San Juan is where most people want to stay when they want to visit the rain forests, the bioluminescent bays, historic old San Juan, the forts, and of course, the wide variety of food that Puerto Rico has to offer. I chose Puerto Rico for our tenth wedding anniversary trip for a few reasons. First, it is in the perfect climate for a beach retreat during some of our coldest winter days in Virginia. Second, I could book a flight with no passport, as my husband’s had expired. And, last but not least, it is just a three-hour flight from Charlotte to exotic tropical beaches with coconut palms and clear blue waters. What I did not know was how much I was going to fall in love with Puerto Rico! One of my husband’s partners is from Puerto Rico, and when we asked him what we must do there, he said, “See the rain forest and eat, eat everything you can! Try all the delicious foods, you are gonna love it.”
I decided to split up my trip into two distinct vibes, sightseeing primarily in and around Old San Juan for the first half of the trip, and serious spa services in Dorado Beach to end the vacation completely relaxed. I have had the Ritz-Carlton Reserve, Dorado Beach on my spa bucket list since it opened in 2012. What better combination than to do and see all that San Juan has to offer, get a feel for Puerto Rico, then finish out our vacation the way I prefer, lounging at a gorgeous beach and spa? I’m not a travel agent, but my plan worked like a charm. We checked in at the Ritz-Carlton, San Juan on a mission.
The Ritz-Carlton, San Juan was the perfect home base for the sightseeing portion of our vacation. Not only is the hotel centrally located for all the best sites, my concierge, Angela, ensured I saw the best that San Juan had to offer. She helped me coordinate our tours, spa services, and an easy transfer to the Ritz-Carlton Reserve, Dorado Beach, later in the week. The Ritz San Juan actually has two types of concierge at this property, one for general requests like dinner reservations and spa services and one just for off-property excursions. I was able to book private car tours of all the sights with the very best tour guides and skip lines, crowds, and other time-consuming hassles.
I was paired with the most experienced tour guide from Castillo Tours, Roberto Garcia, for our tour of El Yunque National Park, the rain forest. He picked us up at the hotel and chauffeured us into the park. My husband and I were amazed at his knowledge of all things Puerto Rico. His seventeen years of experience led to great conversations on the history, people, plants, animals, climate, and culture that made the trek enjoyable. He literally walked us into the rain forest and pointed out all sorts of interesting facts. It was very educational, but he also picked up on our laid back style and made the day fun and enjoyable. Of course he had towels, water, and umbrellas for us. We made several stops along the mountainous road to see different waterfalls, take some pictures, and pick up souvenirs. He was also outstanding at giving us tips for the rest of our week.
We also booked a private car to take us to the Bacardi factory. Roberto did let us know that despite all the tourist information that is out there, this is actually the second most popular tourist destination in Puerto Rico. San Juan is the most popular destination. I was happy to hear this as I found this information much more useful in my daily life. For example, did you know that the number one drink in the world is the Cubra Libre? Well, it is easy to understand as rum and coke are so easily available to so many people, but to really make this drink, one must use rum that has been aged at least eight years in an oak barrel, add Coca-Cola, and serve it with a wedge of lime– otherwise it’s just a rum and coke. There is a difference! The luxury of being able to enjoy a tasting or two and not have to drive is amazing, and as far as I am concerned, the only way to go.
We chose to visit Fort San Cristobal, and wander around Old San Juan to get a feel for the culture and food firsthand. Getting a taxi from our hotel to the fort was easy, as was walking through Old San Juan. We felt safe, and most people we met were bilingual. Again, I was armed with a map from my concierge, Angela, and notes from Roberto of great places to eat with stunning views, but we chose to wander for the most part and let the city open up to us naturally. We did find this amazing bean-to-bar chocolate restaurant, Casa Cortes ChocoBar, that was on my hit list and did not disappoint. We also stumbled on Barrachina, a great restaurant with the claim to fame of having invented the pina colada. We shopped, and ate, and shopped, and ate, until we found a Buddhist bar with a day spa. More on that later–it deserves a post of its own. I am a spa blogger after all. Funny thing about drinking in Old San Juan, I kept hearing Spanish, so I almost felt like I was in Mexico.
