Puerto Rico was devastated by Category 5, “ Hurricane Maria”, almost a year and a half ago, but I had heard they were making headway in the recovery efforts; electricity and communications were restored and life was returning to normal. I was born and raised in that small tropical island and was curious to return and see its progress. Since Mid-Winter school break was nearing and we had no plans, we decided, at the last minute, to fly down to San Juan and catch some rays. I booked the whole vacation by myself on Amextravl and Delta online.  It was all very easy, passports are not required, and it is a short 3-hour flight from NYC. Some of the old stand-by hotels were not open yet, still renovating, trying to be ready for the next Winter season. Others were finished, but could not open because there was no trained staff to hire.  A lot of people had left North, after the hurricane because there were no jobs to be had and living conditions were terrible.

I’d heard that the El San Juan Hotel, near the airport, had finished its renovations and it was better than ever. They had added several pools and rooms in townhouse format by the pool and ocean front. Years before, having rented a villa right on the beach in Cayman Island, I really liked the idea of just rolling out of bed and on to the beach. We took a “Villa” room on the ground floor, ocean front with a small porch (unfortunately, the cushions were not waterproof and since it usually rains a little every night, we seldom used it) The hotel is close to the airport and a 10 minute ride, got us into the beach with plenty of sunshine left. It has certainly changed since I was last there when I was in high school, my senior graduating class had its prom there. The place has changed, they have added buildings, rooms, pools and several restaurants on the property. There is Aquarelle on the beach serving a variety of salads and tacos. Unfortunately, it was too close to a DJ who blasted very loudly and, besides,  his selection of tunes was not so great. Caña had a lot of local food and also a pool lounge serving sandwiches and light fare. The Meat Market is a casual steak restaurant, where we ate the first night we arrived, it has a varied menu, including a vegan plate. Three of us shared a “ Tomahawk “ ( a huge slab of meat bone-in, that was more than enough for us.) The hotel also features, in a corner of the lobby, a coffee and pastries place they called “the Bistro”, a misnomer, (¿WHY?) we went there every morning to get tea, coffee and some pastries to take to the beach for breakfast. The Casino is not yet open, they are still renovating it.

Don’t take me wrong, we enjoyed our stay very much, but it would have been a lot better had the door lock to the terrace and beach worked. The first thing I did when we figured out that we could not unlock the door with our electronic key from the beach to get in, I called the Front Desk to have them fix it so we could go in and out the back door instead of around to the front to access the room.  Every day, I got the same answer, “we will send someone to fix it today”.  We left after four days and it was never fixed.  Another pet peeve was the bar area in the room, did not have large enough cups to make tea nor did it have a bottle opener or corkscrew. Not to mention providing slippers, especially when you have a tile floor with no rugs. We did have bathrobes, after all, this was a deluxe room.

Uber has arrived on the island.  That is great because it was always such an iffy thing with the local taxis that did not have a meter and you had to haggle with the guy for the cost of the ride.  We took Uber all over the place.  It was really inexpensive. Most rides from our hotel to a restaurant were $5-6. The drivers used their own cars and they were very nice and friendly. They all used GPS so they knew exactly where to go and got there fast.

One day we spent it sightseeing in Old San Juan, the Colonial part of the city, with colorful architecture, cobblestoned streets, and narrow sidewalks. Before the “shopping malls” arrived, it used to be the commercial heart of, not just San Juan, but the whole Island. Now it is mostly a historic center with cultural activities and residential buildings for varied strata of economies. There is “ La Perla” on the North side, facing the ocean, that was once a slum but now is a community that boasts small houses built of concrete blocks, where many tradesmen live enjoying one of the best locations of the city. However “quaint” do not venture there, they do not want to feel like animals in a zoo. The “Old” cemetery is nearby, with white gravestones and a small church. On other parts of the city, you will find the Governor’s Mansion ‘La Fortaleza” and many restored buildings used as private residences.

