Invites to warmer climates are always welcome.
When that invite lands in one’s inbox mid-December, that offered respite is even more well received. The email was inviting me to enjoy a wellness retreat in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, a jewel in the Caribbean Sea. Officially an unincorporated territory of the United States, Puerto Rio is borne out of an immensely long and diverse history. Its current social make-up and the basis for much of the social aspects of life, food, dance and art are influenced by the triumvirate of backgrounds that the population is largely made up of, those being the indigenous population, the Latin quotient and the West African influences that the transatlantic slave trade brought with it. What that has created is a vibrant and hugely diverse country. Made up of over 70 individual districts, there is a distinct feel to the different areas of the island and each offers its own benefits, whether that be the busy nightlife and History of the capital, San Juan, or further afield where one can find beautiful white beaches, river courses, jungle and some spectacular golfing amongst many other pastimes.
READ THE FEATURE IN THE ALICIA AGNESON EDITION HERE
First off, how to get there? One can see the main detail of that flight in a piece I have written and is available online, but in short, American (relative) newbie, JetBlue was my carrier on their new(ish) transatlantic route. They now fly from London Heathrow and London Gatwick and directly to both JFK in New York and Logan in Boston. Their fleet comprises newer sleeker planes with contemporary interiors and amenity offerings. I was lucky enough to experience their MINT class, a hybrid of first and business that ensconces the passenger in their own cabin area with a lie-flat bed and super-sized TV. Food and drink choices are abundant and the whole service really does stand out, providing another viable service for crossing the pond.
So, Puerto Rico. Due to some unavoidable issues, we didn’t arrive at the first resort until approximately 3.46am, and, being too tired to grumble, I was ferried efficiently to my room via golf cart to spend my first night as a guest of the St.Regis Bahia Beach. On first impression, despite my tired entry, my room was supreme. Contentment. Colonial beach styled with a generous footprint, the room, bathroom and balcony all provided a very stylish place to lay my weary head. In fact, the bathroom sported a bath so deep I did wonder whether to buzz the concierge for a life jacket. One thing that a night-time arrival did afford was that the first morning provided the initial look at the base for the next few days, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. The St Regis is a sprawling estate encompassing the standard fayre of a resort of this level; pools aplenty, cabanas, a top-class restaurant, and importantly for the hotel, a championship-level golf course. All the buildings on the estate are also built so that none are higher than the accompanying palm trees littering the resort, giving a very enclosed and almost cosy feel to it, despite its large size. The resort has direct access to a private beach with accompanying amenities, and a lovely restaurant and bar that sits beside the pools.
Given the wellness theme of the stay, we were treated to a yoga lesson from one of the in-house instructors, graciously being given space on the balcony at the main house, where we were provided a supremely tranquil place in which to bend and contort to one’s hearts delight… or attempt to in as far as my aforementioned weary body would allow. I then spent some time catching up on some reading and Champagne-drinking beside the pool, as seemed apt for mid afternoon in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. As I was due to spend the day on a boat heading to a nearby island the next day, I needed to preserve energy and resolve, after all.
What I have always enjoyed on these press jaunts is that one is really treated to a whistle stop tour of what the destination provides. With Puerto Rico, I felt that a whistlestop tour that takes on even ten percent of what’s on offer would probably still give rise to a month-long vacation, such is the diversity of activity on the island. The island tour provided wonderful vistas back to the main island and afforded us the opportunity to snorkel in some crystal waters just off the coast of Icacos Beach, the island we stopped at some leisurely 45 minutes off the coast. Island days seem to be a very local and social thing to do, as evidenced by the four or five other vessels taking up mooring on this pretty little outcrop.
After returning to shore and back to the St Regis to freshen up, we were taken to a sister property to sample one of their restaurants. The Marriott group has a large presence across not only the island, but also the region. Encompassing almost all of the brands, the group provides a huge choice for travellers, and it was good to see not only the variety of property, but sample some of the various amenities, such as dining, rather than being confined to a single property’s offerings. Iguana’s Cocina Puertorriquena provided some wonderful traditional cuisine in a recently refreshed setting, prettily overlooking the El Yunque national forest.
