The Enchanted Island By Shirine Saad​​​

The colors found in sunsets and Spanish colonial accents define Puerto Rico’s architecture and stand out against its vast expanses of sea and sky

Resolutely Latin and sun-drenched year-round, Puerto Rico offers an intoxicating mix of culture, inventive cuisine and island luxury

’m relaxing on the colorful patio at Jose Enrique’s namesake restaurant, tucked away from the buzzing streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico. A ceiling fan swirls in the heavy heat. My reverie is interrupted when a server pops open a bottle of Billecart-Salmon brut rosé and pours it into a frosted flute.

Enrique emerges from the kitchen carrying a mahimahi ceviche made with bits of passion fruit, mango, tomato and plantain chips. It’s superbly fresh and tangy. “I like to use fish that’s fresh off the boat,” says the chef (though he’d rather be addressed simply as a cook), who is sporting a three-day-old beard, nerdy glasses and a black T-shirt emblazoned with a psychedelic print. Every day he roams the nearby mercado for fresh ingredients in order to create his daily menu, which is inspired by his finds and, more important, his mood.

A turret atop Old San Juan Wall stands unattended on a peaceful afternoon

 

Food & Wine magazine voted Enrique one of the Top 10 Best New Chefs of 2013, and he is just one of a new generation of Puerto Ricans—artists, restaurateurs and hoteliers—who are shaking up the tiny island mostly known for its low-key beaches populated by surfers. This new crowd is mixing international trends with local traditions and infusing a vibrant energy into all of Puerto Rico but more specifically into its capital, San Juan. In addition to fine restaurants, a cluster of art galleries and cultural centers has emerged, grouped in the capital city’s neighborhoods of Old San Juan and hip Santurce. And for those seeking a lavish retreat after an immersion in San Juan’s creative atmosphere, such luxury resorts as the Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve; the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort; and the Royal Isabela golf resort recently opened and are combining elegance and nature in the heart of the island.

The road leading to the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort winds through wild greenery—ginger flowers and palm trees—dimly illuminated by torches.

After a lunch of mashed sweet potatoes, crab salad and fresh cod at Jose Enrique, it’s time to visit the nearby market, which is overflowing with banana branches, avocadoes, citrus fruits, breadfruits and mangoes, with the man himself. Enrique and I drive through Santurce’s streets, dotted with pastel-colored and graffiti-splashed buildings, to the Hacienda San Pedro café, where we order espressos made with the cafe’s own locally grown beans. The robust and velvety brew jolts us from our afternoon lethargy. Soon, we are picked up by Walter Otero, the city’s leading contemporary-art gallery owner, who takes us to his space, which is within a stone’s throw of the ocean. We descend into his gallery’s storage room, where Otero proudly pulls out a painting by Allora and Caldzadilla, a tropical print by Carlos Betancourt and one of Arnaldo Roche’s deep blue abstract paintings.

“Puerto Rico has a solid platform of offers and demands,” he explains. “There is a strong group of artists who have distinguished themselves on the international scene, such as Arnaldo Roche and Angel Otero. And Puerto Rico is one of the countries with the highest numbers of collectors per capita.”

 
Neon lights illuminate the façade of Walter Otero’s eponymous gallery during a special event
The Walter Otero Contemporary Art gallery hosts exhibits from some of Latin America’s preeminent artists.  One such recent exhibit was Ramón Miranda Beltrán’s “We don’t have the numbers/No tenemos los números” (above)
 
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t cocktail hour, I head to the most glamorous spot in Santurce, Santaella restaurant, set in a rehabbed industrial space that has a compact banana grove tucked inside. There, the tattooed barman mixes up a series of delicious concoctions: a Hendrick gin jalapeño gimlet, a lavender fizz and a cucumber mint julep. I dig in to chorizo-and-plantain empanadillas, crispy blood sausage rolls with spicy aioli and creamy rice-and-beans risotto.

“We call Puerto Rico the Enchanted Island,” says the restaurant’s chef, José Santaella, who trained at Le Bernardin in New York City before moving back to his hometown. Santaella mixes his classic French training with Puerto Rico’s celebratory and colorful cuisine, redefining the everyday and festive dishes that locals love so much, such as mofongo (a plantain and garlic purée stuffed with seafood or meat).

“It’s true,” Santaella says, “that Puerto Rico is both Latin and American. But we really feel Puerto Rican. We feel proud.”

After this immersion into San Juan’s urban atmosphere, tropical relaxation is of the essence. A short drive takes me to the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, a former coconut plantation that was transformed into a lavish retreat in 2010. The road leading to the resort winds through wild greenery—ginger flowers and palm trees—dimly illuminated by torches. A lush pathway snaking through the foliage takes me to my suite, set between the bright garden and the pure turquoise of the ocean.

