Puerto Rico's New Promise
Puerto Rican vacation used to be as predictable as the sunny weather. Visitors would stay at one of San Juan’s big hotels, hit the slots and sip a piña colada (a Puerto Rican invention) while getting a tan at Isla Verde beach. I should know—I’ve taken this same trip three times myself. The food felt just as inevitable: mountains of rice and beans and countless variations of pork, which locals eat as frequently as Romans down cups of espresso. But a hotel boom has brought Portland style and the pointillist plates of modernist cuisine to the island. And Ritz-Carlton just opened an ultra-luxury resort here, with a restaurant by cutting-edge chef José Andrés. I hopped the quick flight from New York to see if Puerto Rico could accomplish something new: surprise me.
The first taxi driver I approached at the San Juan airport had never heard of O:live Boutique Hotel, which worried me. But when I eventually found the place, the reason was clear: The hotel is both new and tucked away, a 15-room inn on a quiet street near the Condado Lagoon.
The owners, Loisse Herger and Fernando Davila, are a cute young couple who got into the hotel business by accident. Three years ago, Herger’s aunt gifted them a rather large wedding present—a hotel, the Hostería Del Mar. They built their second business, O:live, which opened last May, from the ground up. Davila, a contractor, gutted a former office building, and Herger, who worked in marketing, branded it as a low-key alternative to the party hotels on the beach. “Puerto Rico is just starting to get concepts like local, organic, mixology,” she explained as the sun set over the rooftop deck. The hotel reminded me more of Portland, Oregon, than the San Juan I remembered. There’s reclaimed wood on the walls and in the furniture; even the elevator is lined with weathered planks, which makes going down to the lobby feel like traveling in a wine crate. The restaurant, O:liva, has a similarly rustic look and a pan-Mediterranean menu. I loved the lamb tagine with sweet Sicilian caponata and the Europa 23 cocktail, with rum, passion fruit and strawberry.
At the Beach
San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel is only five miles from O:live, but it feels more like a thousand—the exact distance to Miami’s South Beach. When I arrived, there were dance beats booming from the roof bar and bikini-clad women drifting through the lobby. I half expected to see rapper Rick Ross and his entourage walking by. The interior is best described as aquatic-chic, and they take it all the way, piping bubble noises into the hallways and painting the rooms in various shades of blue. The hotel feels like checking into a very hip aquarium.
The Water Club, as the hotel is known, recently underwent a $2.5 million face-lift. Much of that money went into Zest, a new restaurant where chef Raul Correa Soto serves modernist Puerto Rican food, making arroz con pollo with Israeli couscous and confit chicken, and flavoring mofongo (a mash of plantains and pork rinds) with a chorizo-saffron broth. My favorite dish had no Latin connection at all: an amuse-bouche in a miniature mason jar, which, after being popped open, revealed a soup that tasted like the pure essence of movie-theater popcorn.
Out of Town
Of all of Puerto Rico’s recent openings, the Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve that opened in December is by far the splashiest. The Reserve is a new Ritz-Carlton offshoot, designed to attract understated-luxury travelers who want hotels that are smaller, more green, more casual and more in touch with local culture than their grand old cousins. They’re also more expensive than a typical Ritz-Carlton, as rooms in high season start at $1,500.
A 35-minute drive west of San Juan, the resort (which hadn’t yet opened when I toured it) is a 1,400-acre coconut plantation that used to belong to Laurance Rockefeller. The rooms—think Spanish colonial villas as outfitted by Giorgio Armani—are stunning, but the greening of the LEED-certified resort is impressive, too. Walkways are built to curve around trees; no cars are allowed anywhere on the property; when guests slide open the glass doors to their private ocean-facing patios (most with private plunge pools), the air conditioning switches off automatically.
The Ritz-Carlton is also betting on food by bringing down super-inventive chef José Andrés to the resort. His restaurant, called Mi Casa, was under construction when I visited, but the Spanish-born Andrés talked eagerly about “honoring Puerto Rican food traditions, elevating them too, and mixing them with Spanish dishes.” He first visited the island as an aspiring 22-year-old chef, and he fell in love with its “in-between-ness,” which makes the island a perfect place for him to combine Caribbean, Iberian and American traditions. “Puerto Rico belongs to America, but it is still a place to be discovered by America,” he says. “It’s an island with so much potential.”
Way Out of Town
An hour-and-a-half drive from San Juan, on the country’s northwestern coast, is Royal Isabela Resort, which opened in October on a 300-foot bluff overlooking the Atlantic. Here, Charlie and Stanley Pasarell, former pro tennis players, have built 20 casitas on a terraced hillside.
The brothers—who have stories about everyone from Arthur Ashe to Fidel Castro—took me on a tour of the estate, which includes a golf course, tennis courts, a secluded beach and acres of undeveloped land. We drove through the farm, with endless fields of banana and yuca plants. Along the spring-fed Guajataca River, where the staff grow plantains and yuca for fries, I saw an ancient-looking fisherman pulling out a string of fish for that night’s dinner.
Seafood is a strong point at Royal Isabela’s Restaurant at La Casa, since New York City fish guru Dave Pasternack from Esca helps consult on the menu and has trained chef José Carles Fabregas. He cooks like Pasternack, producing food that is deceptively simple, like snapper roasted in a banana leaf and fat shrimp seared in a blazing-hot pan. Argentinean-style steak gets a thick crust from the wood-burning oven, which is also where he cooks a spiced hamburger—a recipe that Fabregas won’t share with the owners.
Finally, I said good-bye to the coast and the chatty brothers and headed up winding jungle roads to the tiny mountain town of Adjuntas. Hidden off a poorly marked road, the Hacienda Luz de Luna (photo) is a 19th-century coffee-and-citrus plantation owned by lawyer Edric Vivoni and his wife, Luchy. The couple greets visitors with a sangria mojito and a tour of their property, but it’s all a prelude to the afternoon meal at their Restaurarte Vida Ventura: Using ingredients grown on the hacienda, the Vivonis’ son, Ventura, cooks a 10-course neo-Puerto Rican extravaganza. Ventura introduces each course with a detailed backstory. On the day I was there, he paused between the mushroom-plantain risotto and the salted-cod alcapurria (a plantain fritter) to break out his acoustic guitar and serenade one family’s grandmother with a rousing version of “Feliz Cumpleaños.” It was sweet and intimate—the exact Puerto Rico I had been seeking.
Brooklyn-based writer Josh Eells is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. This is his first piece for Food & Wine.
Where to Go in Puerto Rico
O:live Boutique Hotel
A casual, 15-room inn inspired by the owners’ travels through Amalfi, Andalusia, Morocco and Provence. Doubles from $180; oliveboutiquehotel.com.
Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve
Only the second Reserve property in the world (the first is in Thailand), the Dorado Beach mixes ultra-luxury service with an eco-friendly aesthetic. Doubles from $800; doradobeachreserve.com.
San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel
San Juan relaxation with a South Beach party vibe. Doubles from $180; waterbeachhotel.com.
Twenty casitas on the island’s quiet northwest coast. Doubles from $610; royalisabela.com.
Restaurarte Vida Ventura at the Hacienda Luz de Luna
Puerto Rican cuisine served in a 19th-century plantation house. restaurartevidaventura.com.