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!
My best spa treatment in 2015 was also the most decadent of the year. The Montasanto Apothecary Ritual at the Ritz-Carlton Reserve, Dorado Beach, in Puerto Rico. This spa has been on my bucket list since it opened in 2012. I had the pleasure of taking in all that the Ritz-Carlton, Dorado Beach has to offer with my husband for our 10th wedding anniversary in February. It is the most beautiful spa I have visited to date.
Living on the east coast of the United States, Dorado Beach, Puerto Rico is just a quick three-hour flight from Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, requires no passport, and is an exotic beach get away. Coconut palm trees, secluded beaches, four world-class golf courses on the property, and every amenity that you would expect at a Ritz-Carlton, taken to a new level. This is a Ritz-Carlton Reserve property. What makes this an ultra-destination spa is the five-acre rain forest in the center of this resort and the exceptional staff. The world-class therapists make full use of the the flowers and herbs grown within the organic spa garden. The botanicals are used in all of the spa treatments and even some of the resort meals. The extensive treatment menu, with exotic settings tucked away in private casitas bring all the elements together for an otherworldly experience.
Guests can arrive to the spa several ways. Your personal ambassador makes all of your arrangements for you, be it dining, tours, golf, spa treatments, packing or unpacking your luggage, or even transportation to the spa. Each guest is given a bicycle to explore the property, delivered to your room at your request. For my first treatment, a Dorado diamond facial, I arrived by golf cart, but by the end of the week, I was exploring the property and arriving at the spa on my bike.
Entering the spa though the Spanish gates, I pass under a gorgeous ancient banyan tree. I realize I am about to enter a very special place. On each spa visit I take my time to take in the scale of this gorgeous tree. I can see why the design team chose this site for the welcome center. At 30 yards from the front door, one can actually smell all the organic herbs and flowers coming from the huge open air pavilion where they harvest, dry, and store the botanicals for treatments. This pathway really sets the tone for what is the most spectacular spa I have ever visited.
I booked for the signature three-hour Montasantos Apothecary Ritual treatment with Giselle. She is my therapist and esthetician, and has been all week. Since Giselle has gotten to know me over the course of the week, it would be easy for her to rush through my consultation, but that is not the case. We again discuss my desired goals, health conditions, and personal preferences specifically for the botanicals preparations she will me making by hand for me. The goal is to help me achieve my optimum state of wellbeing. Personally, I was already feeling amazing. I had been eating extremely well, I was drinking the best Puerto Rican rum at the pool daily, strolling the beach during the evening, and getting plenty of sleep. My husband and I were feeling connected and happy. He was in great spirits and very relaxed. I was missing a second winter storm back home, so no real complaints here. Any treatment issues to be addressed were just some lingering dry patches of winter skin, and the typical desire to address aging on my face and decolletage.
We begin our consultation in a special pavilion also used for couples therapies, to allow for more room and access to the special stone-carved tub where I will take my rainforest bath. But first, Giselle prepares the room by burning some fresh sage, and sets an intention for the treatment. She presents this gorgeous box that reminds me of a fancy tea presentation. In that box are dozens of dry herbs and flowers. Several other bowls containing fresh botanicals and oils are set out and ready to pick and choose for my custom-blended treatments. We continue to talk as she carefully chooses the flowers and herbs to make two poultices for me. In a special deep mortar, she places a bag and begins to fill it with my blend. She is able to do this fairly quickly as she has been on property since the opening, and has decades of experience. Once she is satisfied with the combination, she begins to muddle and blend the delicate petals and leaves with the pestle. She makes quick work of wrapping my poultice. The next step is to prepare the infused oil that will be used in my massage. Again, we continue to discuss my skin and select the flowers and herbs to be used, muddled, and added to the bottles and topped off with the oil we selected based on my needs. Salts are also prepared with the same attention to detail for my scrub and placed in a bowl. This process, while it was involved, did not take long as Giselle knows her apothecary, the benefits and uses of each botanical, and how to make effective blends, from using them daily. I was in awe during this process. I just took in the gorgeous treatment room, the smells coming from her emulsions, and continued to ask her questions about the various flowers and treatments. She was a wealth of information.
