Island Life: Puerto Rico

6.12.2013

By Out.com Editors

From day to night: this island keeps things fresh and relaxed.

Photography by Bobby Fisher

Beamed ceilings, arched windows, and low-slung chandeliers -- Caficultura in San Juan provides an ethereal backdrop for the boys pouring lattés, their black curls tumbling over dark brows, who grace the urbane café with a traditional beauty and attitude matching the increasingly cosmopolitan neighborhood. The fact that Caficultura sits on the corner of Plaza Colon, square in the middle of Old San Juan, is the best indication that this isn’t your standard Caribbean port of call. Forget the usual carnival barker detritus: the fruity, glow-in-the-dark margaritas, the beaded cornrows, the conch fritters. Too soulful to dumb itself down, San Juan remains a study in Spanish colonial elegance, offering what any dedicated traveler wants: a whiff of passionate authenticity.

Not that the city’s old town, which draws daytime mobs of cruise-line tours, doesn’t pitch its own complement of tchotchke-strewn souvenir stands. But they fade into the remarkable background of cobblestoned streets, pastel-washed townhouses in a crayon box of colors, and the matte significance of the city’s many historical landmarks. The best trail: Stop at El Morro, the fortress maze of turrets and ramps rising from the harbor like an elegant cliff; dive into the circa 1540 Catedral San Juan Bautista; then head for the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, where a painting of a beatifically shaggy Saint Sebastian recalls all the pre-Raphaelite boys back at the Caficultura.

If that’s too much of a culture overload, move on to the city’s buzzing downtown, more proof that Old San Juan knows how to keep things fresh. At SoHo, mixologist Jomar Rios pours a classic mojito tinged with mint, and at Barrachina, the house specialty is a classic piña colada heavy on the rum. Lubricate before sitting down to local master chef José Santaella’s grouper fritters at his eponymous restaurant (SantaellaPR.com), followed by an elegant goat cheese and black truffle quesadilla. Finish with chocolate cake at the fittingly poetic Café Poético, where the paper-lined tables let you write your own verse while the poetry slammers go all lyrical.

The most-buzzed-about culinary newcomer, though, is at Dorado Beach, where Puerto Rico lives up to its reputation as a top resort island. No big box, pre-fab Sandals-esque resort manqué, Dorado has been a storied, swank retreat since the ’50s, famous as a posh enclave where newly “refreshed” jet-setters swanned around before it closed for its own multi-multimillion dollar nip and tuck. Basically reconstructed as a Ritz Carlton property in 2012 (though the 80-year-old ficus trees remain), the grande dame has turned all girlish and glossy again.

If a day at the beach wears you out—and you can afford the extra amenities added to the already stratospheric room rate (the Hotel El Convento, a converted 17th-century convent back in town, is a much better bargain) -- book a massage in one of the botanical spa’s tree house treatment rooms or grab dinner at ubiquitous master chef José Andrés’s Mi Casa restaurant, his first kitchen outside the continental United States, where dishes like soupy rice tossed with lobster pay homage to the indigenous, hybrid cocina criolla cuisine, just part of the
hyperkinetic culture of Puerto Rico at large.

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