|Puerto Rico is about 200 miles west of SXM, 1000 miles east of Miami, and 1700 miles south of New York City. There are several flights a day to San Juan, the capital, from SXM and they take about an hour. The island is about 110 miles east to west and 35 miles north to south, making it about 100 times larger than SXM. The population is about 4 million, half of them in the San Juan area, making it about 40 times larger than SXM. The electric current is the same as the US and the time is the same as SXM. Just north of San Juan Airport is Isla Verde on the north coast of the island and heading from there west along the coast, one goes through Punta Las Marias, Ocean Park, and Condado to Old San Juan. The driving time depends on traffic as this is the major city on the island, but you should be able to make it in twenty minutes, thirty at the worst.|
|In November of 2009 we joined some friends for five nights at the Wyndham Rio Mar Resort and Casino. They have points from Wyndham got two rooms for five nights for only $500. We got upgraded to the top floor and got the view of the Yunque National Rain Forest, which actually is much more picturesque than staring at several thousand miles of empty ocean. We flew out on USAir for about $700 roundtrip from Albany, departing early on Monday morning and arriving about 2:30 PM. No problems to report with respect to the schedule or luggage. We all arrived on time and with our luggage.|
|The resort is on the northeastern edge of the island, about 25 miles from the airport and 35 miles from San Juan. Traffic is generally bad so figure on an hour to the airport and another half hour to San Juan. Consequently, many people don't get a car, relaxing in situ for the duration of their stay, taking a shuttle back and forth to the airport. There are tours, notably to the rain forest, San Juan, and the Bacardi Distillery, plus various water-related activities. There are several restaurants, although two of the four main ones were closed when we arrived. Moreover, they know that they have a captive audience and charge accordingly, especially for breakfast, lunch, and drinks. There are a few other restaurants nearby that offer free shuttles. We arrived at the airport in mid-afternoon and after a stop at Sam's Club for the best rum around (Barrillita), some nice Rioja, good champagne, and a few munchies, we got to the hotel at about 5PM. We made life easy by having some drinks and snacks in the room before going downstairs to have dinner in Wyndham's Marbella restaurant. We started with some tasty black bean soup and followed with main courses of Angus beefsteak with fingerling potatoes, asparagus and carrots ($27, below left), Churrasco (marinated skirt steak) with a potato hash ($24 below right),|
|Arroz con Pollo (a Creole chicken stew with rice, $17 below left), and a grilled shrimp in a Creole sauce with mofongo (a yucca and plaintain mash, $24, below center). All of this went quite well with a 2004 Reserve Tempranillo, a nicely aged, smooth and tasty wine. (about $40). With two bottles of wine, one ap, no desserts, no drinks, no coffees, the bill with a tip came to $230 for four or about $115 per couple. The food was good and looked good. Service was good and the room was pleasant, but had essentially no view.|
|On Tuesday we loafed around the hotel. On the left above is a shot of us at the front of the hotel with the rain forest in the background. On the other side of the hotel, where we spent most of the day and had a decent, though expensive lunch, the beach is lovely. The drive into the resort had speed bumps protecting an iguana crossing and the gardens around the pool and hotel were filled with the creatures, including the one (below left) who was happy to see us. There were two varieties of lounge lizards.|
|That evening we took the free shuttle to Richie's Café. We drank a 2002 Vina Alberdi Rioja that was very nice, rich and flavorful, yet smooth as silk with six years in the bottle, as we enjoyed the view of the bay beneath us. We were in no hurry and that was no problem at Richies. We looked over the menu and choose a few appetizers to share. They were all interesting and good, but the most memorable was the octopus.|
|Eventually we choose the Churrasco and paella for main courses (and another bottle of Roija). The Churrasco was fabulous and came with smashed potatoes and mixed vegetables and was topped with a tasty chimichurri, made from finely chopped parsley, minced garlic, olive oil, vinegar, and red pepper flakes. the paella was even more spectacular with scallops, langoustines, shrimp, and mussels. Both dinners were quite flavorful and worked well with the red wine.|