The following day, we ventured further across the island to sample lunch at the newly refurbished winner of the 2019 Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor: the Eclipse Restaurant at Villa Montana Beach Resort. This is the picture-perfect idyll that people I’m sure have in mind when thinking about the Caribbean; white sandy beaches, low built bungalows for guests and a restaurant that provides views and atmosphere in spades. A wood fired oven fires out pizza with reckless abandon and rather disconcerting speed. Local shellfish is shucked and prepared almost as it’s being removed from the sea, and a cocktail list to rival a NYC bar made the entire day a breeze.
As Villa Montana is located on such a beautiful beach, we were treated to an afternoon riding across the sand. Closely resembling the second coming of Django, I had been selected to ride the centre’s lead horse, Whiskey. I had been cheered by the name as it seemed presentive, only to realise he’s just the biggest horse they have and the reason we sheepishly gave over our weights at the briefing. It was, however, a lovely thing to get back into the saddle, it being far, far too long since the last time I rode. It all came back, like riding a, well, not bike, obviously. Anyway, for a glorious couple of hours we walked, cantered and trotted across the beach and into the dunes. The real world could not have felt further away.
As we moved our locale from the St Regis and the calm and tranquillity of Bahia Beach, we headed to the bustling, vibrant capital city, San Juan. Now, being a bustling city, there is always the slight fever of a capital, whether hugely metropolitan or not. The thing about Puerto Rico is its convenience to the United States, and judging from the night-time people watching in our hotel in San Juan, La Concha, those Americans have come to party. There is much more of a party vibe to the city, and the resort has a slight ‘Vegas’ feel. The reception bar is permanently busy, and the pool was bathed in loud music as much as it was with sunshine. Hey, who am I to judge? Just because I may be old before my time doesn’t mean that others can’t have fun.
Having moved to the San Juan base, and what seemed to be the centre of all activity for the island, we were treated to some further delights that the city has to offer. First and foremost was a walking food tour. Now, sometimes the success or otherwise of these things can be won or lost with, A, weather, B, fellow tourers and C, the quality of the guide. Given the quality of our ‘C’, A and B were mere afterthoughts. The sheer breadth of information that our guide could call upon almost made the food and drink unnecessary. From historical information to local factoids, we were regaled with all, and it really made the tour that much more special – it was clear to see that the quality was borne out of not only passion but a distinct pride in their country. Pride in the history and pride in what it represents as a destination for all who choose to visit. It also helps that the cuisine of the island is so interesting. From a historical social make-up of the indigenous population, the Spanish invaders of the fifteenth century and then the West African slaves transported through the Atlantic slave trade, a true cultural melting pot is shown via flavours and spice, as well as in the pride that the country takes in each one of these ethnic groups that have created such a colourful society.
As a great follow on to the morning tour, our evening was spent at a wonderful boutique restaurant in the city centre, Cocina Abierta. There, our hosts – the flamboyant, stylish, and fiercely knowledgeable Michelle Negron and the wonderful chef, Stephanie Haddock – gave us a curated evening of cooking, eating and imbibing. As seemed to be the case the island over, hospitality is key, and I was treated to some new flavours in a whiskey and coconut water (who knew?) and their own interpretation of a Latin favourite (and certainly one of mine), the pastel de tres leches, or three milk cake. That I left with not one but two cans of pineapple cream, a thick sweetened syrup used in pina coladas, showed how strong that sense of hospitality was.
What I left Puerto Rico with (other than maybe a couple more pounds and a distinct dread for the impending weather on my return) is that being made up of such disparate histories has created a country that revels in its past and pays homage to each branch, both individually and together. The sense of pride is felt island-wide and plays a part, no doubt, in the sheer number of returning visitors. As I said, that it is made up of so many districts and that it incorporates so much biodiversity alongside a plethora of properties, this means that there is a choice for any traveller. Be that alone or with friends or family, Puerto Rico offers no shortage of varied and colourful choices in the Caribbean.