Best to start, your sightseeing on Plaza de Colon, at the bottom of San Francisco St., where you will find some vendors of artisanal crafts. It was interesting to see “paintings” done with bird feathers, or a glass blower making miniature figurines. Nice souvenirs.

We walked on the narrow sidewalks to see the Cathedral San Juan Bautista, which is the second oldest in the New World. On the way, we stopped at La Bombonera for a snack of their famous “ Mallorca” ( buttered sweet bread rolls ) and a “pocillo” (a small cup of Puerto Rican “strong” coffee ) to keep us going. The Cathedral, on Cristo Street, dates to 1540, it is Gothic in style and its decoration is mostly; “ trompe-l’oeil”( fool-the- eye) painted on to look three dimensional.

Outside, to the right, is the El Convento Hotel (also worth a view ) and a small park. If you take the perpendicular small street that slopes down, the “ Caleta de las Monjas” it leads to the “ Puerta del Mar”, the 1742 door at the seaside entrance to the walled city. Outside is a small dock where you have a panoramic view of the port, and of the massive stonework of the original wall that protected the city. Above is “ La Fortaleza” ( The Citadel) now functioning as the Governor’s residence, plus a Guest House for visiting dignitaries and governmental offices. Returning inside the walls to the left, you can see “ La Rogativa” A bronze sculpture by Lindsay Daen that commemorates a procession, a “plea” to  God to free the city from a British naval blockade. They carried torches and rang bells, which the invaders mistook for replacements and, feeling outnumbered, fled.

We headed back to Cristo Street, to visit the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, on the northwestern-most point of the islet,  Designed to guard the entrance to the San Juan Bay, dates to 1539. On 1983, it was declared a World Heritage Site, by the UNESCO. Its limestone walls are 18-40 feet thick, it is a popular tourist attraction, and because of its privileged location a favorite with locals, especially kite flying enthusiasts. It is also known for the legendary “ Garita del Diablo”, a guardhouse, from which soldiers would disappear on moonless nights.

There is much more to see and do in the Old City, but it had been drizzling on and off all day long, we were tired, and it was our last day in San Juan, so we called Uber and returned to the hotel.

Restaurants:

Santaella

http://josesantaella.com

219 Calle Canal

We had been here about 8 years before. In the meantime, I had received Chef José Santaella’s cookbook as a Christmas present and was very excited to try his food again.  It is a very popular place especially with families and groups so plates are usually shared. We sang about four “Happy Birhdays”to celebrants; it was a joyful place. Waiters are very solicitous and will explain the menu and dishes if you have any questions since the menu is in Spanish. Cuisine is modern Puerto Rican, authentic dishes with  local ingredients done very elegantly.

I definitely recommend getting a lot of the small plates and sharing them so you get a large selection of tastes. I loved the Morcillas,(blood sausage) do not miss those or the small alcapurrias (turnovers with beef inside).

Morcillas

La Bombonera

Calle San Francisco 259 in Old San Juan

This place has been here for over 100 years. I remember as a young woman going there to have lunch or just a snack of hot chocolate with a “mallorca” for dunking. It is a place you can have an elaborate lunch or just a sandwich. I was disappointed that they did not have in their huge menu a sandwich we used to have all the time, a “media noche” which is a close cousin to a sandwich cubano except that it uses a sweet egg dough bread.

Vianda

http://www.viandapr.com

1413 Avenida Ponce de Leon

Amelia Dill and Francis Guzman had both worked at Blue Hill in New York before establishing themselves in Puerto Rico. Amelia is in the front of the house, as she was at Blue Hill, and her young, all female, wait staff keeps the diners happy.  Chef Francis had also previously cooked at the Range in San Francisco and the 2-star Michelin Guide restaurant The Modern  (at MOMA) in NYC. They have a farm-to-table seasonal menu anchored by local ingredients and products. We had a wonderful meal there and look forward to going again next time we visit PR. There is an ever changing menu, so if I mention what we had and it is not there when you visit you will be disappointed.