For me, arriving in a foreign land, getting a new stamp in your passport, hearing different languages and absorbing different cultures is what life is all about. But in a post-911 world of heightened anxiety and travel restrictions, there are times when you wish you could have that out-of-the-U.S. experience with all the comfort, convenience and security provided by your dear Uncle Sam (and without, you know, all the mini-malls and Applebee’s on every corner).
The best of both worlds? Might I suggest Puerto Rico, our beloved Commonwealth down in the Caribbean—a fusion of Caribbean chill-out and Latin American caliente all under the warm umbrella of America. Don't worry about bringing your passport. Flash that driver’s license to security—just as if you were going to visit your Aunt Sophie in Wisconsin—and you are on your way to warmth, scenery and adventure.
The arrival in San Juan is just as much a breeze—the moment you step off the plane, you may smugly bypass any customs, immigration or other nuisance you otherwise would encounter south of the border. You are a U.S. citizen for heaven’s sake—like the song says, this land is your land! No time change, no international hassle. All hail Puerto Rico!
In what could not have been more than a six-minute cab ride from the airport curb, we arrive at the breathtaking lobby of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, Spa and Casino on the part of the coast known as Isla Verde which is home to a roster of high end properties such as the Intercontinental and The El San Juan Resort and Casino. After a quick run up to the room for a change, we find ourselves under swaying palm trees, ordering frozen drinks in Spanish and inhaling the serene oblivion of the Caribbean Ocean.
The oldest city under the U.S. flag, Old San Juan was born 465 years ago as a stout military fortress protecting the harbor and Spanish interests from would-be invaders from sea. Eventually, the area which is now known as Old San Juan took life and now draws more tourists than any other Caribbean destination. If and when the sun, sand and casino lose their luster, you are but a short cab ride away from the gem that is Old San Juan.
A perfect introduction to the old city begins at its two massive stone fortresses, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites and operated by the US Park Service. El Morro, a six-level labyrinth of tunnels, dungeons and sentry boxes known as “garitas,” sits formidably up on 74 acres overlooking the bay and could have easily been a set of Pirates of the Caribbean. The vista alone is jaw-droopingly beautiful but the awareness that you are in a fort which fought it out with numerous canon-ball hurling attackers in centuries past—such as Sir Francis Drake and even, ahem, the U.S. Navy—is exhilarating. Castillo de San Cristobal, El Morro’s partner in defense lies a few thousand feet down the coastline and is equally as magnificent.
From either of the forts, point your feet inland and within a few moments you find your feet ambling upon the most unusual cobblestones of Old San Juan. Brought over as ballast on Spanish ships in the sixteenth century, the stone is called adoquine, a smooth rectangular block cast in English kilns and made with iron ore. Their color ranges from deepest navy to iridescent turquoise and depending on the time of day and the angle of the sun, it can appear that you are walking on a completely different street.
Exploring Old San Juan is easy; laid out on a seven square block grid, you could cover the entire neighborhood in no time or forever, depending on the level of detail you wish to absorb. But a leisurely amble down the narrow streets amidst the centuries-old pastel-colored and art deco buildings is like a tour of a living museum. Charming plazas and small parks are scattered throughout the grid—as well as numerous bars, restaurants, art galleries and retail shops.
Once the sun sets, the cruise ship cattle get rustled back onto their buffet barges and Old San Juan awakens its lively side. Several hot restaurants occupy Old San Juan’s Sofo district (South of Fortaleza Street) like The Parrot Club, The Dragonfly and its brother Aguaviva (jellyfish in Spanish). All three of these could easily hold their own in South Beach’s foodie scene but are completely unique and far less pretentious than their ilk to the north.
The nightlife of San Juan presents just about anything you desire—as long as you are willing to stay out late to get it. The resorts on Isla Verde all boast dazzling stage shows, discos and of course, gambling. In Old San Juan the array of watering holes is dizzying—ranging from low brow dives to high brow lounges and everything in between. Dancing will eventually work its way into the equation; the type of dancing (from disco to Salsa) and the location (clubs like Rumba and Aqui Se Puede) work themselves out of the course of the night. Stumbling back to your room with the sunrise is not unusual; it’s more like a rite of passage.
Leaving San Juan, like arriving, is so easy you almost regret that there are not the usual entanglements that there are on other Caribbean islands which, at the very least, allow you to linger and extend the vacation just a bit longer. Six minutes to the airport, breeze through security and before you know it, you are back in NOLA. Oh well, the passport can stay home for another day. Hasta la vista—until next time Puerto Rico.
The Ritz Carlton Hotel, Spa and Casino 6961 Avenue of the Governors, Isla Verde Carolina (787)253-1700 is a fantastic property which oozes opulence and great service with a world-class casino and spa. The hotel's El Mulino New York restaurant was one of the best Italian meals I’ve ever had.
This article originally appeared in Season Magazine.