Travel

United state of oasis

Puerto Rico’s grandest hotels are reviving and new luxury resorts springing up, as David Kaufman finds.

January 22 2011
David Kaufman

The setting could be any coastal Latin American village. Uniformed children issue from schoolhouses and wander home to pastel-coloured bungalows and shacks, as the heavy patois of island Spanish and the sizzle of pollo asado waft past palms whose fronds blow gently in the early-winter breeze. Cresting just beyond the town’s edge are the emerald shallows of the north-eastern Caribbean; tiny fishing boats lie motionless on the midday low tide alongside triple-decker commuter ferries departing for neighbouring shores.

The ambience is Hemingway-esque in its equatorial languor – that of a fantastical pre-Castro Cuba, where lazy afternoon siestas are inevitably followed by rum-filled dinners and all-night salsa sessions. And then you spot it – undeniable proof that you are most definitely not in Havana: United States Post Office, Vieques, PR 00765.

Vieques, the small island just 13km east of the Puerto Rican “mainland”, is arguably the most idyllic illustration of the unique Gringo-Latino identity that characterises this US Commonwealth. Not quite a state, but decades past being a colony, Puerto Rico is an existential and sociopolitical oddity – where US dollars are legal tender, yet English is the second language; where Barack Obama is president, yet locals are denied the right to vote in presidential elections.

Reached by ferry or puddle-jumper plane and lacking a single stoplight, Vieques is home to barely 9,000 people who live amid verdant scrub- and jungle-clad hills, clear-watered beaches and herds of wild horses. Recent years have seen wealthy Americans begin to adopt this place, opening tiny art galleries, encouraging the growth of weekly farmers’ markets and building modernist villas upon sea-view parcels in barrios such as Esperanza and Martineau. A more conspicuous arrival last spring was that of the W Hotels chain, whose Retreat & Spa, with its Patricia Urquiola-designed interiors and Alain Ducasse cuisine, has raised the style bar for the entire Spanish Caribbean.

Meanwhile, across the Vieques Straits, mainland Puerto Rico is also in the midst of a larger – and much needed – island-wide upgrade. This dovetails nicely with the relaunch of British Airways’ scheduled service from London Gatwick, which resumes next month. In San Juan, the Commonwealth’s 490-year-old capital, iconic seafront casino-resorts are being restored to their original art-deco and tropical-modernist glamour. Along the northern coast, beyond the city’s sprawl, malls and cruise-ship crowds, far more ambitious developments are rising.

On the site of the former Dorado Beach Hotel (a 1,400-acre complex originally built by Laurance Rockefeller as one of his seminal RockResorts), around $350m is being poured into an outpost of Ritz-Carlton’s ultra-luxe Reserve brand, its first in the Americas. The Reserve is due to open in 2012, but already up, running and making news since last November is the 139-room St Regis Bahia Beach, which opened on a former coconut plantation in the shadow of El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest System.

The nine-figure newcomers are most welcome arrivals on an island whose half-empty luxury apartment towers testify to the recent recession that crippled El Norte. But Puerto Rico’s fortunes have tended to rise and retreat in tandem with those of the mainland since 1898, when it was ceded to the US following the Spanish-American War. As one of Spain’s last colonial outposts, the island held strategic importance for an expansionist America aggressively colonising its way to its then-ultimate goal – Panama – where it proceeded to dredge the legendary canal.

Over the half-century that followed, Puerto Rico evolved from colony to Commonwealth – or “Estado Libre Asociado” – and America granted Puerto Ricans US citizenship while shifting control over most major civic institutions to the US Congress. Boosted by massive American patronage, the island has transformed from a typically Caribbean agriculture-based society into a modern economy, anchored around San Juan and fuelled by banking, pharmaceutical manufacturing and – most crucially – tourism.

Despite that modernisation, and the island’s annual 5m-plus tourists, San Juan still retains shadows of the pueblo founded by Juan Ponce de León in 1508, 15 years after Christopher Columbus first landed here during his second Atlantic crossing. The capital’s pearl remains its old town, Viejo San Juan, perched on a tiny islet between the Atlantic Ocean and San Juan Bay. Ringed by fortified walls and criss-crossed by blue-cobblestone streets, with leafy plazas and whitewashed cathedrals, Old San Juan excels in the role of quaint colonial outpost.

Its hotel choices are somewhat limited, but the 58-room El Convento and 35-room Casablanca are middle-sized options close to the barrio’s museums. Set within a 365-year-old Carmelite convent, El Convento pairs the best of old-world amenities (shady arcaded walkways, a consecrated chapel) with luxury necessities (a rooftop pool, a hip courtyard restaurant). At Casablanca, just two years old, the Moorish-inspired décor, lounge-y lobby scene and more accessible prices clearly skew to an aspirational clientele – as does its location in SoFo, the old city’s recently revived South of Fortaleza district.

