Friday, June 19, 2015

Finding Paradise Takes Only Two Words - Puerto Rico

By Darlene C. Donloe

Describing paradise takes only two words – Puerto Rico!

You can stay at home or you can visit Puerto Rico. But, be warned, once you visit Puerto Rico, you will not want to leave. The weather, the food, the people, the ocean, the sun-kissed welcoming embrace, the island has it all!

Puerto Rico is simply gorgeous!  Whether it’s the natural or the architectural wonders or the tropical marine climate, Puerto Rico’s beauty doesn’t disappoint.

Take a trek through the main island of Puerto Rico or trek through Mona, Vieques or Culebra to witness fantastic landmarks, beaches and enough adventure to please everyone.

From diving, to caving, to snorkeling, to kayaking, to zip-lining, there is no shortage of things to do in Puerto Rico. Or, you could just sit in the sun and soak it all in.

San Juan, with a population of more than three million, is the capital of Puerto Rico. The city, Puerto Rico’s main port of entry, was founded in 1508 by Juan Ponce de Leon.  Puerto Rico is an island in the Caribbean, the smallest island of the Greater Antilles. It’s an unincorporated territory of the U.S., located in the northeastern Caribbean east of the Dominican Republic and west of both the United States Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands. The city is a great representation of what the entire island has to offer.

Learn about Puerto Rico’s history. Take a look at some art at the San Juan Museum of Art and History. Learn about the most northwestern point of the islet of San Juan, marked by a sixteenth century fort, Castillo San Felipe del Morrro. Take a trip to Castillo San Cristobal, the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World. Explore the ancient underground channel of natural caves at Parque de las Carvernas.

You don’t need to come up with reasons to visit Puerto Rico. However, besides its natural beauty, there are some wonderful and convenient reasons to check it out.

Hallelujah, no passport is needed.  The currency is the same as the U.S., you can use your cell phone without roaming charges. That’s just for starters.  Both Spanish and English are the official languages. However, English is spoken by about one-fourth of the population.

Tourism Motto: Puerto Rico lo hace mejor! (Puerto Rico does it better!)

Old San Juan


The one place you have to visit is Old San Juan where you can discover Puerto Rican shopping and partake of some of the best food on the island. Old San Juan with its cobblestone streets is the oldest settlement with Puerto Rico and is the historic colonial section of San Juan, Puerto Rico. There are colorful, historical buildings and old fortresses. The architecture and beautiful vistas of the sea are spectacular.

Nestled within Old San Juan is a quaint and unique cheese making workshop called Casa Lila, owned by cheese maker Rosa Avalo Franceschi.  Franceschi, the founder of Quesovaca Negra Inc., invites guests into her 300 year-old home for some wine and cheese, educates them on the history of making cheese through an informative video and then guides the visitors through cheese trivia as well as a cheese making session.  Guests, who are able to design their own brands of cheese, are able to take their samples with them. It’s truly hands on. Guests can season their own cheeses with whatever they want.

The crash course workshop includes cutting the curds to separate the solids from the whey then draining off the whey.  After collecting all the curds into a strainer, you then let the whey drain out.  While it’s draining, which takes about 10-15 minutes, Rosa takes her guests on a tour of her home. The view from the bedroom and the upstairs deck is spectacular.

The cheese-making workshops for tourists (English language) are available during the week. Days and times can vary depending on demand. It’s a two-hour workshop that costs about $50 per person.

Casa Lila is located at 422 Calle Norzagaray (the lilac purple building next to the corner) oceanfront, across the street from the ramp at Fort San Cristobal.

For some great mufungo stop by VACA BRAVA where Chef Javier Aponte Machado is serving up some scrumptious dishes. On this day, Mufungo is being served as is pastelillo, alcapurria (cornbread) and sorullo.
The restaurant is spacious, the wait staff is fast, friendly and courteous and there is a pleasant family atmosphere. They have fabulous mojitos!

There are several day trips to take in San Juan. One in particular that is rather illuminating is the Bioluminescent Bay. This unique bay, a key tourist destination, contains up to 720,000 single-celled bioluminescent dinoflagellates per gallon of water. These half-plant, half-animal organisms emit a flash of bluish light when agitated at night. The high concentration of these creatures (Pyrodimium bahamense) can create enough light to read a book. There are five Boluminescent Bays in the world and three of them are located in Puerto Rico.

Condado Plaza Hilton


In Puerto Rico, there are several Hilton Hotels, but they all have their own style and uniqueness that sets them apart from the rest.

The CONDADO PLAZA HILTON is a sparkling property that has something for everybody.

Perched at the edge of Condado, tucked between Condado Lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean, The Condado Plaza Hilton, offers a range of guest room and suite accommodations.
Highlights include: WiFi, flatscreens and in-room movies. Ergonomic chairs with workstations to match. Deluxe bath amenities and mini-fridges. 

