A seabird sailed parallel to us while cruising with friends atop turquoise waves on the gleaming ferry boat from El Conquistador Resort in Puerto Rico to Palomino Island. Looking peacefully serene as the winged beauty glided carelessly on the warm Caribbean air, I felt like we were kindred spirits.
Puerto Rico has that effect on visitors, and I was fully entranced by everything I saw, experienced, and ate, as well as by the people I met, during a recent sojourn there. I arrived on a Wednesday afternoon, flying into San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU), the air hub of the Caribbean.
As part of the United States, it couldn’t have been easier to get into Puerto Rico – no passport required for citizens, it is bilingual, and it uses our currency. BONUS 1: The Island has the highest vaccination rate in the United States as of November 1, and one of the lowest infection rates. Yet masks are required indoors unless eating or drinking, and one must show a vaccination card to get into restaurants and other indoor venues. No wonder it has accomplished these leading statistics. BONUS 2: The residents warm welcome made this visitor feel like I was at a home away from home.
Having left temperatures in the 30s, stepping off the plane into sunny 80-degree weather with coconut trees swaying in the breeze did immediate wonders for my soul. “Let’s go!” I told my travel mates. An exclamation met with smiles and nods from the others in our group of four.
Several years have passed since I last visited the Island. Since then, it has experienced Hurricane Maria in 2017, a Category 5 monster that blasted Puerto Rico for 36 hours coast to coast. Stunningly, I saw virtually nothing that showed that the catastrophic storm had been there. In fact, everything appeared new and vibrant at El Conquistador, the iconic resort in Farjado 45 minutes from the airport that sits perched magnificently atop towering bluffs above the sea on the Island’s eastern coast. It reopened in May of this year, and it looks lovely, as if it hadn’t encountered the terrifying Maria.
“We currently have nearly 300 rooms, and that will increase significantly in the near future,” said resort General Manager Jack Slim, who has led operations at some of the finest hotels worldwide in his illustrious hospitality career. “It’s wonderful to have guests returning to El Conquistador, and we are making it better than ever.”
That’s exceptionally good news given the great shape in which we found the resort already, coupled with General Manager Slim’s résumé and the owners’ ambitious plans. Jack shared with us some of the details including Palomino Restaurant and Bar and La Ezkina Mexican restaurant by the main pool next spring, and Essence Seafood Restaurant near the marina by summer 2022.
Having arrived in the late afternoon, we were greeted with a stunningly beautiful sunset that burst with shades of orange and lavender during the golden hour light basking on the lush undulating hillsides. An easy, informative check-in led us to our oceanfront rooms many stories high. The room was simple but superb. The room’s sea views extended as far as the eye could see and included two islands below, adding scale and excitement to the vista. The private patio was an exhilarating place to sit and soak it all in during the quiet morning hours.
Dinner at Ballyhoo’s at the marina was a perfect first meal for our stay. Situated on the water and accessed by way of a scenic “funicular” ride (think tram descending steep vertical decline to the base of the resort), we were greeted with a beautiful open-kitchen, tiered-floor layout where one was inspired to partake in everything fresh thanks to the intoxicating ocean breeze. Our meal included an appetizing array of selections ranging from locally caught seafood, grilled oysters and mouthwatering croquettes to perfectly cooked churrasco steak and buttery halibut – all of which were prepared with local touches in flavor and seasoning.
Every bite was perfection. This evening also launched my trip-long obsession with ceviche, and I can confidently say Ballyhoo’s took the prize for their coconut lime creation.
After the early morning flight and our fine dinner (and a refreshing Mojito or two), I returned to my room with a big smile on my face, joy in my heart, and heavy happy eyelids. I was greeted by a beautiful soft moon lighting the ocean below and a wonderfully comfortable bed into which I fell sound asleep. Sweet dreams, indeed!
A 7:30 tee time at El Conquistador’s 18-hole golf course allowed us to beat the day’s peak heat. We were amazed with the scene here before we even reached the first hole. The driving range sat high above the landing areas below, surrounded by abundant vegetation on both sides and panoramic views. Designed by Arthur Hills, the course is a thrilling roller coaster that demanded we pay close attention to the yardage book tips and three key pre-round pointers from the resort’s golf professional, Aaron Kelly.