 
Cabanas and chaises await guests at the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, located just outside San Juan on the island’s northeast coast
The Plantation House’s glowing lights are a welcoming scene at the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, which was awarded AAA’s Five Diamond Rating in 2013
Nestled between a dense grove of palm trees and the Atlantic Ocean lies the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort’s perfect strip of sand
 
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There, the many faces of Puerto Rico—from buzzing urban center to lush countryside to tropical paradise—become more evident. During the day, I sip fresh coconut water and stare at the rolling foam on the ocean, almost alone on the endless beach. I swim along the bay, watching birds fish for their meals. In the evening, I dine at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s hushed restaurant Fern, surrounded by suntanned couples and contemporary art. Back at the resort, I fall asleep to the murmur of waves outside my window.

 
Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant Fern boasts an eclectic menu and an expertly designed interior
Dishes such as roasted grouper with black beans, avocado and scallions reflect the region’s Latin and African-Caribbean roots
 
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The next day, after a lunch of rice and beans, roast pork and fresh guanabana juice from a roadside food stall, I head west across the island to the Horned Dorset Primavera, a Relais & Châteaux reserve near surfer heaven Rincón. The posh hotel, a favorite of Björk and Benicio del Toro, is built to resemble a white Moroccan house overlooking the horizon. Each suite is exquisitely decorated with marble and cedar and faces the private beach. While I sip a freshly crafted margarita, the sun sets and covers the horizon with flashes of fluorescent pink and orange. Indeed, this is an enchanted island.

A WEEKEND IN SAN JUAN

Where to Stay
Hotel: The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort
Where: Road 187, Km. 4.2, Río Grande
Why: In addition to more luxurious spa activities, guests may tour the Fajardo Biolumiscent Bay during nighttime kayaking excursions.
Learn More: bahiabeachpuertorico.com

Hotel: The Horned Dorset Primavera, by Relais & Châteaux
Where: Apartado 1132, Rincón
Why: This beautiful retreat is very private—just right for a honeymoon or anniversary escape.
Learn More: horneddorset.com

Hotel: O:Live
Where: 55 Aguadilla St., Condado, San Juan
Why: Order a drink at this boutique hotel’s rooftop bar, and take in breathtaking views of the Condado lagoon.
Learn More: oliveboutiquehotel.com

Where to Eat & Drink
Restaurant: José Enrique
Where: 176 Duffaut St., Santurce, San Juan
Why: A favorite among the city’s creative set, this casual eatery boasts lively lunches and dinners featuring super-fresh ingredients.
Learn More: joseenriquepr.com

Restaurant: Santaella
Where: 219 Calle Canals, La Placita de Santurce, San Juan
Why: One of San Juan’s most elegant establishments, it attracts fashionable professionals in need of exclusive cocktails and sophisticated French-inspired food.
Learn More: santaellapr.com

 

Bar: La Factoria
Where: 148 Calle San Sebastian, Old San Juan, San Juan
Why: This cocktail-and-wine bar is well hidden, tucked away on a pretty side street, and favored by the city’s most discerning revelers.

Where to See Great Art
Gallery: Walter Otero Contemporary Art
Where: 402 Ave. Constitución, Puerta de Tierra, San Juan
Why: Otero is perhaps San Juan’s leading gallerist, and his new 5,000-square-foot space is becoming an equally influential cultural center.
Learn More: walterotero.com

Gallery: Roberto Paradise
Where: 1204 Ponce de León, 2nd floor, San Juan
Why: This gallery, a regular exhibitor at the annual New Art Dealers Alliance fair in Miami, represents some of Puerto Rico’s leading artists, such as Jesús “Bubu” Negrón and Jonathan Torres.
Learn More: robertoparadise.com

Gallery: Espacio 1414
Where: 1414 Avenida Fernández Juncos, Santurce
Why: This vast private collection is open by appointment and includes contemporary Latin American pieces as well as the works of international artists.
Learn More: espacio1414.org

 

 

Shirine Saad has contributed to The New York Times, MTV, Nowness and Surface, among others. She is the author of Boho Beirut: A Guide to the Middle East’s Most Sophisticated City.

  • Hero montage, clockwise from upper left: photos by Francesco Lastrucci and courtesy of Gallery Stock; photo by Joe Lasky and courtesy of Gallo Images/Getty Images; and photos by Bryan Mullinnix and Marc Pagani, all courtesy of Getty Images
  • Photo by Gregory Olsen; courtesy of Getty Images
  • All photos courtesy of Walter Otero Contemporary Art
  • All images courtesy of St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort
  • All images courtesy of Fern