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.
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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.