“First, the golf ball always breaks toward the radio tower you can see from anywhere on the course; second, when putting toward the resort, your ball will roll slower; third, it’s smart to leave your driver in your bag on many holes – a hybrid or fairway wood is often best,” said Kelly, who grew up in Iowa but has fallen in love with life on Puerto Rico.
He was right, of course. Those tips saved this golfer many strokes that would have otherwise gone awry, bounding off some of the intense terrain slopes. Kelly also reminded us to hydrate early and often, cautioning that the Caribbean heat and humidity were potent. That, too, we heeded, but still found ourselves exhausted by round’s end.
Lunch at the resort’s Brisas Courtyard Café was both tasty and refreshing. I had a fabulous ceviche, a grilled chicken Caesar salad, and a mojito (of course). Like the ceviche, each place where we ate offered the ubiquitous Island drink. One must sample and compare.
Rejuvenated with restored energy, our wanderlust was again on full throttle. Palomino Island, here we come! Located approximately one mile from the resort amidst stunning turquoise waters, it is accessible via ferry ride. You will need to pre-schedule your trip, but not to worry, the front desk team asks you upon check in if you’d like to book a time. There are multiple trips during the day, so it was easy to setup.
We arrived at this island oasis by mid-afternoon – with the serendipitous escort from the charming seabird – and grabbed several of the complimentary towels and set up camp perfectly positioned between the shore and the bar. My first order of business was getting my toes in the water as soon as possible. The ocean calls my heart, and this being my first moments near her in 2021 I was eager to feel the swirl of waves on my feet. Having satisfied my sea desires, I went back to join the others who were settled into lounge chairs under a grouping of classic island palm umbrellas. A waiter came by and took our drink orders, and there was a collective calm as we all soaked in the scene.
That evening we traveled off site for dinner at Smoky Joe Caribbean Grill in nearby Loquillo. Brilliantly inspired by Pitmaster and Owner Chef Joe Padilla, it provides a unique culinary experience that blends traditional Puerto Rican dishes with American barbeque. We feasted on tuna tacos, mamposteao (Puerto Rican rice blending spices, sofrito and beans), and of course Smoky Joe’s BBQ. He began by grilling the meat in the wood burning fire, then, at just the just the right moment, he took a flamethrower to it, locking in the tender juices with a seared, lightly crisp finish. I would be remiss to speak of this experience without mentioning that Joe recently won an international cooking competition for his paella dish in Spain – a testament to his expert skills and culinary artistry.
Our second full day in Puerto Rico had us headed to Humacao, 30 minutes south of Farjado also on the coast. We had a morning tee time at Palm Course, a Gary Player-designed 18-hole layout, and one of two at Palmas Athletic Club. The course starts with a bang – a par-5 that wraps around water and wetlands, requiring three precise shots to find the green. Thereafter, the course winds through much development. However, there were back-to-back par 3’s along the ocean that were gorgeous and enchanting, and the back nine was less clustered making the experience more enjoyable.
Following play, we moved from Palmas Athletic Club (PAC) to lovely Wyndham Palmas Beach & Golf Resort. The resort and PAC offer stay-and-play packages. It has been investing substantially in its amenities – which is adjacent to the Palm Course’s scintillating ocean par-3’s – with its food concepts standing out as some of the resort’s shining stars.
Executive Chef Yia Medina is the brilliant sun around which all things gastronomic revolve at Wyndham Palmas. An Island native, Medina’s talent has taken her to the Food Network and Cooking Channel, as well as to the Ritz-Carlton on the mainland before arriving back in Puerto Rico. The resort has empowered her to create several new food concepts highlighting her incredible and varied artistry – including a boutique sushi venue – and the imaginative, innovative F&B concepts are coming to fruition virtually by the month under Chef Medina’s gifted hand. I for one cannot wait to go back and partake on the dining end of her mastery.
