This past spring, I boarded a flight en route to la 'Isla del Encanto' ~ Puerto Rico. I was thrilled to be on this trip, since my last visit was in the summer of 2017 right before Hurricane Maria hit and I was longing to visit my hometown. I was very excited to see how the island recovered from the storm.
Given that I was only there for a three-day weekend, I chose to stay close and explore Old San Juan and the Condado district both located only 15 minutes from the airport. Although each zone is about ten minutes away from each other, they feel worlds apart. Founded in 1521 by Ponce de León, San Juan is the third oldest European established capital city in the Americas. Old San Juan's history comes alive as you can stroll along its cobblestone streets where you can admire historic sites, homes and colorful buildings. In contrast, Condado is the trendy, contemporary and chic district where the streets are lined with ritzy shops, local celebrity chef-owned restaurants, large resort casinos and great beaches. Amid stunning and popular hotels such as the Condado Vanderbilt, Hotel El Convento, La Concha Resort, San Juan Marriott & Stellaris just to name a few, these areas also boast extraordinary boutique properties. On this trip, I chose to visit the latter!
In Old San Juan, I opted to stay at the quaint CasaBlanca Hotel ideal for of its charm and location. Right in the heart of Old San Juan on Calle Fortaleza, it’s located just a few blocks away from sites such as San Cristóbal Castle, El Morro, Paseo de la Princesa, the cruise port, and much more. Some of the best restaurants in Old San Juan are within walking distance to CasaBlanca, one of my favorite is Marmalade conveniently right across the street from the hotel. Walking into CasaBlanca, I was immediately welcomed with a friendly smile and warm greeting from Jorge at the reception desk. Checking in was a breeze, and allowed me ample time to scan the lobby and its surroundings. The hotel boasts 32 guestrooms, a small cafe next to the lobby, and a rooftop sundeck. The hotel’s décor is fascinating, a mix of old-world charm with contemporary touches. From the mosaic tiles, patterns, colors, lanterns and mixed eclectic pieces, influences from Morocco were evident throughout. Local art beautifully adorned the walls and a grand chandelier was the highlight of the lobby. For a moment, it escaped me that I was in Old San Juan ‘till the sounds of salsa beats began serenading me from the street.
I reserved the Classic Queen room (it was the only room available at the time of booking) located on the 2nd floor. A cute gem, it poses lots of charm featuring original furniture and floors, a small chandelier, and my favorite element vintage wooden windows. While the room, much like European hotels, is very small in size it’s well appointed and incorporates some modern amenities such as an in-room tablet. One noticeable amenity it lacked was an in-room iron; luckily you can request to have a garment steamer sent to your room. I loved the authentic details and character this hotel holds in every corner. The staff was amazing; they genuinely made me feel at home.
During my stay, we took in the sights, dined in at amazing cafes and restaurants, and indulged in many traditional delicacies. La Bombonera is my ritual pit stop for breakfast, it’s been open for over 100 years and famous for its delicious Mallorcas. I order my buttery mallorca toasted with ham and cheese lightly sprinkle with powder sugar, yummy... My grandparents and great-grandparents used to frequent this diner and I can’t help feel nostalgic every time I eat at this restaurant.
While walking the streets, I couldn’t help but stop at every kiosk and food vendor we encountered. A brew to try and worth mentioning is the Mavi ~ a fermented drink from the bark of the mavi tree. Mavi is actually a Taino word (from the native Indians of the Caribbean), and it’s believed this traditional drink dates back many years. Known as the Puerto Rican Champagne, when served cold, it’s sweet, bubbly and oh-so refreshing!
Great news! If you are not up for walking much, you can hop on the city's complimentary trolley, which stops near most of the historic sites around the old city. A short walk from CasaBlanca you will find the famous pretty in pink Umbrella street located in front of La Fortaleza (the Governors’ residence). It’s a great spot for a photo op, and the perfect place to find some shelter from the hot Caribbean sun. Consider arriving early in the morning to avoid the crowds and to have the opportunity of taking amazing instagrammable pictures.
