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Trip Report San Juan Puerto Rico: A great long weekend

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Short weekend – long trip report!

With a small amount of prodding from fiends we booked flights for San Juan from Hartford in early December. Choices were limited, but we did manage to get fine seats on direct flights from Hartford. American has a nice schedule for what clearly are very busy flights.

Our departure was on the heels of 25 inches of snow and much to our relief the Airport was clear and flights on time within 36 hours of the last flake falling….whew! The arrival was painless and San Juan’s airport was orderly, in fact they are building a new terminal even though, dated the old one is more efficient than many on the main land! (maybe we were just lucky)

Given our somewhat last minute planning for this long weekend we went with a friends recommendation for lodging and had rooms booked at the Caribe Hilton. No research by me – very unusual. Our bags came quickly and we headed to the Taxi line. In the future (we will be back), I’d send one person to the line first while the others collect bags, a small time saver.

Taxis seem to be about $15 to $20 a trip for the four of us no matter where we were headed in the San Juan area. We had opted to travel by taxi rather than rent a car for this first and short trip to the Island. Because it was a festival weekend, it ended up being the right choice despite the couple of hundred dollars we spent on taxis over the weekend.

The Hilton itself is in need of some serious process improvement exercises. I’ll mention a few as I go along, but check-in would be a good start. There were 3 guests ahead of us in line and after almost 40 minutes we made it to the desk. By observation I began to understand what the wait was about. Lot’s of inefficiency, needed papers in the wrong place, staff unsure or each others responsibilities etc. … they literally were tripping over each other. They were trying real hard, just not getting the guest to the rooms quickly. The rooms themselves were not ready when we arrived at the front of the check in line at 1 PM (we were 3 hours early for check in). We were told that they would be ready long before 4 PM and they would cal us on our cell phones when ready. No problem, we headed to the pool and had lunch. The phone did not ring. So at 3:45 our waiter called the desk and we were told the rooms were ready. Well, as it turned out one was ready. So, we headed to the spa for massages. At 6PM, we had no call yet on the second room. The front desk had about 100 people waiting and based on prior experience I knew that the line was a 2 hour adventure. So I found a manger who apologized and let me know the room had been available since 4:30. Ok enough on that stuff.

First impression of San Juan and Puerto Rico was, and continues to be, a place we REALLY like and will definitely return to in the future. We usually head to Key West in the early Winter. The lower Keys generally have good weather, certainly better than Miami etc., but we have run into some cool/wet vacations over the years. Puerto Rico is a longer flight than Miami, but when you consider total travel time to the Keys, it’s a better deal given the seemingly better weather. Now that I have done some research I see the temps are consistently higher than Florida in January to March window.

Now for the good stuff: Food!

We jumped in for our first meal and took a cab to the Condado area for dinner at Ropa Vieja Grill. A very casual spot that appeared to have locals and tourists. The food was good, certainly felt authentic. Just not a spicy as I expected. A theme throughout our eating. Perhaps I envisioned Puerto Rican food as having more of a kick and was just wrong. Entrees consisted of a fabulous mushroom “risotto” (looked ugly, tasted great) and for three of us we had the plantain dishes that included chicken or beef, all good.

Next morning we headed to old town and directly to the somewhat famous La Bombonera for Mallorcas. What we did not know, but learned quickly as our cab came to a snails pace half way to Old Town was that it was the San Sebastian street festival weekend. La B. is a diner like grill sort of place. One of the oldest around and certainly a favorite for locals. Mallorcas are a sort of brioche made into a Panini stuffed with ham and cheese and dusted with powdered sugar…. Kind of croque monsieur meets Puerto Rico – very good and worth the wait in the fast moving line. Worth the trip and the wait. One kind of funny exception was The La Bombonerra special sandwich. I think it was described as chicken salad in an omelet sandwich. Curiosity kicked in. It was a disappointment, almost funny. Turned out the translation was a vegetable omelet in a Club sandwich served with French Fries. Oh well!