We were treated to a stunning lunch and were absolutely blown away with a variety of dishes, including mussels prepared in a sauce that had me sipping out of the bowl and a sumptuous locally caught halibut steamed in banana leaf. The pièce de resistance however was an impressive tomahawk steak – named for the bone-in service which resembles a tomahawk handle. It was perfection, and a moment in which I felt a kindred connection to the talented chef when she remarked happily “What can I say? I’m a steak girl.” Same Maria, same. Bravo.
The non-smoking hotel has 109 rooms that are an easy stroll to the beach. Two outdoor pools, eight restaurants and bars, and spacious, well-appointed accommodations beckon. It’s equally appealing to families and business travelers, and the property is ideal for conferences, celebrations, or weddings, with 14,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor event space, accommodating up to 400 guests. Rooms come with a private balcony or terrace offering pretty resort views, or one can upgrade to a sprawling suite with separate living space and a sofa bed.
On our way back to El Conquistador, we stopped at El Chinchorro de J, a small, popular establishment right at water’s edge. We enjoyed the scenic setting along with some mojito’s and Medalla’s (local beers). And we engaged in the bar’s tradition of customers “autographing” dollar bills then taping them to the walls and ceilings to mark a first visit.
Back at “El Con,” a siesta was embraced in the late afternoon, dozing luxuriantly off to the sound of the ocean through the open patio doors. For dinner – and more local flavor – we went to La Estación (“The Station”), so named for the former gasoline station that once existed there. The open-air restaurant had a great vibe, with young-ish servers dishing out the food and drinks while music pulsed and people socialized.
The restaurant describes itself as “Nuyorican BBQ” themed. Nuyorican blends the words New York and Puerto Rican, referring to the members or culture of the Puerto Rican diaspora located in or around New York City, or of their descendants. The term is also used by Islander Puerto Ricans to differentiate those of Puerto Rican descent from the Puerto Rico-born. La Estación mixes traditional BBQ technique with Caribbean flavors. Dishes are cooked on open wood fires, and the smoke and natural charcoal flavors combine spectacularly with the locally sourced ingredients.
Our final full day started with another round of golf, this time on the Flamboyán Course at Palmas Athletic Club. Designed by Rees Jones, the 18-hole layout unfurled beautifully with a collection of diverse yet complementary holes. Some of the sand bunkers were overly challenging given they mixed deep faces with less-than-ideal sand (lacking depth with generally hard, thick surfaces). Overall, our group enjoyed the course immensely. Jones masterfully weaved water, wind, and the natural terrain to author a brawny, exciting playing venue.
Lunch at the marina-front La Pescaderia restaurant again featured open air seating, lovely water and yacht views, and superbly fresh, authentic seafood dishes. You can count on eating well in Puerto Rico, one of the Island’s great assets, and more than 4,000 restaurants.
Another afternoon, another afternoon siesta relished. Again, revitalized, we went back to San Juan to the iconic Fairmont El San Juan Hotel for dinner at Caña restaurant by Chef Juliana Gonzalez. As one would expect of the Fairmont brand, Puerto Rican flavors, and highly esteemed Chef Gonzalez, the food and setting were elegant and deeply pleasing. The luxurious hotel had a truly cosmopolitan setting accented by the infectious and ever-present salsa music. If you are looking for some memorable nightlife, head to the El San Juan Hotel.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end. Travel is punctuated by the beginning middle and end, it is one of the joys and reasons we explore, knowing we get to take these experiences home with us. The final morning was spent in quiet reflection and reminiscing with each other beside one of El Con’s lovely pools before packing and heading to the airport. While it was bittersweet to say goodbye to Puerto Rico and the new friends we made, we discovered many travel treasures there. I shall return. Soon.
Note: If you’re intrigued by the destination and want to know more, enjoy a digital tour from award-winning actor, composer, and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda. Here Lin-Manuel (of Puerto Rican descent) introduces you to some of the island’s jewels, including museums, performing arts spaces, historic districts, night clubs, restaurants, beaches, and other great spots.