Thursday, January 3, 2013

San Juan, founded by Spanish colonist Ponce de León, is Puerto Rico's capital and the second oldest European-established city in the Americas, after Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. Old San Juan is the nearly 500 year old walled quarter of seven square blocks of hilly cobblestone streets flanked by two immense forts, El Morro (see title photo above) and San Cristobál.

A centuries old sentry lookout.

Puerto Rico was ceded by Spain to the United States in 1898, under the Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War. Its status remains a self-governing U.S. territory, making it an easily accessible tourist magnate for stateside sun worshipers; no passport is necessary, there are no customs formalities, the U.S. dollar is the local currency, and U.S. Post Offices and retail stores are found everywhere.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Don Q Rum

It’s not all about Bacardi in the world of Puerto Rican rum. The Don Q brand is the one preferred by most Puerto Ricans, so you owe it to yourself to stop in at Casa Don Q to see why. Located directly opposite cruise ship Piers 1 and 2 (and just a few steps east of the La Casita Information Center), Casa Don Q is inside the Edificio Ochoa (corner of Marina and Calle Tanca).

The museum illustrates the origins of rum production on the island. Historical photographs and documents chronicle the story of the Serrallés family, and a video explains the spirit’s production process. Be sure to enjoy the bartender’s specialty, Don Q Dulcinea, a sweet concoction made with orange, pineapple and grapefruit juices, cream of coconut, grenadine and rum – a sure hit with the ladies.

Closed Thursdays during high season winter months. 787-977-1720

Friday, January 8, 2010

Catedral de San Juan Bautista

The San Juan Cathedral is located in Old San Juan on Calle del Cristo, overlooking a small plaza next to the El Convento Hotel. This cathedral of St. John the Baptist is the second oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere. The original structure had wooden walls and a thatched roof, and a cathedral was soon planned to replace it. Construction began in 1521 in Late Gothic style, and some of these original architectural components remain to this day: a vaulted tower, gothic ceilings, a circular staircase and four rooms, all rare examples of Medieval architecture in the Americas. The British looted the building in 1598, removing many gold and silver treasures, and in 1615 a hurricane blew the roof off. In 1625 the Dutch burned San Juan to the ground, including all the churches and the bishop’s library – at the time the most famous and complete collection of books in America.

The cathedral was renovated in 1852 in Neoclassical style, and the plan we see today is three parallel naves intersected by a transept with a central elliptical dome and six lateral chapels. Located near the transept is a tomb that holds the remains of Juan Ponce de León, the Spanish conquistador who colonized Puerto Rico. In 1908 his body was disinterred from the nearby Iglesia de San José and placed in this marble tomb, one of Spanish sculptor Miguel Blay’s master works. The latest major restoration of the cathedral took place in 1917.

The cathedral also contains the wax-covered mummy of St. Pio, a Roman martyr persecuted and killed for his Christian faith. The mummy has been encased in a glass box ever since it was placed here in 1862. To the right of the mummy is a bizarre wooden replica of Mary with four swords stuck in her bosom. After all the looting and destruction over the centuries, the cathedral's great treasures are long gone, although many beautiful stained-glass windows remain. The cathedral faces Plaza de las Monjas (the Nuns' Square), a shady spot where you can rest in front of Hotel El Convento and the Children’s Museum.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Blue Cobblestones

The sometimes steeply sloping streets of Old San Juan are paved with blue cobblestones. Rather than being cut from stone or cast as bricks, as was the usual practice, the cobblestones found in Old San Juan are an ingenious re-use of slag from Spain’s iron foundries. Slag is the waste when iron is refined and was usually just piled into huge slagheaps at foundries. But cast into blocks, the material served as ballast in sugar-carrying ships in the 16th century, and this 500 year old recycling effort produced a durable material for paving the streets of Old San Juan. The Spanish word for these pavers is "adoquines," and most of the streets in Old San Juan are still paved in this material.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Carli Café Concierto

Established 1998 in Old San Juan
206 Calle Tetuán; 787-725-4927

Owner Carli Muñoz had an earlier success as pianist for The Beach Boys, and the gold disc hanging on the wall proves it. These days Carli entertains his dinner guests with jazz piano on his grand piano. Located on the ground floor of the Art Deco landmark Banco Popular Building in Old San Juan, the establishment allows diners to sit in the main dining room or outside on the Plazoleta, with a panoramic view of San Juan Bay. The bar, with mahogany and brass fittings, is an ideal spot to relax and enjoy the live music, which begins around 8 pm. Closed Sundays.