Some of the 290 sq. ft.  and 390 sq. ft. rooms have ocean views and some get a view of the lagoon. There are floor-to-ceiling windows and private balconies.

There are 509 guest room and 62 suites, San Juan’s largest 24-hour casino, eight restaurants and lounges (Starbucks, Viaggi Grab-n-Go, Pikayo, Moon Bar, Eternal Bar, Eight Noodle Bar, Denny’s, Café Caribe and Aqua Bar & Grill) and complimentary WiFi in guest rooms.

Hotel highlights include poolside massage, bicycle rentals sauna room, steam room, one lighted tennis court, children activity center, tour desk, protected beach, 24-hour fitness center, water sports, one saltwater and three freshwater pools, two spa tubs with Jacuzzis and a water slide and more.

Raul Bustamante is the managing director. Originally from Columbia, he has called Puerto Rico home for quite a while.

According to Bustamate, about 80% of the hotel’s visitors are from the U.S.  They also get a number of visitors from Columbia and from Europe.

Bustamante is quick to point out Puerto Rico’s and his property’s appeal.

“Groups should come to Puerto Rico for many reasons, “ says Bustamante.  “You don’t need a passport, plus the currency is the same. There are about 40-50 flights from the states, we have great food, plus English is spoken all over the island. Add to that a wonderful cultural experience.”

The Condado Plaza Hilton, the only hotel to have access to the lagoon, is only minutes from the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport and a mere 2.5 miles from Old San Juan. 

The Condado, which has been undergoing a restoration for about four years, is the first hotel in Puerto Rico to have a Denny’s restaurant in its midst.  It’s only minutes from the Convention Center and only a 45-minute drive from the El Yunque Rain Forest.

Chef Wilo Benet

When it comes to culinary treats, the Condado has an ace up its sleeve. Chef Wilo Benet helms the Pikayo, a San Juan institution for more than 22 years and a favorite since it moved to the hotel in 2009.  Pikayo features Wilo’s Nu + Gobal Mix, a combination of new and classic dishes from Puerto Rico and around the world. Benet’s food is exquisite!!

Benet, who was born in Columbia, S.C., but lives in Puerto Rico, says photography was his first love, but food soon took it’s place. Now, he mixes the two.   His book, Puerto Rico True Flavors, speaks to his feelings about food.

“I love being a chef because it’s about the manual aspects of handling food,” said Benet, who calls Puerto Rico the “gastronomical capitol”. “It’s about being creative and artistic.”

The food at the Condado is fantastic. Dine on cucumber spaguettinni, bacalao croquette with acerola vinaigrette, duet of sweet potato and longaniza stuffed chicken breat with roasted garlic sauce, petit filet mignon in a port wine sauce, ‘mamposteao’ de gandules, or for dessert a ‘borichua trio (candied papaya with local fresh cheese), ‘tembleque’ (coconut custard) and ‘panelita de coco’ (candied coconut). Top it off with a Kendall Jackson Vintner’s reserve, Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County 2011, a Shafer Chardonnay Napa Valley Carneros 2008.

Meeting At Condado

It’s really easy to meet at the Condado.  There are uninterrupted views of the Atlantic Ocean and Condado Lagoon. Whether you’re hosting a small executive retreat or a large sales conference no other resort offers such a wealth of downtime diversions and leisure pursuits; from a secluded beach and a 24-hour casino to relaxing cocktail lounges and gourmet fine dining at Pikayo restaurant.

There is 41,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, accommodating up to 1,100 guests, professional event managers and caterers, 18 flexible conference/meeting rooms, with versatile floor plans and natural daylight. The business center is available 24 hours. There are outdoor waterfront venues, 24-Hour business center, providing PC and MAC computers, WiFi access, fax machines, and photocopiers, in–house audiovisual support by PSAV, personalized group web page, to publish details about your meeting agenda.

There are meeting rooms on several floors including the Ocean Tower Lobby Level, Ocean Tower mezzanine Level, Lagoon Tower Lobby Level and the Lagoon Tower Mezzanine Level.

Caribe Hilton

The CARIBE HILTON is a large, but welcoming property managed by Pablo Torres. It was the first facility ever operated by Hilton Hotels outside of the continental United States.

The hotel, the recipient of Green Key for its sustainable efforts, is located just minutes from the heart of historic Old San Juan and 15 minutes from Luis Munoz International Airport.  The hotel, a AAA Four Diamond award-winner sits beachfront on an exclusive peninsula, made up of 17 acres of lush tropical gardens. The resort is located between Old San Juan and contemporary Condado.
It’s situated five minutes from San Juan Convention Center.

