By Ron Bernthal
It is no secret in the travel industry, or among Caribbean travelers, that Puerto Rico is back. A mainstay of Caribbean travel since the 1950′s, the island has had its good times, and also years when Americans turned their attention to the trendier, and perhaps more exotic, Caribbean islands, such as St. Barts, Anguilla, and Mustique. But Puerto Rico is on every one’s radar screen now, and this article, by travel journalist Ron Bernthal, explains why.
But for the past several years, Puerto Rico has seen a number of positive developments take place that bode good times ahead for its tourism industry. The March 2006 World Baseball Classic, sponsored by Major League Baseball, played some of the early series games in San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium, attracting thousands of fans and news reporters from the mainland, who were impressed with the host city’s safe streets, good weather, and dazzling new look.
Old hotels have been restored, dozens of good restaurants, all over the city, have opened, and the brand new Puerto Rico Convention Center, the largest in the Caribbean, is up and running, a post-modern building with all the bells and whistles found in the world’s biggest trade show cities. The Wyndham Hotel company turned over three of its Puerto Rico properties – The El San Juan, Condado Plaza, El Conquistador – to LXR Luxury Resorts, which is putting millions of dollars into the properties for extensive renovations and expansion. (Wyndham’s other Puerto Rico hotel, the deluxe Martineau Bay Resort, on Vieques, was taken over by Starwood, and will become one of its signature W properties in mid-2007.)
During the winter season of 05/06, occupancy rates in the San Juan area ran close to 100 percent, according to Terestella Gonzalez Denton, Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, the first time in many years that the city achieved such high occupancy levels.
From the island’s Eastern islands to the Western beaches there is a profound sense that innovative changes in Puerto Rico’s tourism infrastructure, bringing with it all the trappings of a world class tourist destination, are finally being seen in this sun splashed American territory. In Palmas del Mar, an upscale resort and condominium community located two hours south of San Juan, a new, moderately priced Four Points by Sheraton Hotel and Casino has recently opened on the site of the former, 1960′s-era Doral Hotel. The property, with room rates under $200 per night, is a perfect getaway for couples who want the glamour and golf of Palmas without having to spend big bucks, and is currently the only hotel property in Palmas del Mar.
“The location of Palmas del Mar, on the island’s southeast coast, is a good base for exploring other parts of the island, while at the same time enjoying the country atmosphere of this area,” said Patrick Tracy, Four Points/Palmas General Manager. Tracy said that the new property, with its laid-back atmosphere, friendly casino, golf courses, and long stretches of white sand beaches, is perfect for honeymooners or couples looking for a long, romantic weekend.
Sheraton’s Four Points brand is also making its presence felt in the town of Caguas, about 40 minutes south of San Juan, on the way to Palmas del Mar. Caguas is a business city, with several American and international corporations establishing their Caribbean headquarters there. The Four Points by Sheraton Caguas Hotel and Casino presently serves a loyal business clientele, but with the opening in early 2007 of its adjacent casino property, the largest casino on the island, the hotel will begin to see a large influx of leisure visitors as well. The hotel is clean, modern, and convenient to the expressway that connects San Juan to the southern city of Ponce. Room rates here are under $200 as well, and heavily discounted during summer months.
The two islands off Puerto Rico’s east coast, Culebra and Vieques, have seen a surge of tourism investment since the U.S. Navy gave up its claim to use parts of Vieques for practice bombing runs. Waterfront cafes have blossomed, and avant-garde hotels are making their presence felt on these two beautiful islands, including the very upscale W Hotel on Vieques, and dozens of small, boutique properties on Culebra. This new-found reputation as an “in” destination has resulted in slightly more crowded beaches and restaurants, higher prices, and more frequent air service between San Juan and the islands. Despite the higher costs and more affluent guests, the two islands retain their sense of solitude and quirkiness, with miles of deserted shoreline and bed-and-breakfast properties that a throw-back to the Caribbean’s traditional local guest houses.
Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second largest city, is almost finished developing its central historic district, a lovely section composed of restored Spanish villas and downtown buildings. On the island’s west coast the town of Rincon, once known for inexpensive beach shacks and surfer cafes, is reinventing itself as the West Coast’s hot destination, and we’re not talking about temperature. New and trendy-looking shops are opening all over this seaside town, and restaurants now offer all the comfort and menu choices that one used to find only in San Juan.
The Caribbean’s best hotel, according to Conde Nast Traveler magazine, is located a few miles south of Rincon, on a lush hillside overlooking the sea. The Horned Dorset Primavera, where villas start at $400 per night and work their way up, is so confident that the increasing numbers of reservations from wealthy visitors will continue, they are investing millions of dollars to construct ultra-deluxe villas on the property, with private plunge pools, flat screen TV’s, marble bathrooms, and a sunset view that will dazzle even the most jaded Caribbean traveler.
“Rincon is a good tourist town, with everything a visitor would want, including nice places to eat, good beaches, and lots of shops. The Puerto Rican government is investing lots of money in building up the area, fixing roads, better services, and that will draw more visitors to the West Coast,” said Wilhelm Sack, the Austrian-born Co-Owner and Manager of the Horned Dorset. Sack believes that the increased air service to Aguadilla, Rincon’s nearest airport, will benefit not only his guests, who expect and receive the ultimate in service and comfort, but also the surfing crowd that still flock to Rincon because of its ideal waves and surfer-friendly merchants and residents.
“Flying into Aguadilla avoids the two-and-half hour drive from San Juan to the west side of the island, and I can be sipping a pina colada in Rincon and watching the surf within a short time of landing,” said Susan Hamlin, a visitor from New Jersey, as she walked off one of JetBlue Airways’ twice-daily non-stop flights from New York’s JFK Airport. Within minutes she had picked-up her rental car, stowed her winter coat in the trunk, and was driving along the Caribbean coast, a perfect start to a Puerto Rico vacation.
Puerto Rico Tourism Company: www.gotopuertorico.com
JetBlue Airways: www.jetblue.com
Four Points by Sheraton: www.starwoodhotels.com/fourpoints
Horned Dorset Primavera: www.horneddorset.com
Puerto Rico Convention Center: www.prconvention.com
Luxury Resorts: www.luxuryresorts.com