|The next day we headed into San Juan for a bit of site-seeing. The original fort protecting the bay of San Juan was built in the 1500's. The name Puerto Rico (rich port) was based on the large amounts of gold nearby, making the fort a necessity for the Spanish crown.We wandered about the streets in a drizzle, hiding in stores when it got really bad. We passed a lovely fountain in the center of Old San Juan as we made our way over to the Hotel Convent across from the Catholic church. It's a lovely hotel on a very nice square. Across the square is Rosa de Triana, a tapas restaurant where we had this Rioja (the house red), some chorizo and shrimp with garbanzos, octopus, anchovies, lots of good bread, and more that got lost in the second bottle of wine.|
|That evening we took the free shuttle to Hacienda Carbalí on a hill near the entrance to the Yunque Rain Forest. It's a 600 acre adventure ranch with horseback riding, mountain bikes, ATVs, and go-carts during the day and a very nice albeit rustic restaurant at night featuring local food. The menu is laminated, something I always take as a bad sign, but it is quite large with Churrasco (of course), but also chicken, pork, and as the island is only about 30 miles wide, fresh seafood makes it up the mountain quite easily and is featured in many dishes, including a paella. We had the chicken (right), Churrasco (below left), octopus (below center), and pork (below right). Everything came with a bit of green salad.|
|Most people took the Mamposteao Rice (mixture of rice and beans with the addition of onions, pepper, and garlic - very tasty). Martha took the the octopus with spider plantain. No spiders were harmed in the production of this dish. Plaintain is shredded, smashed into disks, and fried. The result is a mass of plantain in the center and shreds hanging off, looking like spider legs, but tasting much better. With two bottles of excellent rioja, the dinner came to about $120 per couple with a tip for the waitress and a bit for the driver of the free transport. We thought that this was the best Churrasco that we had on this journey and really liked the rice. This was essentially the same price as the dinner on the previous night, but we all felt is was a bit better.|
|The next day we took a tour of the Yunque National Forest. It was originally set aside as a preserve in 1876 by the King Alfonso XII of Spain. After the Spanish-American War, PR (and Cuba and the Philippines) were ceded to the US. In 1903, 28,000 acres were set aside by the US government. There is a central spine of mountains on PR and the eastern tip features El Toro at 3500 feet. The tradewinds blow steadily across the warm Atlantic, picking up moisture as the head west. Arriving at PR, they are forced upward and cool via adiabatic expansion: instant rainfall, quite similar to the eastern coast of Hawaii, the rainiest spot in the US. There is a great visitor center and miles of trails, even a hike to the top of El Toro. Ferns (right) grow quite well here. There were several waterfalls, but the largest (below right) required a hike of about a mile. We made the trek, carrying in cheese, crackers, and serrano ham for a lovely lunch. As you can see, some people ventured into the water.|
|There is a tower with fabulous views accessible via a hike and a similar tower next to the road at a lower elevation. The lower one was part of the tour and the journey up the steps was worth the effort. Our tour cost about $100 per couple.|
That evening we drove back to route 3 (the main east-west highway on the northeastern coast) and traveled three stop lights to Luquillo and headed to the beach called La Pared (The Wall), known for its surf. One of the more famous surfers hung his board on the wall and opened a minimalist restaurant here called Pasta y Pueblo. There's only three tables and no wine list. The menu has a few aps and a few specials introduced once in a while. We had some Serrano ham wrapped around Spanish manchego cheese (note the Rioja that we bought for about $10 and brought with us), some salad that was far from ordinary: some interesting veg, lightly sautéed with a drizzle of balsamic, some carrot slivers, and some guacamole, and a new that day special, the reef tortilla featuring chopped tomatoes and cheese on a layer of guacamole with a drizzle of balsamic.
