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Puerto Rico: a labyrinth of candy-coloured

Puerto Rico: a labyrinth of candy-coloured

Posted by Juan Gavasa on March 16, 2015

This isn’t Puerto Rico’s first moment in the sun. Back in the Sixties, the island found itself fleetingly one of the most fashionable destinations in the Caribbean. Banned from Cuba, high-society “snowbirds” from the north-eastern United States were happy to slum it for a slice of easily accessible sunshine.

Back then, John F Kennedy and Joan Crawford frequented what is now Ritz Carlton’s newly luxurious Dorado Beach resort, even though Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story had immortalised the island as a place of “diseases … hurricanes … money owing … bullets flying”. The locals were falling over themselves to leave for a new life in Brooklyn. Wealthy New Yorkers just wanted winter tans.

For many would-be long-haul travellers it’s the lyrics of Bernstein’s America that still define Puerto Rico. But that was a long time ago. Now it’s enjoying a tourist renaissance: local chefs have developed innovative, sophisticated new styles; chic hotels are opening up; and for New Yorkers, in particular – taking advantage of low-cost, three-hour domestic flights to San Juan – Puerto Rico has become a favourite weekend break. It’s fitting: the island has all the palm fronds, golden sand and surf of the best of the Caribbean, but with a quirky, urban twist.

Puerto Rico is the 51st American state in all but name. As you land in San Juan, the strip malls sprawl out below you as they do in any major US conurbation. But after a short cab ride to the old town, you’re transported into a labyrinth of candy-coloured, 17th-century, colonial architecture. As long as some behemoth of a cruise liner isn’t docked, spewing its passengers out on to the cobbles (all those designer outlets that you’ll spot are here for the cruise ship traffic), this Unesco World Heritage Site is a joy to explore.

Wandering around dive bars and antique shops, you might find yourself wondering why we don’t paint our buildings emerald green, cerulean blue and canary yellow in Britain. As you squint across the blindingly bright, white cemetery stones overlooking the ocean by the fort, it should be obvious: we don’t have this brutal, beautiful, year-round Caribbean sun.

The Dorado Beach Resort has one of the loveliest outdoors spa areas in the Caribbean. Photo Ritz Carlton

If you’re looking for the usual paradise island pursuits, they are all here. The St Regis Bahia Beach resort (001 787 809 8000; stregisbahiabeach.com) has been the go-to, family-orientated five-star resort in these parts since opening five years ago. It’s on the edge of the El Yunque rainforest, with its driving and hiking trails and copious waterfalls (you can swim in the pool beneath the La Mina falls). There is a solid Jean-Georges Vongerichten fine dining restaurant, an elaborate and lively pool area and several beautiful areas to jog, fish or get married in around the grounds. Service style borders on over the top, and by-the-book American.

Smaller, and with more “wow” factor as you walk in past the lily ponds to see the sea roaring away on the other side of the infinity pool, is the aforementioned Dorado Beach resort (626 1100; ritzcarlton.com). This is top-end territory, right down to the sometimes remarkable molecular cooking of José Andrés in the restaurant, Mi Casa. Try his interesting deconstructed eggs benedict for breakfast, then order the classic version to feel full. Have the tasting menu, with pork belly sliders, sautéed squid and scores of other small plates, for dinner. Drink José’s fantastic twist on the margarita, with salt foam, which keeps the smack of saline constant for the whole glass. The novelty may distract you from the woman from Arkansas at the next table, making a video call to her friend while blowing smoke from an electric blue vape pipe. “Hi, honey! I’m in a restaurant! In Puerto Rico!”

Some of the less urbane guests aside, this is a beautiful place to spend a few days, with one of the loveliest outdoor spa areas in the Caribbean, with onsen baths, fragranced steam rooms and skilled masseurs. This being Puerto Rico, it’s also acceptable to order piña coladas. This guilty pleasure of a cocktail was first mixed on the island, so it’s not tacky, but as much a part of the heritage as the architecture around Catedral de San Juan Bautista.

At the top of the old town, behind unmarked gates, artist Jan D’Esopo has been playing the role of eccentric landlady at her bohemian, ramshackle, opulent Gallery Inn (722 1808; thegalleryinn.com) since the Seventies. She takes her white cockatoo, Campeche, around the corner for coffee every afternoon, but doesn’t go into town much. “I let it all come to me,” she says. “We have a salon, and music students and maestros play here. It’s a really interesting crowd.” There are wine tastings, four-poster beds and a roof deck in what was a grand 18th-century home. It’s not for minimalist tastes, but it has bags of budget personality – as do her numerous exotic birds. “Holaaaaa,” begs Campeche, mournfully, nodding towards you in the quest for another piece of cheese.