Old town was terrific and we spent hours wandering around getting the feel of the place and enjoying the sites. Peeked into a few churches and bars (it was a festival weekend after all). Highlights included the squares, still decorated for the holidays, the Governors mansion on Fortelaza street, the San Juan Cathedral, El Morro and the 500 year anniversary plaza to name a few. But, our favorite was Cristo Chapel and the adjacent pigeon park at the foot of Cristo street. Many locals were around, in part to feed the birds and in part to pray. At the adjacent corner is the Aman bar/spa… yes they provide drinks with your manicures! We skipped the manicures and had leisurely drinks and lunch with Marcus the owner. Originally from New York, Marcus, like so many of the friendly locals filled our heads with local information and tales. They do not have a cooking facility, but Marcus happily called a neighboring restaurant and ordered lunch for all of us. I had a spicy chicken salad served in an avocado half with rice and beans….it was a truly elegant flavor combination and may have been my favorite meal. We then headed back to the Hilton for a late day dose of sun! Traffic was crazy, we got out and walked part of the way back. I felt bad for the drivers, the 10 min cab ride took almost an hour.

Our room service tray (prior night pre-dinner cocktail snacks with our friends), which had not been picked up in the AM greeted us…. It stayed for almost 30 hours in the hall.

For dinner the second night we chose to head in the opposite direction of Old san Juan and headed across the bridge via cab to the Condado area again for dinner at Pikayo in the Conrad Hotel..OK, generally I am not a big fan of hotel food, but I had read good things about chef Wilo Benet’s place and I would say the positive reviews were on the mark. The food was a nice mix of Local, Caribbean and what I’ll call traditional North American food. Perhaps that equals “international”. My Pork chop was marinated in a Caribbean sauce and served over a lovely mix of veggies … the mofongo (sort of a local plantain hamburger) was the best anywhere. Dining is formal, white on white and great service. A bit pricy, but worth the experience.

We learned later that the Conrad is a Hilton property, it had more of a Morgan’s Group Hotel feel. I’ve read several reviews and they are mixed …. The driver of the mix seems to be the details that the Caribe Hilton fails on as well.

Next day we decided to stay on property and soak in the sun. After the recent New England snow, our vitamin D needed a re-charge. Buffet breakfast at the Hotel was good, but not sure that at $24 it was really worth it. Lunch was a tasty hamburger at the pool. Sticking with the plan to stay on property and avoid the huge traffic jams into the festival we ate dinner at Lemon Grass at the Hilton. It is a lovely restaurant tucked into a tropical garden and we obtained an outdoor table. The atmosphere was perfect and I must say the Thai inspired meal was a delight. I had the daily fish special of salmon and it melted in my mouth! One other item we had was diver scallops served with mini lamb burgers. An unexpected combination tied together with a perfect sauce. Kudos to the chef.

Next day and last day. Checked out early and planned our bags such that we could easily access clothing, taking advantage later of changing rooms and showers. (the hotel sends a Check out phone mail to guests every 12 hours regardless of when you are checking out – so I finally listened to it). We decided to do some “research” and headed to the Ritz Carlton on Isle Verde. The Ritz is like any Ritz anywhere. Near perfect, a bit stodgy (for the Caribbean) and of course expensive. I like to take advantage of Ritz properties when in big cities, the seem somewhat out of place with French furniture etc. the Casino however was my favorite….. especially since two of us did well at the tables!

Next Stop the El San Juan (A Waldorf property). Same over the top elegance as the Ritz but with and old world/Island charm that I liked. They have a great collection of different types of chandeliers and that provided some great photo ops. We ate a hamburger at the poolside bar. The Hilton’s was better.

We then headed back to the Hilton for a few hours in the sun and the cab ride to the airport.

All in all a great getaway weekend…. We will return to explore further…. We may even buy a place …. I liked it that much!


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