The menu basically offers penne pasta and allows you to choose your preparation/sauce: Alfredo, carbonara, creamy pesto, garlic and oil, or a coconut rice, to which you add some protein, chicken, Churrasco, ahi tuna, mahi-mahi, or not: just veg. We chose a churrasco, some lovely salmon carbonara, grilled shrimp on cocnut rice, and a lovely piece of ahi tuna on penne with a creamy pesto sauce. You did notice that the chicken dinner is $9, churrasco is $10, veggies are $8, and the others are $13.
|It's not elegant, but it's comfortable with friendly people. Below center is the churrasco, below right is the salmon. The next row down has the grilled shrimp, and the ahi tuna, with a final shot of Freddie, the surfer-chef.|
|Jennifer was our waitress, but don't count on her to stay for very long. She's a service brat and has seen a good bit of the world. She got a degree in hotel management and actually worked at the Wyndham for a while, before wandering down the road to help Freddie. Currently she says she is going back to school to study nursing. That seems to fit in with the motto on the wall: "For the good flavor, never common, always working".|
|For our last evening we had reservations at the best restaurant that Wyndam had open: Palio. It was a very nicely appointed place with a large wine list and a large menu. We started with a 2005 La Crema Pinot Noir ($55), very nice and full-flavored. We had been finishing up the snacks we had purchased so we ordered only tow of the interesting appetizers: a brodetto featuring clams and mussels in a spicy tomato and saffron broth and an arugula salad with pancetta and Gorgonzola. Both were quite tasty and great with the wine. Our main courses were a veal and chicken cannelonni, Osso Buco with a saffron risotto, free range Veal Parmesan, and a pesto goat cheese crusted Colorado lamb loin with a porcini. We needed another bottle of wine and our server recommended a San Angelo at $45.|
|No desserts for us as we closed out a tab for $330, our most expensive dinner. It was the most luxurious dining room we had seen in five days and the food and wine were also top notch.|
|In 2008 we hopped over for a mini-vacation getting the 9:50AM American flight that takes about an hour to get to San Juan. A very short, and inexpensive ($12 with tip) cab ride took us over to the Intercontinental San Juan Resort and Casino. I had gone on Priceline and got a very nice room with a $300 rack rate for $122, which via the magic of taxation, became about $150 per night - pretty good for such a lovely place in a great location. One side is on the major commercial street along the shore in Isla Verde and the other side is the shore. Behind the 20 story hotel tower there are two lower buildings runnig toward the shore sheltering an impressive fresh water swimming complex and a Mediterranean restaurant, Ciao. The restaurant ends with a raised seating area offering great spots for beach-watching and even a few tables in the sand. After that is about 50 yards of beach with plenty of chairs. Wifi is free and available in the rooms and all around the resort.|
|There are three other restaurants: Ruth's Chris, Momoyama (famous for shushi pizza), and Alfredo, the Emperor of Fettuccini. This is a view from our room in the tower. It is so close to the airport that you could see the planes about to land, but noise was not a problem.|
|We arrived long before any rooms were available, so we checked the luggage and discussed lunch and dinner plans with Nestor Colón at the concierge desk. We had been to Miró last year and had a great lunch, so we wanted to reprise that on our last day, but asked Nestor what local restaurants were in the area. He suggested Barrachina for dinner, about a 10 minute walk to the west. The original outpost was opened by Pepe Barrachina, a chef from Valencia, in Old San Juan in the 50's. They claim to have invented the Pina Colada and have recently opened this smart outpost in Isla Verde. For lunch he sent us over to Mi Casita, essentially across the street where we had Chicken Asopao and Pork Mofongo. Asopao is essentially a broth with rice flavored with garlic, cilantro, and paprika. In this case, it was a chicken broth chicken bits and a large breast of chicken. Mofongo is a popular local dish, made from fried green plantains seasoned with garlic, olive oil and pork cracklings, then mashed. In this case, it arrived with a fried pork and a fish broth soup. Two local light beers, Medella, rounded out a very tasty and filling lunch for a mere $28.|