The birthplace of the Pina Colada, the resort is the city’s largest hotel with 917 guestrooms, including suites and the Condado Lagoon Villas, which feature ocean or garden views. There are 264 spacious villas at Condado Lagoon Villas –part of the Caribe Hilton complex.

The property is lush, but it also features a secluded beach, swimming pools, whirlpools, beachside hammocks, a children’s club and a full service Olas Spa. There is also a bird sanctuary.

There are nine restaurants and lounges, including Morton’s Steakhouse, the first outdoor Starbucks and the unique Lemongrass Pan Asian Latino.  To start your day, have breakfast at the Atlantico Pool Bar & Grill.

Meeting at the Caribe Hilton

Meeting at the Caribe Hilton is effortless. The property offers executive floor room, a business center and several meeting spaces. It offers 24 meeting and banquet spaces for up to 3,000 guests.

Executive Chef Mario Ferro

Eating at the Caribe Hilton

Executive Chef Mario Ferro is one of the most respected chefs on the island and in the world. His food is indescribable. However, yum does come to mind. The taste, texture and presentation of his food puts a smile on your face.  Enjoy dining on the beach at La Islita, an envious tropical ambiance.  The staff at the Caribe Hilton seems to know what you need and what you want before you do. Kudos to the Caribe Hilton!

Executive Chef Mario Ferro's scrumptious dinner

 El San Juan Resort & Casino


General Manager Olivier Maumaire knows how to treat his guests.  The property is happily the place to go and to be seen. Once you step inside it’s more than evident why hotel guests and locals alike come to the El San Juan Resort & Casino to party.  At night and especially on the weekends the lobby is packed with revelers.   Back in the day, big time performers performed there including the Supremes and Sammy Davis Jr.   More recent visitors include Ricky Martin, J-Lo and Marc Antony.

The hotel, a lush 15-acre oasis features a spa, a secluded Hammock Garden, decadent Fantasy Pool with private cabanas, pool concierges and live DJs.

The 386 beachfront property rooms are contemporary, with clean lines and a modern feel.

The Casita rooms are 351 sq. ft., have comfortable king beds, include WiFi internet access, LCD Flat screen TVs, I Home Station and more.

The Main Tower rooms and the Main Tower deluxe rooms (located on the hotel’s higher floors with an expanded sitting area) are both 351 sq. ft., have either a king bed or two double beds and the same amenities as the Casita rooms.

The Garden Lanai rooms, which have stunning views of tropical gardens and pools, have 448 sq. ft., king bed or two double beds, a private balcony, walk-in closets, plus the aforementioned amenities.

The Ocean Villa, with views of Isla Verde beach and the Atlantic Ocean, has between 525-645 sq. ft., Jacuzzi, double sinks, high-speed internet, entertainment center, mini refrigerator, wet bar, sofa bed, oversized balcony with ocean views,

When your stomach starts to growl, there are 10 award-winning restaurants from which to choose.

The American Culinary Federation (ACF), the nation’s premier organization of professional chefs, recently awarded El San Juan Resort & Casino, A Hilton Hotel with its annual Achievement of Excellence distinction. The accolade recognizes foodservice establishments that exemplify a commitment to excellence.  Ensuring that dining is an exciting component of the El San Juan Resort & Casino experience, the Puerto Rico resort offers an impressive list of 10 restaurants to satisfy every taste, including the newly opened Meat Market.

“To achieve excellence you must have passion,” said Ana Parga, executive chef at El San Juan Resort & Casino. “At El San Juan, we have a passion for cooking and serving the best product so our guests take home a lasting impression.”

Parga knows her way around a kitchen. A sampling of her lunch menu includes the best chilled passion fruit gazpacho around, petite citric salad with tossed walnuts, fire roasted tomato crostini with goat cheese, broccoli, toasted couscous and a grilled Mahi-Mahi Filet with a light pineapple and coconut sauce that melts in your mouth. Finish off your meal with an artisan mango tart with Spanish Nougat ice cream. Now that’s good eatin’.

The Meat Market is a charming, trendy and exceptional restaurant. It’s said the clever name is a sexy playful take on the traditional steakhouse dining experience. The menu includes some of the choicest cuts of meat as well as fresh seafood and locally sourced produce.  The staff is attentive and exceptional. The Crudo Bar is the place for fresh, made-to-order sharing plate like Tiraditos and fresh Ceviches, while The Chic Bar serves up signature cocktails concocted by our very own master mixologist.

Besides 15 bars, other restaurants include: Brother Jimmys BBQ, Yamato, La Terraza, KOCO, Aquaire, La Piccola Fontana, and Galeria Trattoria and Encanto Beach Club & Grill. The hotel also offers in-room dining.

There is no shortage of activities. Visit The Rose Club, the Shopping Arcade, the 16,500 sq. ft. casino, Edouard de Paris Day Spa, Club Brava and Ultra Lounge, or just party in the ornate Lobby where you can hear live music.