Walking over to still another private, open-air pavilion, she seated me for a foot soak and scrub. I am now soaking my feet in a beautiful bowl of water with fresh flowers and the salts she just prepared. Giselle gives me a special passion fruit drink. I enjoy the architecture, the design and decoration of the room, and just enjoy her company as I soak. We are alone. I can just hear water and tropical birds. I can see beautiful palm trees and exotic plants. The setting is tranquil and I feel completely relaxed and we are just getting started. What separates a good spa therapy from a great spa therapy is the therapist. At this point, I feel connected to her as if we were old friends, yet I don’t feel the need to be chatty.
Feet botanically, salt soaked, cleaned and buffed, Giselle helps me walk out into my own private rainforest garden. This is where I will take in the next few steps of the treatment. She has personally arranged a special treat for me of house-made passion fruit candies, along with a chilled bottle of champagne, to enjoy while I take my rainforest bath. It was the perfect example of a Ritz-Carlton staff member going above the regular service to make a guest feel special. She did this on her own, knowing what a spa enthusiast I am based on our treatments earlier in the week and she went out of her way to really make my tub time special. Bravo! I adored my soak! The granite carved tub outside in the open air rain forest, surrounded by all the exotic foliage, was breathtaking. I was left alone for a while to just soak it all in and enjoy the solitude of bathing in nature in the most luxurious way imaginable. I sipped champagne, ate the passion fruit candies, and I think I teared up a little. It was so beautiful and sweet!
Later, Giselle returned to help assist me from the tub to the thick granite table within the garden for my full body exfoliation. Once I toweled off discreetly, and was helped to the table, I was draped for modestly and my exfoliation began using the botanical salts she made earlier. Giselle has an excellent touch and was able to thoroughly address my dry winter skin issues with out being abrasive to the point of aggravation. I smelled lavender, rose hips and rosemary. It was divine.
Giselle helps me off the table and over to the outdoor shower so that I could rinse off the salt preparation. Again, she is respectful of my modesty and gives me time alone to thoroughly rinse off and enjoy this beautiful outdoor rain shower in the center of this rain forest. All wrapped up in a soft and sleek robe, she helps me make my way back to the pavilion for my massage.
Giselle remembered I like a therapeutic massage that is somewhat deep but not quite a deep tissue massage. Her touch and knowledge of anatomy is undeniable. She knows her techniques, how and where to apply them, and because she is a good listener, she knows exactly where I need a little more attention from our consultation. As the massage progressed I could smell the flowers open up even more from the steaming poultice she applies to my body. I am just amazed how sweet and delicate but not overpowering this fresh preparation is. I am completely silent at this point, if I wanted to talk, I couldn’t. I am just speechless.
I am given a big hug post treatment and delivered back to the women’s relaxation room. I just sit and take in the beautiful garden and art work in the spa. I can’t possibly consider doing anything but meditation at this point. I spend some quality time in the spa enjoying the amenities: steam room, walking in the miniature pineapple meditation garden, and lounging in the ladies-only hot and cold rain forest plunge pools. I took my time.
When I finialy feel like I want to leave this dreamy state and rejoin my husband who is happily waiting for me at the pool, I find him in a similar state. Armando, our exceptional pool attendant, has set him up in an amazing hammock under palm trees with a cold rum punch by his side. Our chaise lounges and umbrella are all ready for our relaxation. Before I can even ask, Armando brings me my favorite cocktail. Yeah, its like that.
What to know before you go:
This treatment respectfully requests 24-hour notice to pick and prepare the botanicals for the treatment.
I would recommend booking this treatment at the beginning of your stay at the Reserve as the staff will customize your treatments for the rest of your stay based on this in-depth consultation.
I did not spend a lot of time talking about specific flowers and herbs as so many were used and it will absolutely be tailored to you individually. No two experiences will be alike.
Shorter versions of this treatment are also available.
Booking times on the weekends can be difficult last minute. To insure your preferred times and treatments I would strongly recommend making these spa appointments prior to arrival.
If you find another treatment in the Caribbean or anywhere 🙂 more impressive than this, by all means, please let me know. I have been to many destination spas and have had hundreds of treatments in many countries over the last twenty years (my complete list is on Pinterest). Please share.
No special consideration was given to me other than being a paying guest at this property. This is my life.