|Dinner that night was at Barrachina. Nestor had made the reservations (hardly necessary on a Tuesday evening) and we were led to a window table and with three carnations in a vase. A word on the view: Most of the waterfront in this area is taken up with high rise condos, apartments, or hotels. Very few restaurants have SXM settings overlooking lovely beaches with islands in the distance. In fact, there are essentially no islands in the distance around San Juan. Nonetheless, it was a very smart looking Le Corbusier-inspired industrial dining space. The waiter arrived with a brightly-colored, laminated, ring-bound menu with advertisements on every other page and a bottle of 2004 Malbec from Argentina that he said was great. We asked for the wine list and how much for the Malbec. The wine list arrived and the most expensive still wine was a mere $30. After checking, the waiter returned to say the Malbec was $55. I'm noticing a trend wherein the most special things about specials is their profit margin. The wine list was not too large, having a few sparkling wines, about 10 whites, and 19 reds. We ordered a lovely 2003 Rioja Bordon Crianza for a mere $24 and some sparkling water. We had already perused the menu at a fancy kiosk at the concierge desk, so we knew we wanted the octopus salad as a starter ($8) and I was ready to order the pork tenderloin stuffed with chorizo and spinach ($20). Martha continued searching and eventually chose the mahi filet with a Créole sauce ($22). The octopus arrived piled high in a martini glass. Getting some out was like playing pick-up sticks, but with a greater reward for winning: tender octopus in a vinaigrette with lettuce, onions, and a few pepper flakes. The water eventually arrived as two individual bottles or Perrier. I had forgotten that America (and this is America) has not embraced the large bottle of expensive water with dinner trend. Our dinners arrived shorthly thereafter. Each had rather plain looking white rice, which was livened up considerably when a bowl to tasty beans was brought to the table. The plates also had some fried plantain and some essentially raw carrot slivers and a floret of broccoli. We are not great fans of raw vegetables and this is not related to dentures. Martha was quite pleased with her fish and sauce. My tenderloin was well short of being tender, but the combination was quite good. Toward the end of dinner, the attached lounge started playing its disco music essentially winning the battle of the bands with the jazz music in the dining room. We passed on coffee and came back to our room to have some Barrilito Rum, purchased earlier at the recommendation of Nestor.|
|We strolled out of the hotel and noticed this spctacular bit of orchid attached to a very tall palm tree. We hopped the bus (75 cents each, exact change required) for a 40 minute bus ride to Old San Juan. It's an interesting ride and air-conditioned well, but it does get crowded. The bus terminal is down by the Cruiseship pier where the Carnival Triumph towered over the landscape. Just off the waterfront is Senor Frog's. It appears that this frog preys on cruseship passengers. We were looking for better fare and headed up hill into the center of Old San Juan. Turning back, we got this nice view of a square with the harbor in the background. We continued walking to this square and discovered Columbus, who discovered Puerto Rico. Old San Juan is a rather small area, about three quarters of a mile long on a peninsula that is about a quarter mile wide. It was heavily fortified to protect the harbor.|
|We looked at several restaurants and finally choose Aguaviva for lunch. The name means Jellyfish in spanish. It features fish, specializing in ceviche and oysters. They have a large order of ceviche for $15, two tasting size orders for $17, or three for $25. There were 12 white wines on the list, six sparklers, and ten reds, with many of them available by the glass. We choose two portions of ceviche, opting for octopus with pepper in a vinaigrette (sound familiar?) and a grouper in coconut milk.|
|To go with our ceviches, we choose a glass of Wente chardonnay and a pinot grigio. A basket of bread arrived promptly with a bowl of aïoli - very nice. We do like octopus, but I was really intrigued by the sweet flavors that the coconut milk gave to the grouper. The wines were an added bonus. Our main course was a swordfish sandwich with melted cheese and sautéed mushrooms.|
|The bread was great and toasted. With the addition of some remaining aïoli and a Trinchero Pinot Noir, we had a fabulous lunch. The service from a young lady named Nindiri was great, friendly and efficient. She explained that she was named after a volcano in Nicaragua, so possibly she has a fiery side. The interior was quite striking and the group (OOF! Restaurants) has designed several restaurants in San Juan. Go to the website to see the interesting details.|
We wandered around Old San Juan a bit more after lunch and stumbled onto a store that sold Chavin Cotton clothing at 255 Tanca Street. It's Peruvian cotton and the cloth and clothing are made in Peru.