Not to be outdone, The Lobby has three distinctive bars - Blue, Silver and Gold. There is also a Chico Lounge. All  offer live music every evening.  The mixed modern and traditional lobby has its original looks from when it opened in the early 1960s.

A great activity is a Mojito Making Lesson. Guest learn about the exciting ways to make Mojitos while enjoying some relaxation at one of the poolside cabanas.

Guests can also enjoy the resort’s Encanto Beach Club which debuted a newly refreshed fantasy pool area. Guests can also lounge on 24 canopied, double sided daybeds, three private tiki-hut cabanas, spacious sundecks, hammocks and more. The adjacent Isla Verde Beach offers jet skiing, parasailing and a variety of water sports (not included).

Meetings at El San Juan Resort & Casino

The Resort has 35,000 sq. ft. of flexible space located throughout the property for meetings and conferences. The ballroom has 11,000 sq. ft.  There are 14 different breakout rooms.

Garden At The EL Conquistador Resort

The EL CONQUISTADOR RESORT, A WALDORF ASTORIA RESORT is set atop a 300-ft. bluff on the eastern tip of Puerto Rico.

It’s luxurious, plush and family friendly. The staff, especially Director of Marketing & Communications Lydia Feliciano, makes your stay enjoyable and the ambiance and gorgeous views make you want to stay forever.

The AAA Four Diamond resort, 500 acres, overlooks the converging waters of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.

Many celebrities have stayed and/or performed on the property including Sheryl Crow, The Beach Boys and Seal.

Guestrooms are varied. There is a two bedroom ocean view suite, partial ocean view rooms, one bedroom ocean view suites, las olas ocean view rooms, las brisas ocean view, la vista ocean view room, la marina ocean view rooms, garden rooms and full ocean view rooms.

Las Casitas Village

Guestrooms and suites are divided into five villages, including Las Casitas Village, a separate luxury resort which features one, two and three-bedroom style villas, not to mention a 24-hour resort butler service. Elite accommodations are offered in this secluded enclave. Ideal for executive-level gatherings.

El Conquistador boasts 23 restaurants, bars and lounges from gourmet to casual.  The Chops Steakhouse, managed by Dermot Connolly, is a crowd favorite.

After dinner, enjoy drinks, dancing and live music in the family friendly Ultra Lounge.

Dinner is also served at Stingray Café, located at the seaside of La Marina Village, where you can dine on Caribbean-infused dishes and seafood.

Banquet director Jorge E. Ruiz keeps his staff of 100 on par as they deliver scrumptious delights. Chef Neck Calderon, who has been on the staff for 18 years, is just of the staff members creating gastronomic little ditties.

Activities on the property include the 2.4 acre Coqui Water Park, a state-of-the-art aquatic playground. Enjoy the Torre de Yocahu, a tower from which three high-speed water slides flow, including El Gigante Dormido (The Sleeping Giant), that has a 40-foot drop. There is also an 8,500 sq. ft. infinity edge pool and a rope bridge. For a fabulous daytrip, take the ferry to Palomino Island, the resort’s private island featuring water sports and white, sandy beaches.  Once there, have lunch at Iguana’s Café, an open-air restaurant featuring chicken, seafood, burgers, snacks and drinks.

For a different kind of relaxation, make an appointment at the Waldorf Astoria Spa or play a round of golf at the Arthur Hills 18-hole, par-72 golf course.

Take a leisurely Art Walk around the grounds of the resort and Las Casitas Village to admire a number of great works of art.

The 26,000 sq. ft. Spa, featuring two double rooms, 15 dry rooms, five wet rooms, five facials rooms, a full service Edouard de Paris salon and retail boutique, is a three-story sea front facing facility.  The spa is kept clean and the therapists are friendly, professional and well-versed in the art of pampering.  Sharlene, one of the massage therapists, is exceptional.

El Conquistador Convention Center

Meeting at El Conquistador is not a problem. There resort is home to the largest meeting space in the Caribbean with more than 100,000 sq. ft. of flexible indoor and outdoor meeting and event space.  There is a state-of-the-art Atlantic Conference Center at El Conquistador Resort – the most expansive and cutting-edge center of its kind in the Caribbean. The Grand Atlantic Ballroom has 21,090-sq. ft. The Grand Caribbean Ballroom has 19,982 sq ft. There are 16 breakout rooms.


There are numerous trips from the U.S. to Puerto Rico. Arrive at the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport

Time Zone: Atlantic Standard Time (AST), which is one hour later (+1) than Eastern Standard Time (EST) and four hours earlier (-4) than Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Puerto Rico does not observe Daylight Savings Time.

Tourism Motto: Puerto Rico lo hace mejor! (Puerto Rico does it better!)