Eating out in Puerto Rico used to be a stodgy, heavily salted experience. Variations on mofongo (fried plantain) filled up most menus. Now there’s a lighter touch. Berlingeri Cocina Artesanal (527 3244; no website) is a tricky-to-find veggie café, run by two impossibly handsome brothers, at 1958 Calle Mcleary, in the rear of a car park next to a yoga studio. It’s cheap, delicious and many locals’ favourite new lunch spot. Wash down your soup, salad and vegan bake with a peanut butter smoothie.

The food scene has got a whole lot better-looking: chef Santaella’s eponymous restaurant (725 1611; santaellapr.com), in the buzzing market/nightlife district of Placita, is the slickest dining room in town. It used to be a hardware store; now it’s full of posh contemporary lighting and exposed cabling, with piles of Santaella’s cookbooks on the reception table and a glass-cased tropical garden in the rear. It’s as noisy as anywhere you’ll find in the Meatpacking district of Manhattan, and the food is notable and nouveau Puerto Rican: spring rolls have a morcilla filling, baby octopus comes stewed with chorizo and chickpeas in sherry and negronis are mixed with coffee-infused vermouth.

The St Regis Bahia Beach Plantation House is a family-orientated five-star resort. Photo: St Regis

You can book for Santaella, but at celebrity chef José Enrique’s eponymous spot around the corner (725 3518; joseenriquepr.com), the oh so New York/London no-reservations clipboard system is in operation, so turn up an hour before you want to eat, leave your mobile number, and go and drink some Medella beer and watch the live music and dancing in the streets until you get the call to devour mountains of smoked pork or fried fish.

Enrique’s Placita mother ship is slightly rough and ready (don’t be surprised when the waiter downs a couple of shots with you before he hands over the bill), but, along with scores of food bloggers and vloggers, Alain Ducasse has become a fan (and friend). Enrique’s new restaurant within the open-to-the-elements, curved-concrete, freshly minted landmark El Blok (741 6020; elblok.com) on Vieques, is smarter – and the food, particularly when José is in the kitchen, sensational. The hotel isn’t exactly luxe (rooms are small, sans closets or phones) but it’s comfortable and packs a visual punch, full of Aesop bathroom products, Eames oddments and framed Nine Inch Nails posters, wrapped in a facade full of artful holes that cast Instagram-worthy shadows across every surface.

Vieques, a 15-minute flight from San Juan, is the reason many come to Puerto Rico. The archetypal one-horse town here is Isabel Segunda, although the island is home to a lot more than a single apocryphal wild horse (be wary of them mid-road when you’re driving).

Things have changed a lot in the past decade. After a contentious 60-year partial occupation by the US Navy ended in 2003, tourism has grown. There used to be just one lone tour operator offering trips around Mosquito Bay, the world’s most impressive body of bioluminescent water: they let you throw yourself off the boat to marvel at the dinoflagellates sparkling like diamonds as they rolled off your body. Now there are 14 different tours, and ecologists have called a halt to the swimming. Instead, you kayak around the bay. It’s still remarkable to see the glowing organisms rushing off your oars and firing off the silhouettes of fish in the water.

Back in the Sixties, they filmed Lord of the Flies here, making use of the extraordinary sweeps of undeveloped beach that remain a huge draw. For a while, in the Eighties, it was a rustic hideaway for New York’s fashion crowd. Now it has Richard Meier-designed villas, it serves as a backdrop for Victoria’s Secret campaigns and the seafood at Bili in Esperenza is as good, if not better, than anything you’ll get on the Med.

While El Blok is busy being booked out for swimwear shoots by European glossies, it’s the W that brings the five-star urbanites to Puerto Rico. A decade ago, the W (741 410; wvieques.com) was the fusty old Martineau Bay resort. The pool was just a pool, now it’s “WET®”. There aren’t just tennis courts, there is “SWING”. It’s easy to roll your eyes at the trite cool of the W brand, but they do resorts spectacularly well. The main lobby here is a brightly coloured lounge by superstar Spanish designer Patricia Urquoila, and the firepit is a lovely place to sink a few cocktails. The service is superb and the rooms are large, with World of Interiors flair, but an 11am checkout time and 4pm check-in time is risible – one hotel trend that must not catch on.

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