Valentine’s Day dinner in our bathing suits was pure luxury for us. It was snowing hard back home. We skipped the crowded restaurants and dined next to the ocean at the Ocean Bar and Grill which is wedged between the pool and the beach. The atmosphere was casual but the cocktails and food were top shelf. After several delicious mojitos, we ventured to try our luck at the casino that is on property at the Ritz. I’m happy to report that Lady Luck was on our side. We decided to quit while we were ahead so we could get up early and go for a walk on the beach. The local surfers love the way the waves break just a short stroll down from the Ritz.
Knowing I was going to one of the best spas in the world later in the week, I just booked a couples massage, as that is what my husband requested. Ok, full disclosure here, I am not usually a fan of couples treatments. The main reason is that my husband usually falls asleep on the massage table and starts snoring, not exactly relaxing or romantic for me! Angela booked me with Millie and Mildred knowing my high standards. Our therapists spoke with us ahead of time about the typical issues, as they generally do, sore areas, recent surgeries, allergies, etc. Ok, this was it. This was the time for me to speak up and tell Mildred that she needs to give Mike that really deep tissue massage that he prefers and and if he starts snoring, go deeper! Wake him up! Of course Millie and Mildred were true professionals and took my comments in stride, but hey, I think it worked! He made it through 90 minutes, 30 minutes longer than his normal massage attention span, and no snoring. Both therapists met my standards for treatments not just in technique and touch, but also on an emotional level. They hit all the marks I am looking for in a solid service. Thank you, ladies!
I fell in love with the people and the all the interesting nooks and crannies of Old San Juan. It is a very large city with nearly 400,000 residents, but everywhere we went, we found everyone really friendly and genuinely warm. Off-property, most restaurants we went to offered us a free dessert, a little extra drink, or something to make us feel special. The spa at the Ritz-Carlton, San Juan was no different. Every guest at the Ritz is a treated like a V.I.P., but somehow someone always seems to make a personal connection. The ladies at the spa front desk put together some Valentine’s-themed spa products for me to take back to my room. How sweet! I love this place.
My tips for San Juan:
Get out of the resort and explore the island and all of the culture. Find some adventure. Eat local.
Staying in the city is key for many of the major sites like the rain forests, Bacardi factory, and beaches. I skipped some famous beaches like Flamenco Beach, Culebra. I knew I would be at Dorado Beach later in the week. I never left the Dorado Beach Reserve once I checked in, so I was right about that.
Skip the kayak tour of the bioluminescent bay in Fajardo. We spent more time getting instructions on how not to fight with our boatmates from our guide than actual kayaking instructions, and both were needed! It was overbooked with teeming hordes of tourists who, like us, don’t know how to kayak, trying to find their way into and out of the pitch black mangroves, running into trees and other boats, and dodging the occasional motor boat. I understand there is another tour where you can walk up to a beach in Vieques that might be better. Either way, no one is allowed to get in the water. It was definitely a test for our ten-year marriage, but we survived. Bioluminescence cannot be photographed without special equipment either, that is why I don’t have any pictures of it.
Valentine’s Day does mean something to the people of Puerto Rico. Many folks go out to dinner, and we found the hotel crowded with people (kids) from the northeastern U.S. getting in a quick vacation while their kids were off from school for Presidents’ Day.
Normally, when I visit a spa resort, I book treatments every day. This half of the vacation was different for me, but still fun. My tip for this spa would be to bring your tennis racket. Not too many tennis courts are on the ocean with a spa right next door. Book individual spa treatments, and spend time together in the relaxation room and co-ed jacuzzi, unless of course it’s your anniversary.
Stay tuned for the 411 on the incredible spa experience at the Ritz-Carlton Reserve, Dorado Beach!