We went into the store at the bus station where we bought Barrilito Rum last year and, no surprise, it was more expensive than it was in the local grocery store in Isla Verde.
That night for dinner, we took life easy and rode the elevator down to Alfredo, the Emperor of Fetuccini. They are tucked into the corner of the lower lobby where the hotel tower at the front of property meets the western block of garden units running toward the beach. The interior of the restaurant (right) is quite striking and there is an outdoor area opening onto the well-manicured gardens, but with a roof, somewhat important in the tropics. Moreover, the the area between the two garden wing units is protected from the winds, which can get a bit rough given several thousand miles of open sea. It was a pleasant evening so we choose to dine out on the terrace with a view of the gardens. As guests of the hotel, we were offered a glass of Proseco on the way to our table. The wine list was long featuring Italian wines, but with a good selection from around the world. We choose a Montepulciano and a bottle of Pellegrino to start.
A basket of bread arrived with two pieces topped with a bit of tomato and olive oil. A slice of mortadella and a marinated artichoke arrrived next. A chunk of Parmegianno was brought over. By now we were glad we had only ordered a Mediterranean salad as our appetizer. It was still a large salad with olives, feta cheese, sundried tomatoes, and various greens with a thick sun-dried tomato dressing - quite good. They make their own pasta here and Martha then moved on to a very tasty canneloni while I had a porcini mushroom risotto, also very good. Espresso and complimentary lemoncellos followed. It was not cheap at almost $170 with a 15% tip, but it was a great dinner, with great service, and a nice view.
For our last meal on Puerto Rico, we choose Miró on Ashford in the Condado, across from the Marriott Resort. (They have moved slightly from last year's location). It was about a $15 cab ride from our hotel. The new place doesn't have the old-fashioned charm, but it does look quite nice and given it's raised location, it has a bit more of a view. Ashford also provides a bit more to look at, especially in terms of people watching, and the entrance to the Marriott is rather nice. We were one of the first lunch customers and were led to a corner window table.
Our waiter recommended a 2001 Entrelepas Riserva ($44). We took that, some sparkling water, and started with alcochofas con jamon (artichokes and ham) and sautéed squid. Bread and aïoli arrived, followed by a the smooth red wine, not terribly large. We seemed to have liked it as it was gone by the time we finished these appetizers. We were going slowly as we had almost three hours before we had to leave for the airport. Eventually we ordered our second courses which were sautéed baby octopi and Pimiento Miró, a red pepper stuffed with crab meat on a bed of smashed potatoes. With this we had a 2001 Montecillo Rioja Grand Riserva ($42). This had a bit more fruit, dispite being the same age. The two dishes were fabulous. We slowly worked our way through the wine and ordered espresso and a tumbler of Barrilito Rum to finish a three hour lunch.
It was another $15 back to the airport and off to SXM.
We stayed at the San Juan Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino on Ashford in Condado. The cab ride was about 15 minutes and cost $18 with a tip. The high-rise hotel had just been refurbished and looked quite nice, inside and out. Our room with a king-size bed and large flat screen TV was wonderful. We asked for a high floor (not requesting one with a sea or pool view) and got sixteenth floor room with a lovely balcony looking south over the top of the city to the range of mountains running through the center of the island. There was a coffee pot and refrigerator in the room and a large and well-appointed bathroom. Hotels.com offered it to us for $275 per night and Priceline.com had it at $295, but they accepted a bid of $125! Admittedly, it was $150 by the time they added taxes, but that's pretty good. We've heard good things about Hotel El Convento in Old San Juan.
