Puerto Rico on the Rise

Accessible? Yes. Ordinary? Not even. From Caribbean Sea resorts to rainforest paradors, this little island is reinventing luxury with a Puerto Rican flare.
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Old San Juan
EL Morro guards Old San Juan  (Digital Images)

With more stringent passport restrictions now in place, Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, has suddenly become the uber-accessible Caribbean destination for many Americans. Anyone living in D.C. or New York, for example, with $300 to burn can be on San Juan's white beaches in just over three hours.

But this accessibility hasn't made Puerto Rico commonplace. If anything, it's quite the opposite, as internationally renowned chefs and resort managers are increasingly enticed to help blow out the luxurious side of this Caribbean retreat. Creating luxury isn't easy, but keeping it from becoming vanilla is an even harder challenge. And that's where Puerto Rico scores major points; everything that's worth doing, seeing, or tasting is infused with a combination of Spanish and Caribbean culture that makes the island such a standout.

Most people, whether on commercial, chartered, or private planes, fly into San Juan. It's the logical jumping-off point for the rest of the island. Chartered and commercial flights typically fly into the Munoz Marin International Airport, while Isla Grande Airport is the most popular choice for private planes.

San Juan is worth checking out if you've never been to Puerto Rico. In the Condado section of the city, specialty shops including Louis Vuitton, Cartier, and Mont Blanc line Ashford Avenue. The street also offers shops focusing on high-style with a local flare, such as Nono Maldonado for apparel, Piada for swimsuits, and Vero for great shoes and kitschy items.

The city also has a few must-dine restaurants. Start at San Juan's finest hotel, the Ritz-Carlton, where a "Rummier" (a sommelier for rum) at the Lobby Lounge will guide you through the bar's extensive rum selection. If the liquid gold whets your appetite for more Puerto Rican flavors, dine on fresh Caribbean seafood and shellfish at Mares. For something heartier, visit BLT Steak, which has little Puerto Rican flare but is well worth your time. Renowned chef Laurent Tourondel debuted BLT Steak, a French take on the classic American steakhouse, on Manhattan's east side in 2004 to much acclaim. He has since opened more BLT restaurants in New York and has expanded to Washington, D.C. and, of course, San Juan.

Reclaim the true tastes of Puerto Rico at Pikayo, tucked inside the San Juan Art Museum's decidedly postmodern premises. This trend-setting restaurant promises a contemporary take on la cocina criolla, traditional Puerto Rican cuisine that emphasizes the Spanish, Indian, and African elements of this unique culture. Try the truffle cheese Empanadillas with a "truffle mojito," or the grilled shrimp and julienne chorizo topped with a guanabana beurre blanc. Thanks to a closed-circuit television system, foodies can watch this culinary magic unfolding in real time in the kitchen.

Though San Juan does have its gems, it's also quite touristy and the beaches leave something to be desired, as airplanes roar overhead most of the day. Instead, head for the blue cobble-stone streets of historic Old San Juan, which is only ten miles down the road but feels like another island. The town is speckled with more than 400 carefully restored 16th and 17th century Spanish colonial homes and shops, and boasts a 42-foot high wall around the entire city dating back to the 1600s. From the wall rise up two magnificent forts, El Morro and San Cristobal, both legacies of Spanish control over this Caribbean island.

Published: 30 Apr 2007 | Last Updated: 29 Oct 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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