Here Carli’s trio performs an original composition, Tujunga Waltz

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Hotel El Convento

Located in the heart of Old San Juan, El Convento is a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World and Historic Hotels of America, thus preserving the character and mystique of the three hundred fifty year old edifice, which is a former convent. El Convento was refurbished in keeping with meticulous preservation of the original structure. The public spaces and 58 rooms reflect the golden age of Spanish Colonial architecture.

Designated as Puerto Rico's official guesthouse for visiting heads of state and other dignitaries, the hotel contains sections dating to 1651, when a three-story Carmelite convent (the hemisphere’s oldest) opened on the site across from San Juan Cathedral, which contains Ponce de Leon’s remains. The convent housed nuns for 252 years until its closing in 1903, after which it served as various and sundry commercial enterprises, some of them legal.

From 1959-1962, the building was rescued and converted into a hotel by Robert Frederic Woolworth, an heir to the Woolworth fortune, who added two stories to the original three. Entertainment, government, and social notables then made it their San Juan destination, and Pablo Casals played his cello in the courtyard. Over the years, its guest log would include Rita Hayworth, Robert Montgomery, George Hamilton, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Lynda Bird Johnson, Ethel Merman, singer Johnny Desmond, Gloria Vanderbilt, and concert pianist Claudio Arrau. However, under a succession of later operators, the hotel eventually fell into disrepair, until local investors restored and reopened it in 1997, reducing the number of rooms from 100 to 58.

El Convento is unlike other hotels in San Juan in that it has an authentic old-world atmosphere and unique layout. Those who desire the conformity and redundant glitzy luxury of a Ritz-Carlton resort will not be satisfied by El Convento. People stay here because they do not want to be holed up in an isolated hotel surrounded by a golf course. El Convento is smack in the center of a vibrant, historic city that reeks old world charm.

The rooftop plunge pool has a view of San Juan bay and the cathedral, which houses the remains of Ponce de León.

There is no beach, no oversized pool, no wall-to-wall carpeting or long, faceless air-conditioned corridors. All rooms are entered from colonnaded mahogany-beamed passageways that ring a central courtyard, which houses a giant old nispero tree surrounded by terraces, bars and restaurants, all of which are open air. Air-conditioned guest quarters have rather small marble bathrooms, but amenities include bathrobes, coffee makers for preparing Puerto Rican Alto Grande coffee (one of only 4 super-premium coffees in the world), refrigerators stocked with complimentary bottled water and free WiFi. Each room has a desk, handcrafted furniture and Andalusian tile floors.

Guests enter the hotel from a corner location opposite San Juan Cathedral, traversing black-and-white marble floors through corridors furnished with Spanish antiques and tapestries. An architecturally distinctive chapel today functions as the Jose Campeche ballroom/banquet hall, popular for weddings and receptions.

An elevator provides access to a third-floor, open-air reception area accessible only to hotel guests. Four restaurants and three bars are located among various levels of the property.

Convenient for guests wishing to explore Old San Juan, patrons lounge on a rooftop sundeck with potted flowers overlooking Old San Juan atmospheric streets, cool off in a plunge pool, soak in a Jacuzzi spa, and work out in an air-conditioned fitness center. Complimentary wine and cheese receptions are offered daily on an open-air terrace overlooking the Cathedral and San Juan Bay. As there are no beaches in Old San Juan, the hotel offers access to beaches at two sister properties located in Condado. El Convento has been rated a AAA Four Diamond property since it reopened in 1997.

El Convento
100 Cristo Street (Old San Juan)

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Old San Juan Architecture

The compact area of Old San Juan is characterized by narrow cobblestone streets and flat-roofed brick and stone buildings, many of which date back to the 16th and 17th century, when Puerto Rico was a Spanish possession. This 500-year-old quarter, once a walled city (the eastern walls came down in 1897), sports steep blue cobblestone streets and more atmosphere than you'll be able to absorb. Old San Juan, and area of just seven square blocks flanked by two forts, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1983. Here is a sampling of Spanish Colonial architectural details.