We had a lunch in La Vista, their ground floor casual restaurant, as we arrived a bit before our room was ready. The menu was a bit thin, but we had a Cubano ($12) and some empanadas ($12) with a couple beers ($12). A Cubano is ham and cheese on a baguette with pickle and a mustard sauce (usually), crushed and heated. This one was loaded with ham, probably the average Cuban's meat ration for a month. Empanadas are a ground meat-filled fried pastry. It was only afterward that we noticed that they were setting up a wonderful looking Sunday buffet ($22). Our lunch was fine, and probably more than we should have eaten, but we definitely would have eaten too much of the buffet! The restaurant across the hall, Tuscany, was only open for dinner. We never did eat there as we were trying for something more Spanish, but the reviews that we read on Priceline were favorable and the menu looked good.
The pools were laid out nicely with plenty of fountains filling the area with white noise. There was a warm tub and lots of plantings. Don't judge the beach from the picture, as those rocks were the only bit of visual excitement in at least a half mile of beach - nothing but sand, not even that many people. It is on the north side of the island and the trade winds coming from the NE, tended to be rather strong and kicked up some waves, nothing that kept anybody out of the water.
|The concierge at the hotel was fabulous. There was a three inch thick book of restaurant menus and photos and a lovely woman to guide you through it. We choose something close for our first night: Yerba Buena. In Cuba, yerba buena refers to a herb known as large apple mint, foxtail mint, hairy mint, woolly mint or Cuban mint. Their website is quite flashy and opens with somebody else sitting in these seats. The food was good and the service was friendly and efficient. The calamari were tasty. Ropa Vieja means old clothes. It is a flank steak cooked to the point of tenderness when the meat can be shredded into strings resembling old clothes. Trust me, it tastes better than it sounds. The Churrasco is a skirt steak, a bit chewy, but flavorful, especially when slathered with chimichurri sauce. There was a nice wine list that provided an old Marques de Caceres Rioja at a reasonable price ($38). Espresso and old rum finished an evening that cost $130 with a tip.|
|The next night we took an $11 cab ride to Pamela's in nearby Ocean Park. The restaurant is located in a guesthouse and the website doesn't devote nearly enough space to this little gem with tables out on the sand. Those take some special reservations, so we dined inside which is also quite pleasant, starting with good bread with an olive oil and garlic dip, followed by some skewers of lamb with coriander. Martha had the Chicken Guajillo with plantains, cilantro, and a pineapple au jus. Guajillo are hot peppers and they were rubbed on the skin, very tasty and not overly hot. I had the Pork Medallions with a dark rum, raisin, and vanilla sauce. A 2000 Campo Viejo Rioja Gran Riserva cost only $37. More espresso and eight year old Bacardi finished this evening, about $160 for everything.|
|Our last meal in Puerto Rico was at Miró, a short southerly walk from our hotel. It claims to be a Marisquería Catalana, a Catalan Fish restaurant, and there was no doubt about it as the menu was filled with fish and the walls were filled with Miró art. We couldn't decide what fish to order, so we went with a mixed grill that included baby octopus, squid, shrimp, clams, mussels, and cuttlefish (larger squid). They were fresh and and tasted of the grill and the bit of lime that we squeezed on them - wonderful, and more so from the 1994 Tondonia Reserva. We continued with the house specialty, Pimiento Miró, a red pepper stuffed with crab meat, and alcachofas con jamon, artichokes with ham, one of our favorite Spanish dishes. We took a photo of the wine cellar to convey the size of the wine list, just in case the mention of a 94 Rioja didn't tell you enough. That is a table in the wine room and they will accommodate parties of up to eight in there. Obviously, this is not news the average tourist can use, but it should let you know that this is a serious restaurant catering to locals who know fine food and wine. That is news you can use.|
|And then there was this. I think this is supposed to say GOOD, but it sure looks like GOOP, and that is not a good name for any restaurant, especially a Chinese restaurant.|
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