR next summer, perhaps with a few days on either Vieques/Culebra or maybe flying to another island in the middle?

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    Sorry, got a little busy at work.

    Ritz Carlton:

    I've stayed at this hotel a number of times. This was the first time without staying at the club level. Although I love the Ritz Carlton club level, the added $200 per day was a little too much to justify.

    Room: We booked an ocean front balcony room. The rooms have been remodeled as mentioned in my previous post. The majority of rooms at this hotel do not have balconies so I would advise that if a balcony is important to you, you spend the extra money at the time of booking and reserve a balcony room. Since probably less than 25% of the rooms have balconies, chances of an upgrade at check-in are probably not great. The rooms here face either the "city" (i.e. airport) or the pool and/or ocean. We spent a lot of time on the balcony (morning coffee, evening cocktails) and the sound and sight of the ocean waves made it worth the extra cost.

    Grounds: The grounds here are very nice. Very nicely manicured pool area. This isn't a huge sprawling resort but they do a lot for the space they have.

    Pool and Beach: There is one large pool (and a jacuzzi) so adults and children are thrown together. It wasn't much of an issue, although on the weekend, there were quite a few kids in the pool. So if you value a very quiet peaceful pool, you may be a little disappointed. I actually got hit in the head with a volleyball one time. Luckily, I survived. That being said, the actual lounging area is pretty quiet. Unlike some hotel pool areas, there is no loud pumped in music. The lounge chairs are cushioned and very comfortable. Pool side service was very good - the waiters and waitresses came around frequently and food was delivered promptly (and was good). I really liked the new feature they added - fruit infused ice water containers in several different spots at the pool. The beach fronting the hotel is also very nice. It's pretty calm and the water is clear. Just a warning though, this is the Atlantic side of Puerto Rico so you do not get the white sand and crystal blue waters often associated with Caribbean beaches. The sand is brown but soft and the water is blue/green. It's a good walking beach too. Broad and flat. You can walk for miles down this beach. Another warning though, the hotel is very close to the airport. And the beach runs parallel to the runway. You can't see the runway from the beach but you can hear the roar of the engines and you can see the planes as they take off. This isn't JFK airport so it's not like it occurs every 2 minutes but I can see how this could be a turn off to some people. Better to be aware of it before going. Parasailing, jet skis and wind surfing are all available on the beach.

    Casino: As far as casinos in Puerto Rico, this is probably the largest one. Nothing on the scale of a Las Vegas casino but large enough for all the usual table games and slots. Cocktail service is spotty in the casino and sometimes you have to chase someone down. One thing that I love about Puerto Rico casinos are the complimentary snacks that they serve. I've only seen this in Puerto Rico but in the afternoons and nights, they serve free hot sandwiches and sometimes soup too. They usually offer grilled cheese, ham and cheese, turkey and sometimes cheeseburgers. I am used to it now but I remember the first time in a Puerto Rican casino seeing all these people eating sandwiches and turning to my partner asking where are they getting them from and how much do they cost.

    Restaurants:

    In Isla Verde, a lot of the restaurants are hotel based, although there are a few newer stand alone restaurants that have opened up walking distance from the Ritz Carlton.

    All of our meals were good. We ended up eating at Metropol three times, which is a new record for us in a single trip. Metropol is a Cuban/Puerto Rican restaurant about a 1/4 mile from the Ritz Carlton (if that far). It's not fine dining but it's a nice looking restaurant with pretty reasonable prices and really good food. It's always packed. My favorite meal there is the smoked chicken with sweet plaintains (i substitute tostones) that comes with red (or black) beans and rice. It is ridiculously good. I could just order the red beans and rice and be satisfied. The stuffed cornish hen is also very good there. It's stuffed with black beans and rice. There are many other options on the menu as well, including mofongo, churrasco, fish, carne frita, etc etc.

    We also ate at Il Mulino and BLT Steak, both of which are located in the Ritz Carlton. Both very good. Il Mulino was running a "sunset" special (it's low season). Book a reservation before 7:30 and they have a three course price fixe menu for $43 per person. A pretty good deal for Il Mulino, where apps are in the teens-20s and entrees are in the 20s-40s. Your selection is limited but there were some good choices. I've never had a bad meal there and this time was no exception.

    We also ate at La Piccola Fontana and Meat Market Miami, both of which are located in El San Juan Hotel, which is down the street from the Ritz Carlton. Both very good. Meat Market Miami is located in the same space that formerly housed The Palm. It's new and this was the first opportunity we had to try it out. We loved it. It's modern, comfortable, great service and the food was awesome. We started with a wood grilled artichoke appetizer that was delicious. I had the Wagyu skirt steak and he had the filet mignon, both of which were cooked perfectly.

    Breakfast:

    We had the buffet breakfast at the hotel only once. It was good but at $33 per person, not something we wanted to do every day. Luckily, a new place opened right next door to the Ritz called Las Canerias Bakery. Locally owned place that serves breakfast and lunch (and also dinner but I wouldnt consider it a dinner place). It was perfect for breakfast each morning. For lunch, they have various sandwiches and also some Puerto Rican specialties. We went here almost every day.

    Nightlife:

    We like to gamble in the evenings so we did that. However, the Ritz Carlton is pretty quiet at night and if you are interested in a little nightlife, I highly recommend that you head over to El San Juan on a Friday or Saturday night. It has a beautiful huge lobby, live music, and lots of music - some latin music and some pop music. It's fun to watch the Puerto Rican couples salsa dancing and listen to the band.

    Can't think of anything else right now. Available to answer whatever questions I can. We had a great time.

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