The Bravo-lebrity, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and self-described know-it-all has devoted both time and money to aid the island post-Hurricane Maria, and she’s got opinions on how you can vacation and make a difference, too.
If you don’t know Bethenny Frankel from her role as breakout reality TV star and queen “Not-a-Housewife” Real Housewives of New York, you’ve certainly drunk or at least heard of her singular SkinnyGirl brand cocktails, which grew to be a $100-million company and greater lifestyle brand. Beyond her entrepreneurial prowess, Frankel thrust herself into the cultural zeitgeist with her extremely gif-able Greek-chorus quips narrating the insanity that is Housewives drama.
Beyond her entrepreneurial prowess, Frankel thrust herself into the cultural zeitgeist with her extremely gif-able Greek-chorus quips narrating the insanity that is ‘Housewives’ drama.
Skinnygirl has expanded beyond cocktails to everything from “market-fresh deli” items and jeans, and Frankel’s capitalized on her personality and personal life as a daytime TV host and bestselling author of self-help and fiction alike. But her prolific enterprise has always been about more than being a socialite and a businessperson—because she used to be neither. For Frankel, philanthropy work is more than a passion project, and so she launched b strong, a disaster relief initiative providing real-time emergency assistance to individuals and their families in crisis. Her efforts focus on distributing disaster relief supplies and especially gift cards—Frankel wants recipients to have agency in deciding their needs—and have varied in cause from the Paradise Fires in California to Hurricane Florence in North Carolina. But it has been her travels to Puerto Rico to aid victims of Hurricane Maria that has raised over $1 million in donations and supplies thanks to Frankel’s fundraising, publicity, and personal efforts on the ground.
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Fodor’s reached out to Frankel to find out what, nearly two years after Hurricane Maria’s wake, we can expect from a visit to Puerto Rico, and how we can help our fellow Americans in their time of crisis.
Fodor’s: What should travelers know about what it’s like to go to the island in 2019?
Bethenny Frankel: The comeback and revival have been inspiring. Puerto Ricans are fighters and they have rebuilt much of this beautiful island of music and food and passion. I love the people the most.
Besides philanthropic work, did you vacation in Puerto Rico before the hurricane?
I had been there twice before the hurricane. I am planning more trips there. I had no idea how soulful, sexy, and fun it is. With so much “new” everywhere in the US, it is wonderful to visit a place with such history and nostalgia. My favorite place to stay is the Condado Vanderbilt in San Juan. Old San Juan is beautiful. It’s a great island to wander to experience all it has to offer.
What do you recommend to visitors who want to travel to and positively impact the island post-hurricane?
Simply to visit Puerto Rico and its beaches, unique hotels, bars, restaurants and culture overall, is to see how beautiful and interesting it is. It is a short visit from anywhere in the US and really feels like you’ve been transported to another country.
Why would you tell someone to vacation in Puerto Rico?
The great thing about Puerto Rico is that there is something for everyone. It is lively and fun and sexy and you can get a great meal without spending a fortune. If you want history and culture you can visit Old San Juan and take a tour of El Morro, you can go to one of their multiple museums. If you like coffee this is your kind of place, they also have tours to visit local coffee farms. For the adventure seeker, there’s hiking at El Yunque, ziplining in Toro Verde, surfing in Rincón.
Puerto Rico has a lot to offer beyond the capital. The best way to explore the city is either catching a tour or renting a car. You could go see El Yunque Rain Forest, take a catamaran and sail to the islands and keys off the eastern coast, visit some of the world’s most beautiful beaches in Vieques or Culebra, if you’re there on a moonless night you can go to one of the bioluminescent bays. In the west coast make sure to go surfing in Rincón and jump off rock formations at Gozalandia waterfalls in San Sebastián, you can always go ziplining or just enjoy the beauty of the Puerto Rican mountains.
“Keep in mind Puerto Rico is hot all year round so dress accordingly, but if you want to fit in, get dolled up at night. And boys, don’t wear shorts to go out–men like to dress up as much as the ladies in PR.”
What sort of cuisine should we try and where should we try it?
My favorite restaurant is Bottles and I love the small dive bars in Old San Juan. The dining experience in Puerto Rico is off the charts! For budget dining try La Casita Blanca, Casita Miramar, Princesa Gastro Bar, or La Bombenera 1902 for a morning mallorca (sweet bread roll)–all offer extraordinary local cuisine. For hipper dining, go to any of the restaurants at Calle Loiza in Condado, and for fine dining, there’s Mario Pagán, Santaella, José Enrique, Wilo Eatery and Bar, Costa in Mayagüez. Keep in mind Puerto Rico is hot all year round so dress accordingly, but if you want to fit in, get dolled up at night. And boys, don’t wear shorts to go out–men like to dress up as much as the ladies in PR.
A favorite Puerto Rican pastime is chinchorreo, [which is] essentially a weekend roadtrip to go bar- and restaurant-hopping in small local eateries [chinchorros]. Puerto Rican dining staples you need to try: arroz con habichuelas (rice and beans), arroz con gandules (rice and pigeon peas), mofongo (mashed plantain), lechón a la vara (pork on a spit, any part of it), pasteles (a typical holiday dish similar to tamales), alcapurrias (there’s no English translation, but worth the adventure), bacalaítos (cod fritters), tostones (fried green plantains), or amarillos (fried sweet plantains).
What’s the scene like? What do you recommend for entertainment?
Puerto Rico has a diverse music scene, everything from salsa, reggaeton, Latin rock. For clubbing [in San Juan] try Brava or 58 Club. If you want to hear some original Puerto Rican Bomba & Plena, be sure to visit El Callejón de la Tanca in Old San Juan and La Terraza de Bonanza in Santurce.
Or, you can visit la Placita de Santurce [a historical market/block party]. During the day, it operates as a fresh fruit and vegetable market where the restaurants in the area buy a lot of their produce. But at night, it turns into a party. There’s music at every restaurant and bar there and sometimes they’ll have live music in the Placita on weekends.
As a cocktail guru, what sort of drinks do you recommend on a PR vacation?
The coffee there is incredible. If you ask for coffee they automatically serve it with milk so if you prefer your coffee black, ask for “café negro,” but beware, the coffee is strong. Piña Coladas were born in Puerto Rico, so be sure to try those. I also like mojitos prepared with local rum–you can’t get any better than having a mojito on a beach in Puerto Rico. [Buying from] local coffee farmers, distillers, and breweries is the best–everything is fresher and you help support local business.
Any recommended historical sights or can’t miss attractions?
Old San Juan itself is a great historical visit, a trip to El Morro in the heart of the old city is a must, the architecture is beautiful. There are some great museums too, like Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, MADMi, all in Santurce, and the Museo de Arte de Ponce in the southern city of Ponce. San Juan is incredible, there’s a lot to do, but don’t be afraid to leave the city. Also in Ponce [on the southern coast], Castillo Serrallés, Ponce Historic Center, Hacienda Buena Vista (a restored coffee and cacao plantation), and Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Tibes, an indigenous ceremonial park.
Are there other ways visitors and tourists can support efforts for Puerto Rico?
There are places that you may not see [as easily] in the mountains and in some of the devastated water communities. Besides b strong, check out YoNoMeQuito to find out how to go on a mission and help pets, people and the island overall. Invest in local businesses versus national chains. Mom-and-pop businesses need you. To spend money here is to help this US territory. And post about your travels so people realize how wonderful it is. Use the hashtags #DiscoverPuertoRico, #IslaDelEncanto, and #yonomequito on your social media!