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Traveler's Diary

Puerto Rican Delight

May 08, 1988|HORACE SUTTON | Sutton is a New York City syndicated travel columnist

DORADO, Puerto Rico — It was 1958 and Arnold Palmer had won his first Master's golf tournament. Pianist Van Cliburn was winning prizes in Moscow, a revolutionary notion for an American during the Cold War.

On a good will trip to South America, former President Richard Nixon was met by a hail of stones. Everybody was dancing the cha-cha and singing the new hit from Italy, "Volare." Boris Pasternak's "Dr. Zhivago," in defiance of the Kremlin, won the Nobel Prize.

Thirty years ago the first jets were rolled out, and that year I would embark on an around-the-world odyssey that would follow the existing jet trails from New York to Paris to Moscow, then piston engines the rest of the way through India and the Pacific Rim to Los Angeles. From there, American Airlines brought me home to New York City on its first jet.

Just before it opened, the Dorado Beach Hotel, on the unknown north coast of Puerto Rico, 22 miles west of San Juan, beckoned me to explore this daring adventure in hotel-keeping undertaken by Laurance Rockefeller.

A luxury resort in such a remote and untried area seemed to fit the style of the emerging combine called Rockeresorts, which had already planted Caneel Bay, a stunning hideaway on the even more remote island of St. John in the Virgin Islands. It was reachable by way of Puerto Rico, then via a connecting flight to St. Thomas, a cab ride to the ferry slip and a boat ride to the resort.

Intrigued by Suggestion

After that dauntless adventure, Laurance Rockefeller was intrigued by the suggestion of Beardsley Ruml, then an economic adviser to Puerto Rico's governor, together with implorings of Teodoro Moscoso, an islander pushing "Operation Bootstrap," that he build a resort at Dorado.

The site they had in mind was a coconut and grapefruit plantation owned by the Livingston family. You couldn't get there by road, but it had an airstrip put in by Clara Livingston, the owner's daughter, an aviatrix and friend of Amelia Earhart.

A road would eventually be threaded through Dorado and down to the Rockefeller resort, but meanwhile, Rockefeller was pleased that an airstrip existed. It would eventually become part of a tiny Rockefeller airline flying between San Juan and Dorado and taking guests to the nearby Virgin Islands for a day of shopping.

In advance of the opening and my 'round-the-world trip, I boarded a four-prop plane in New York for the five-hour jaunt from New York to San Juan.

I was stunned that the Robert Trent Jones golf course was already finished and I was also stunned to find that it had cost $2 million to complete. The fairways were edged with grapefruit trees from the old plantations. In years to come, I would see a grapefruit or two, plucked by a golfer, ripening in front of the door to his room.

Spartan Cabanas

There were 136 rooms, each fitted with two single beds, but there were neither telephones nor clocks, radios nor TVs. Mini-bars had not been invented yet. Cabanas around the pool had been fitted out as rooms in case of an overflow. Spartan as they were, they were commanding $50 a day, I was appalled to learn.

Guests dressed for dinner and were assigned to tables by a social secretary in evening attire. They dined in a salon built in tiers like a stadium so that all would have a view of the sea. The ocean proved so unruly that enormous boulders had to be imported to form a breakwater.

For the official opening, Rockefeller invited 150 friends; every one, reputedly, was a millionaire. Many in the staff (some of which are still there) were recruited from the backwater town of Dorado and, delighted with their jobs, they slapped the guests on the back and wished them a good time. When a tip was offered, a bellman might well drop the suitcases and shake hands with the guest.

Most of the staff spoke only Spanish, and great posters had to be affixed to kitchen walls translating the words (with pictures) for plates, silverware, glasses, napkins and the food that was on the menu.

Bikinis were banned at the hotel because the employees would be too distracted to do their jobs.

Ava Gardner was turned away at the door because she wore slacks. It was a quiet retreat with no razzle-dazzle shows, just bingo, a champagne dance hour and what the manager termed "a lively bar."

Celebrity Hot Spot

Despite its remote and quiet air, Dorado drew Sen. John F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Nelson Rockefeller, then governor of New York, and, ultimately, former President Dwight Eisenhower.

By 1976 it was well enough known to draw a seven-nation summit meeting that included former President Jerry Ford and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

But long before that, Dorado had grown to a 300-room resort and was sold to Eastern Airlines, which caused a tremor when it raised its rates to $100 a day.

By 1976, the airline decided it should not be in the hotel business, and the resort was taken over by Equitable Insurance and managed by Regent Hotels. Three years ago, both Dorado and its nearby sister hotel, Cerromar, was bought by Hyatt, which put many millions into a remake. Now the guest rooms have two double beds or a four-poster king-size, as well as telephones, radios, robes and, at last, mini-bars.

Maybe some folks are still playing bingo, but more likely they will be in the house of chance--they've got one of those out here now--watching the roulette wheels go round and round.

The winter high-season rates are in effect at the Dorado Beach Hotel until June 1. Rooms are $160 to $200. In the low season, June 1 to Oct. 1, rates are $110 to $145. You can make reservations by calling Hyatt hotels at (800) 228-9000, or the Dorado direct at (809) 796-1600. The Dorado's sister hotel, the Cerromar, can be reached at (809) 796-1010.

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