Nothing symbolises the new Old San Juan like SoFo, whose seven square blocks now buzz with some of the most creative culinary activity in the entire Caribbean. Some is imported direct from Nueva York; Marmalade, for instance, is helmed by Chef Peter Schintler, a veteran of Le Cirque, while the proprietor of local pioneer Trois Cent Onze previously worked at Jean Georges.

Four of SoFo’s top tables are owned by Emilio Figueroa, whose “nuevo-Latino” Parrot Club kick-started the quarter’s rebirth when it débuted in 1996. Since then, more than 20 restaurants have opened along the streets surrounding Calle Fortaleza – more than enough to support a twice-annual SoFo Culinary Week (in June and November/December) and land the area on the US media map as a legitimate foodie haven.

But urban renewal is unfolding on a larger scale beyond Old San Juan, along Ashford Avenue in the oceanfront, resort-filled Condado district. The bastion of San Juan’s old-money élite, Condado is also home to most of the city’s tropical deco architecture. Elegantly streamlined, with bright colours and nautical motifs, it evokes a slightly less exuberant Miami Beach.

La Concha resort, with its whitewashed concrete façade and fanciful shell-shaped restaurant, is a prime example of this Puerto Rican moderne, as is the Caribe Hilton, whose architects Miguel Ferrer and Osvaldo Toro also designed the Puerto Rico Supreme Court. Both hotels are worth admiring – though, with their outsized restaurants and mega room numbers, aren’t necessarily the ones to actually book into.

Just beyond La Concha is the Condado Vanderbilt, a 1919 Spanish revival compound built in the splendid faux-Andalusian style then popular with wealthy Hispano-Cubans in Havana and South Florida. Designed by Whitney Warren (whose Warren and Wetmore architects helped design New York’s Grand Central Terminal), the landmarked hotel, when it’s completed this autumn, will be the most ambitious in half a decade of San Juan renovations. Since 2003, its ornately porticoed façade and every detail behind it have been under painstaking renovation – a total of 326 ultra-slick modern and monochrome accommodations, many of them suites housed in a pair of towers rapidly rising along the original building’s flanks.

But the Puerto Rico newcomer garnering the most attention right now is the St Regis Bahia Beach, adjacent to a country and golf club 30 minutes’ drive east of San Juan. A complex of low-slung, pitched-roof, casita-style pavilions, artfully arranged around reflecting ponds and vibrant, manicured foliage in the midst of a 483-acre site, the resort has a vaguely Aman-Zen aesthetic – though the service in the weeks immediately following its opening was anything but Aman calibre, as I found when I visited.

An increasingly unfunny comedy of errors, the gaffes ranged from the mundane but disappointing (poorly cleaned rooms, missed wake-up calls) to major transportation muck-ups and a Jean-Georges Vongerichten kitchen that proved in its preview to be less than worthy of the French master chef’s imprimatur. But the staff, if currently not quite hitting its efficiency and detail-orientation marks, at least offers a genuinely warm welcome that lasts the duration of guests’ stay; and ongoing intensive training suggests that improvements are inevitable.

The setting, meanwhile – a two-mile-long stretch of palm-studded talcum beach, bookended by lagoons and a championship golf course, with the verdant mountains of El Yunque rainforest in the southern distance – goes a long way toward selling Bahia Beach all on its own.

However, one has only to look 40 miles across the Atlantic to Vieques, and its W Retreat & Spa, to see a deluxe newcomer that operated seamlessly and with aplomb just months after opening. Spanish design superstar Patricia Urquiola’s exuberant interiors lend humour, chic and a graphic wow factor in equal parts to the public spaces, where colour and pattern run wild through timber-walled rooms of bunker-like proportions. The same design motifs in a toned-down form impart breezy style to the suites, with their polished-stone floors and sliding glass doors.

Eyebrows were raised when Alain Ducasse announced he was overseeing W’s kitchens – the upscale restaurant Mix on the Beach, as well as the pools’ and beaches’ casual shack-style menus – but the cuisine is a surprising hit, with Mix’s alfresco terrace serving Caribbean views along with a creative menu that includes such seafood delights as curried roasted lobster. Meanwhile, at the beach, the “simple salad” turns out to be a clever and unexpected combination of herby fresh greens, al dente cous cous, pears and lemon juice. There are also a modernist 10-room spa and a pair of almost perfectly twinned crescent beaches, the latter manned by staff happy to provide everything from towels and Panama hats to cocktails and petits plats from the restaurants.

During a late-November visit, a refreshing mix of young families, media and fashion professionals, gay couples, honeymooners and posh San Juanistas arranged themselves around the resort’s infinity pools every afternoon. None felt out of place, aided as much by W’s literal “nowhere else to go” atmosphere as by the amiable, casual ambience the resort strives (and largely succeeds) to create. Vieques itself – with its otherworldly bioluminescent bay, seafront promenade and virtually undiscovered (for now) white-sand beaches – feels for all the world like a real island oasis. But it’s likely that America’s only Spanish-speaking outpost won’t remain the gem the conquistadors left behind for long.