As we ventured up through the picturesque cobblestone streets to El Morro, the heat started to set in. At 84 degrees, the rays of the sun were scorching but I was thankful for the island breeze! Overlooking the Caribbean Sea from El Morro, I sat and enjoyed an icy cherry piragua while admiring the kites flying through the air. Déjà vu, this scene is so familiar, as a child my parents drove my siblings and I to this very same spot in San Juan to fly kites. Such fond memories, it never gets old!
For a little diversity, I crossed the bridge from Old San Juan to venture out to the hip and lively side of Condado. A posh and hip neighborhood, Condado is vibrant and ritzy, yet still offers the laid-back vibes of the Caribbean island. Famous for its exclusive restaurants, luxe shopping, and dynamic nightlife; this is absolutely the place to see and be seen!
I headed over to check out two of the most Instagrammable hotels in Puerto Rico, O:live Boutique Hotel and its new sister property O:LV Fifty Five. Founded by Husband/Wife team, Fernando Davila and Loisse Herger, the concept, design and appeal of these properties offer a remarkable experience.
Influenced by the art and culture of the Mediterranean, O:live Boutique Hotel reflects the owners’ own romantic honeymoon travels throughout Southern Europe. With an emphasis on the work of artisans and artists from Provence and Tuscany, all 15 rooms of the hotel showcase details inspired by France, Spain, Italy and Morocco. Each suite is uniquely designed to embody intimacy and pure luxury. Like unveiling a treasure box, the hotel has many hidden secrets that await you around each corner. The moment I walked in, I was transported to Europe. From the décor, furniture selection, and dim lighting, the Mediterranean vibe is palpable. Beautiful and unique crafted pieces adorn the intimate lobby and every inch of the hotel. Images of the owners’ Mediterranean journeys are displayed throughout to evoke a familiar setting. My friendly greeting from the reception desk included a yummy ‘coquito’ shot (a traditional cocktail made with Puerto Rican Rum and coconut milk). I selected the pistachio flavor, and boy was it delicious!
A very unique feature of the hotel is that suites don’t display a room number and are identified by a color tassel. The romantic Mediterranean Suite features a Queen size bed, an enclosed glass shower in the middle of the room, and a chic private outdoor terrace.
Exploring the hotel I encountered a spiral staircase that led to the most enchanting rooftop terrace in Puerto Rico. Whisked away to the gardens of Provence lovely spring vines and lemons hang from the ceiling and adorn the restored wooden pillars. The quaint and intimate terrace is the perfect spot to enjoy a chilled glass of Rosé while taking in the views of the picturesque Condado Lagoon.
Contrary to it’s sister property, O:LV Fifty Five is sleek, edgy and ultra-modern. Boasting 26 luxury room and suites, most contain incredible floor-to-ceiling windows providing guests with panoramic views of the lagoon. The stellar design, ebony and brass furnishings, geometric accents, and film-noir artwork, inspire vibes of Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Miami Beach.
The Portrait Suite may have no windows, but its elegant design will make anyone forget this room has no view. Plush furniture fill the space, centered by a King size bed with a large custom leather and brass wall. The marble bathroom is ultra-luxe and spacious; touches of art deco resonate throughout. The highlight is the secret garden complete with a lounging seating area perfect for relaxation. Who really needs a window when you can have this private sanctuary!
The impressive double tier roof-top terrace is a hotspot for tourists and locals alike; with an infinity edge pool, hot tub, restaurant, and a custom 1977 Rolls Royce Car turned into a DJ Booth it’s absolutely a fabulous place to have a drink and unwind.
Tip: Over the weekend, you can enjoy brunch and fruity mimosas at the ARYA rooftop restaurant. The corn flake crusted french toast, and the signature ARYA burger is an absolute hit. The dining experience is enhanced by the spectacular views you have of the Condado Lagoon.