Have you ever stepped out of a car, plane or train onto the ground in a city or place you have never been before but instantly known that it could be your home? Call it past life, soul home, or a “vibe” chances are if you have wanderlust like I do then this happened to you at least once.
The first time I felt that was in Hawaii, but hey I’m pretty sure EVERY person steps out of the plane at Honolulu and feels like they are home or SHOULD be home. Who doesn’t want the most delicious tropical landscape as their front AND backyard? But that’s for ANOTHER post 🙂
The second and more profound time this happened to me I was completely unprepared for the impact it would have on my life and friendships in the coming years.
It’s been well over three years since I first flew over the majestic coastline of Puerto Rico and was humbled by the beauty, culture, and overall vibe of our “sister in law” island (we east coasters know it’s there but we don’t really take advantage of it)
Personally I think Puerto Rico is one of the most underrated US destinations! I myself had ZERO expectation for my first trip due to the fact that at the time there weren’t really a lot of travel sites or blogged doing it justice…in fact I think it’s a CONSPIRACY to keep all the tourists away so they can keep their pristine beaches for themselves (can’t say that I blame them!) Read on below for the 5 reason you must book your flight now!
When it comes to first impressions this island knows how to make an entrance!
From the very first glimpse of the beaches along this incredible coastline to landing low over Old San Juan and condado all the way to Isla Verde, you will be RUNNING to grab your luggage and splash in the the clear blue carribean water as soon as humanly possible! Just be ready to practice a LOT of patience as you wait for your checked bags to arrive. I have flown in countless of times now and have decided the wait at the baggage claim is the island’s way of adjusting you for ISLAND TIME.
The feeling of the tropical air hitting my skin was reminiscent of being in Honolulu, it’s what I like to call “garden of eden” air with the perfect of amount of humidity where you feel as if you’d never be cold again and your skin just drinks it in without being too uncomfortable (mind you this was Jan NOT July so be warned summer tropical heat here is an ENTIRELY other beast).
Right away I knew I was going to need to start teaching myself a least un poquito espanol (i highly recommend the free app DUOLINGO and Itranslate–life savers!) I still notice every time I come here that the cab drivers are some of the happiest, friendliest and most proud people I meet, they always want to show me their favorite parts on the drive, share where they are from and why they love Puerto Rico. Many people here are from neighboring island such as the Dominican Republic. You will immediately notice the spirit of the island is incredibly warm, inviting and jovial! It’s as if they are in a competition with each other to show you the best spots and best time!
To an east coaster used to the drudgery of the grey Atlantic, the main beaches in Condado are stunning. However if you ask any locals they consider this particular beach to be like the HUDSON river compared to the other gorgeous beaches nearby , even about 10 minutes up the road in Isla Verde the beaches are wider and the waters calmer. The island has more beaches than you will most likely have days to visit. Renting a car and heading up to Crash Boat Beach or making the trip all the way west to Rincon is definitely worth it! I for one love Condado Beach (where many of the San Juan hotels are located), miles of golden sand and huge crashing waves. This makes it a haven for body boarders and on any given day you can see locals doing fantastic death defying tricks when the surf peaks.
The beach was the perfect setting for me to stick to my daily yoga practice and filled me with so much gratitude that I was literally jumping out of bed before the sunrise each day. To this day I’ve never been so disciplined with a daily yoga practice! I even had someone paparrazing me lol
My very first hotel in Condado (and therefore my first love) was La Concha Renaissance. The location is amazing and the staff is above and beyond. While this hotel has more of a reputation for tourists and a younger scene (think DJs spinning in the lobby nightly) the staff is still superb. This was one of my first Marriot endeavors and they over delivered with gorgeous upgrades and over my consecutive stays helped me out of numerous last minute jams including flight cancellations and last minute trip extensions. There are two main towers, one is the main building and the second is the suite tower. Goes without saying if staying here to smile as big as you can on check in to get upgraded to the suites.
If you can swing an ocean view suite with jacuzzi absolutely go for it. There are only 5 of these in the building but they have HUGE terraces overlooking the ocean and the hot tub is outside on the terrace itself. When one of my flight was cancelled and I was “stuck” for the night in San Juan (best place ever to be stranded) they squeezed me in to one of these and it remains one of my favorite stays. The only difference in ocean views from the main building and the suite tower is the balcony space. In the main building the ocean view rooms have floor to ceiling glass doors that double as windows and slide all the way open bringing the outside in however there is not a dedicated balcony to sit and enjoy your breakfast on, etc.
The lobby of La Concha is one of my favorites in the world, it operates on an “open air” philosophy and the walls are glass panels that fold and collapse onto each other. There are water elements everywhere and a gorgeous chic round bar in the center. This is a GREAT gathering spot or just to people watch even if you aren’t staying here.
As mentioned above I can’t say enough about their staff. Down to the maintenance workers, there is one gentleman in particular that sings in the most beautiful Spanish early in the morning as they are washing the pool decks. The sound of him singing while the local coqui (adorable tree frogs) chirp is something you might want to think about recording, three years later I still dream about it.
My second and equal love is the Condado Vanderbilt hotel which had opened just before my first visit. This place is PURE luxury and a much different crowd than it’s next door neighbor la concha. Interesting tidbit is they are owned by the same person (although one is a marriott and the other not). While LA Concha is young and hip , Condado is elegant and glamorous. It reminds me a lot of a St. regis with it’s level of service and ambiance. The lobby of the Condado has a grand double “gone with the wind” style staircase that is perfect for picture taking if you happen to be in a ballgown (wink).
