Onsite Review: A Love Affair with Puerto Rico & Four Grand Personalities

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Cabanas at El San Juan Resort & Casino
Cabanas at El San Juan Resort & Casino in Puerto Rico.

Recommend recently spent six days trekking through Puerto Rico visiting various Hilton properties—and falling in love with each and every one of them. This writer was completely smitten with the island, all its little gems and its vast history. With every Hilton property we visited, each with its own personality and vibe, our love affair with this charming island, and its hotel scene, grew deeper.

the trendsetter
Our first stop on this whirlwind tour was the 572-room Condado Plaza Hilton. The pops of red, the illuminated ceilings, the trendy, elegant lobby bar, and the fish tanks on the wall, all set the stage for a chic hotel ambiance. And the rooms…oh, those rooms—black-and-white artwork, and white furniture and linens set against vibrant red walls, an all-glass shower set at the center of the bathroom, not to mention views of the bay with waves crashing against giant rocks.

This property, with views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Condado Lagoon, is located on the western tip of the Condado Ashford strip and features eight dining venues, including Pikayo, owned by celebrity chef Wilo Benet. We indulged on his beef carpaccio lollipops made with truffle oil and parmesan, pega tuna with chipotle mayonnaise, and spicy shrimp taquitos.

At night, the hotel lobby comes to life with red and blue hues illuminating the white lobby desk, pillars, bar, and ceiling. The colors, which come to life as the sun sets, is like a beacon telling guests that it’s time to get ready for the evening fun. In addition to the lobby bar set under a stunning crystal chandelier, the property features a sports bar with leather seats and large flat-screen TVs; and a 24-hour casino, the largest in San Juan. The scene outside is also inviting with hammocks swaying under palm trees near the crashing waves, four pools—one saltwater, two freshwater, and a toddler pool—plus a cozy, private beach, complete with an artificial reef for snorkeling. Although the resort does not offer an onsite spa, guests can enjoy an outdoor massage under shady trees (it’s the only way to do a true Caribbean spa treatment!). Rates start at $99.

all in the family
Walking into Caribe Hilton, we were awestruck by the grand open-air lobby—here, exotic birdcages, walkways with surrounding shops, and views of the ocean and lively pools welcome guests. Accommodations have either ocean or garden views where peacocks, white and black swans, and exotic blue iguanas reside. Kids will enjoy a stroll through the garden to spot these wild creatures.

The property is located on 12 acres and within easy walking distance from Old San Juan City. In early 2015, the open-air, waterfront retail and residential project, Paseo Caribe, will open next door featuring additional restaurants, shops, and attractions; as if the hotel’s nine restaurants and lounges, and two Starbucks stores—one being the only Starbucks in the world located right on a beach (so we were told)—isn’t enough.

Amenities include a swim-up bar at one of the pools; hammocks and lounge chaises on the pool deck; a walkway surrounding the property that’s perfect for a stroll or jog; a basketball court; play area for kids; oversized game boards of chess, checkers, or more; as well as watersports, snorkeling, and a private beach with a floating deck, La Islita, that invites guests to lay out, or as a special event space. Rooms are spacious with a neutral palette, although the room’s best detail are the views. We couldn’t get enough of our view of La Islita.

Guests who’d like to take in a personal meal and cooking class with chef Mario Ferro can participate in The Caribe Hilton Chef’s Table, located within the main kitchen. Up to 10 guests will get step-by-step instruction and interaction with the chef as he preps the meal; each course is paired with wine and champagne ($75 pp). Room rates start at $99.

the party animal
El San Juan Resort & Casino is located in the city’s fashionable Isla Verde district, which we heard was the “it” place for peoplewatching. Our driver, when asked about the property, said, “I hope you have your dancing shoes packed and a nice outfit because you are going to party on Friday.”

And party we did.

The resort greets its guests with a very grand, luxurious lobby and staircase, three bars—Blue, Silver, and Gold—immense chandeliers, a stage, and a casino. “Let’s just say this is the place where the kids disrupt the party, the party doesn’t disrupt the kids,” says general manager Olivier Maumaire.

