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DESTINATION: CARIBBEAN

Puerto Rico Revival

From the lively streets of Old San Juan to somnolent villages and a luxury resort, the island sports an increasing sophistication and diversity

October 01, 2000|JUDI DASH | Judi Dash, a travel writer and photographer, writes the Times' monthly Gear & Gadgets column

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — I knew Puerto Rico as a child, meaning I knew the charm-free chambers of San Juan's high-rise beach hotels and the unimaginative fare of tourist restaurants catering mainly to East Coast residents looking for a quick warm-weather fix.

The friendly but lackluster Puerto Rico of my youth still exists for package-tour visitors. For the more inquisitive, however, that image is dated. Spurred by competition for tourist dollars from other Caribbean islands and by the increasing sophistication of its own residents, the 3,435-square-mile island, a bit more than 1,000 miles southeast of Miami, has matured into a vacation destination of astounding variety. The change is evident in the high-quality lodgings, dining, entertainment and art in the capital city of San Juan and beyond.

My husband, David, and I were drawn back here by several magazine articles lauding Puerto Rico's charms and by friends who had returned with glowing reports of gorgeous sea views and beaches and innovative restaurants, interesting shops and engaging residents.

A nine-day visit in March provided so many options that we had to narrow our goal of sampling all of Puerto Rico's diverse atmospheres to just three spots: Old San Juan on the north coast, an elegant inn on the island's little-touristed west shore and one of its biggest resorts on the bustling east coast.

Old San Juan captivated us from the start, and I regretted that we hadn't allotted more than one full day and two nights.

A half-hour taxi ride from the airport took us into a tangle of cobbled streets in the old walled city, with its tropical-fruit-colored Spanish colonial houses, sparkling white churches and little green plazas--all packed into seven square blocks.

On our first night, we stayed at the recently restored 57-room El Convento Hotel, a converted 17th century Carmelite convent, because it was within walking distance of everything that interested us. The place was more than convenient; it proved elegant and surprisingly homey, feeling more like a private club than a hotel. Our room was both modern and historic, with cool black and white, diamond-patterned marble floors, antique mahogany furnishings and a small carved wooden balcony overlooking San Juan Cathedral.

A few (uphill) streets away, artist Jan D'Esopo's 23-room Gallery Inn B&B--home for our second night--had terraces, cozy drawing rooms and guest chambers that formed a fun jumble of sleeping and living spaces. There was always something happening at Jan's--a wine and cheese party on the rooftop deck overlooking San Juan harbor, an impromptu concert on the Steinway piano in the comfortable music room, with D'Esopo and her pet cockatoo warbling along.

We took our one day out and about in San Juan in stride, soaking up the new-old ambiente of the walled city's recent renaissance. The once-decaying streets sparkled with chic galleries and folk-art shops, innovative cafes and sizzling nightspots.

Armed with a street map, we strolled the lengths of Calle del Cristo, Calle Fortaleza and Calle San Francisco, the main cultural and shopping areas. We ducked in and out of elite boutiques catering to sleek women wearing couture, and working-class bars patronized by old men in overalls and sporting three-day stubble. Our meandering route deposited us on the popular bay-front pedestrian promenade, Paseo de la Princesa.

Our favorite discovery was the town's fabulous folk art. At the airy Museo de Artes Populares (Museum of Popular Art) on Calle del Cristo, we loved the vibrant creations of mask artist Reinaldo Rodriguez Santana, a native of the western coastal city of Mayaguez. His animal and devil visages, brilliantly hued coconut-husk faces with wild expressions and tree branches or banana leaves for hair, were inspired by Carnival masks worn at pre-Lenten festivals. All were for sale, but way out of our price range at several thousand dollars each. We resolved to find more affordable ones.

Fierce, comical, brightly painted Carnival masks beckoned from more than a dozen shop windows: papier-ma^che faces from the southern city of Ponce, with bulging eyes, fangs and tangles of horns; black, white and red coconut-shell heads from the northeastern town of Loiza. The simplest cost less than $50; elaborate Ponce masks, with up to 100 intricately molded horns, commanded more than $1,000.

A coconut-shell Loiza mask--an exquisite black and white face surrounded by long striped horns--followed us home (for $350) from La Bella Piazza, a very good Italian restaurant on Calle San Francisco where all the art was for sale.

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