Where this hotel shines is in the outdoor space and of course their rooms. They have multi level terraces that span the width of the property providing stunning cliff side views and plenty of nooks and crannies that you never feel on top of other people. Worth noting however is that the Condado beach ends at La Concha so this hotel does not have a beach of it’s own (hangs what feels cliffside over the ocean). Since la concha is it’s sister property it does share the beach with them so I never really felt that it was missing anything.
|distance from La Concha to Vanderbilt|
|“city view” suite– incredible ocean views!|
The rooms are absolutely stunning. All suites comes with your own personal butler much like the St. regis hotels do.
This was my first time with a “Butler” and I didn’t think I would use it at all but by the end of my stay they were an essential part of my visit. They helped me with everything that I normally would have had to figure out in the city on my own. They helped to steam each of my dresses (by hand in my room no less) , when I ran out of bobby pins-boom they were in my room in less than 10 minutes, when I got too much sun a bottle of aloe gel appeared in 5 minutes. However the most above and beyond moment was when I was attempting a quick change during one of our press events and the zipper broke on my loaned one of a kind dress, one of the night butlers used a safety pin and his teeth to fix it while I hid behind a pole in the lobby. NOW THATS SERVICE!
The rooms offer stunning views and are quite large (I think the standard room starts over 500 sq feet). My favorite room wasn’t even one of the big suites that they generously upgraded me to but a corner deluxe room that had two gorgeous balconies. One overlooked the bay and the other of course the ocean.
Even if you don’t stay here the spa is not to be missed with a beautiful Moroccan tiled room for a turkish bath and light therapy in the showers and sauna. HEAVEN!
A review on Puerto Rico is not complete without mentioned the amazing FOOD. In the past when we have vacationed in the Caribbean (St. Croix and the Caymans) the food has been ok but not stood out. Puerto Rican food is a whole other level! The seafood is of course unbelievable fresh and I even developed a taste for Mufungo by the time I left.
One of my favorite treats was when a group of local friends took us to an area of town that is a market by day and at night turns into rows of tiny bars , street vendors and amazing restaurants that seat only 8 people at a time. I laugh thinking back to how delicious the street food was that we munched on while we waited in line to eat inside, such a fun night!
If breakfast is your favorite meal of the day you are in luck, Puerto Rican breakfast pastries are like little explosions of sunshine in your mouth and of course for any rum lovers this is where the Pina Colada was invented. I always grab a few bottles of my favorite rum at the airport to bring back home. You can also tour the different rum distilleries which give an unique perspective on the history of the island
This tiny island offers endless sightseeing options. No matter what your interest Puerto Rico has it. Love architecture and or/history? Old San Juan is an unbelievable portal to the past.
Just minutes from Condado it feels like you stepped on a plane to an old village in Spain or Italy. Filled with cobblestone streets, brightly colored homes and cafes set up in the middle of the street the charm enchants you immediately.
I recommend taking a taxi to the very top to see Fort. The expansive rolling lawn that leads to the fort served a dark purpose centuries ago (that much easier to see enemies on foot attacking and they were immediately killed)
The fort not only offers some of the most incredible vantage points to view the coast line of san juan but is also filled with history. You could easily spend an entire afternoon exploring just this part of Old San Juan.
|sunset from Old San Juan|
SUNSET TIP: tourists and locals alike head out to the fort with a blanket and snack to watch the sun set in the most dramatic fashion nightly here.
Once you’ve explored the fort head down to explore the plethora of local shops, restaurants and adorable bars that line the cobble stone streets. You can also catch a glimpse of the govenor’s house while here. It’s also my person opinion that you can’t have a bad meal in Old San Juan.
If exploring nature is on your agenda rent a car (most all front desks of hotels can arrange this for you) and head either west to Rincon or East to El Yunque.
I am so grateful that my husband was able to join me last year on one of my many trips here. He is an avid surfer and Rincon is featured in several magazines and films as having world class surf. It took some convincing but we headed 3 hours west and it was like flying to another island. The coast line completely changes on this end of the island, the water is a bright turquoise and leaving san juan behind the small towns roll open in front of you . Rincon itself is mainly just the beaches with little shacks set up ocean front serving whatever they caught that day.
The beaches here are post card quality and the waves were of course firing. You can rent any type of board right next to the beach. WHALE WATCHING ALERT!! Unbeknownst to me you can see WHALES in Rincon!! I had no clue, so you can imagine my surprise and squeals of delight when a giant whale breached against the sky about 100 yards directly in front of me. Such an incredibly life affirming moment, I purchased a painting by a local amazing painter Shannon McIntyre of a whale breach that hangs in my hallway to always remind me of this day.Most memorable was the ancient pick up truck on the side of the road running jumper cables to an electric blender to sell Pina Coladas as you walked by, how can you resist? DO NOT EXPECT CELL PHONE SERVICE OUT HERE (but really why would you want to be on your phone with this beauty before you?)
El Yunque Rainforest
On the completely opposite end of the island (towards the east side ) is El Yunque (also a national park). Wile on vacation in October we arranged for a private guide to take us through the forest and we learned so much about the various plants and birds native to Puerto Rico and of course saw the requisite waterfalls.
All of the above makes this island a must visit but for me the reason why I have fallen so head over heels is the people. It’s true that you don’t meet a stranger in Puerto Rico, everyone is a friend just waiting to be made. I have never had a culture be so embracing and warm in my travels. Oh and they know how to throw one heck of a party!