“While any guest will receive a warm Hilton welcome, the hotel amenities are mainly set for an adult crowd, mainly couples, group of friends, etc.,” he adds.

This is evident at the newly redesigned pool area, Fantasy, where guests (mostly adults) sip on drinks from the swim-up bar, hang out by the waterfall, play volleyball in the water, enjoy the beats from the poolside DJ, or lounge in the private, tiki-style cabanas. It’s like a Vegas pool-party scene.

Accommodations feature a contemporary design with neutral colors, white bedding, a couch, a table with clear, acrylic chairs set near the balcony window, and orange, yellow, red, and pink accents in the drapes and bed cushions. The 386-room resort offers newly refurbished Garden Vista Rooms that blend Miami trendiness with classic elegance.

“The hotel is similar to an anchored cruise ship with extensive facilities ranging from nine restaurants, 13 bars, and a state-of-the-art casino, to a spa, high-end shopping, arcade, two nightclubs, two pools, five jacuzzis, and more,” boasts Maumaire. Rates start at $99.

the luxe multiple personality
Finally, we headed north to Fajardo for our date with El Conquistador Resort, A Waldorf Astoria Resort. The resort is set on 500 acres amidst a grand Arthur Hills golf course, overlooking the confluence of the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. With its luxurious amenities, family-friendly ambiance and romantic settings, this property has something to offer all types of guests.

The resort is split into five villages, including the luxurious Las Casitas, which are villa-style accommodations that feature 24-hour butler service, an infinity pool, and its own restaurant, Ventana del Caribe. Standard accommodations are spacious with large bathrooms complete with a walk-in closet, picturesque views, and neutral decor with pops of orange and yellow.

The resort also houses 20 restaurants, bars and lounges; a marina with fishing charters and watersports; four freshwater pools and three additional pools at Las Casitas; seven tennis courts; a fitness center; a 26,000-sq.-ft. spa; a retail area with trendy boutiques and specialty stores; an arcade; and live entertainment for guests.

One major highlight for families is the Coqui Water Park, which features a tower with three slides varying from the 40-ft. El Gigante Dormido (The Sleeping Giant) to a slower, winding slide; a rope-bridge; a kiddie pool; and an 8,000-sq.-ft. lazy river.

With no direct beach access, the resort offers a 10-minute ferry ride to its private Palomino Island, which is perfect for a day of watersports, horseback riding, hiking, and volleyball. The island also features a restaurant and bar, a grassy game area for kids, and glorious views. El Conquistador rates start at $149, while Las Casitas rates start at $199.

it’s a scavenger hunt!
Both Condado Plaza Hilton and El Conquistador Resort offer the ScoutAbout program, a scavenger-like tour that’s filled with learning experiences. This self-guided tour has markers set throughout the property where kids can discover historic facts, landmarks, and nature. Kids follow the ScoutAbout map and earn a different colored wristband at distinct points of discovery unique to the property or local region, such as the Dog Rock at Condado—legend has it that a dog was lost at sea waiting for its master and visitors can still hear the howling of the dog. When all wristbands are gathered, guests then exchange their collection for a glow-in-the-dark trophy band.

what travel agents are saying…
In Puerto Rico, “you can swim and snorkel on its beautiful beaches, explore El Yunque, the only subtropical rainforest in the U.S., enjoy Toro Verde, one of the longest ziplines on Earth where you soar through the air across 4,745 ft. of terrain, go spelunking at Rio Camuy Cave Park, or kayak through bioluminescent bays.”—Becky Veith, affiliate of Travel Experts, Inc., Pennsylvania

Swoon-worthy to-do’s in Puerto Rico.

contact information
Caribe Hilton: (787) 721-0303; caribehilton.com
Condado Plaza: (888) 722-1274; condadoplaza.com
El Conquistador Resort: (787) 863-1000; elconresort.com
El San Juan Resort & Casino: (888) 579-2632; elsanjuanhotel.com