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.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

En Mi Viejo San Juan

En Mi Viejo San Juan is a second national anthem to many Puerto Ricans, especially those who have left the island for homes and jobs abroad. Full of nostalgia, here the song is performed impeccably by Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, in my opinion the finest lirico-leggiero (bel canto) operatic tenor performing in the world today. His childhood experience as a pop singer in his mother's bar allows him to be a convincing cross-over artist.

Puerto Rican native Noel Estrada (1918-1979) was a government worker who penned this classic bolero after being away from Puerto Rico to serve in the army during WW II.

English translation of lyrics:

In my Old San Juan, I forged many dreams in my childhood years.
My first illusion and my grief of love are memories of the soul.
One afternoon I left for a foreign nation, that's how destiny would have it,
But my heart remained in front of the sea, in my Old San Juan.

Goodbye, my dear Borinquen; Goodbye, my goddess of the Sea.

I'm leaving now, but someday I'll return to search for my love,
To dream once again in my Old San Juan.

But time passed me by, and destiny fooled my aching nostalgia.
And I could not return to the San Juan I loved, that little piece of my soul.
My hair has turned gray, life is leaving me, death is calling me.
I do not want to die so far away from you, Puerto Rico of my soul!