It seemed like an eternity since I found the lane that led to my hotel in Old San Juan. A year had gone by, during which time I’d been on an extreme adventure trek in the Toro Verde Adventure Park in Orocovis. I stopped into a tapas restaurant, where Chef Guillermo Gonzalez served extraordinary raciones at his restaurant, Toro Salao. I planned the rest of my stay 0ver a gazpacho del Verano and a tapas of marinated tuna in white wine. I’d tour Old San Juan, visit Ponce and Vieques and then relax at El Conquistador in Fajardo.
Sensible, flat shoes are best when walking over the iridescent blue cobblestones in the historic district. Originally constructed from iron ore, they were brought over from Europe as ballast in ships and dumped overboard to make room for valuable cargo. Almost three centuries old, the recycled stones are worn and irregular (heels can slip into the cracks) but the iridescent blue glow remains. After breakfast at Rick’s Café the next morning, I followed the blue brick road in a northeast direction and came to the Plaza de San Jose. The church (La Iglesia San Jose) is one of the oldest gothic buildings in the New World. In the center of the plaza is a bronze statue of Juan Ponce de Leon, the first Governor of Puerto Rico, around which are stalls, where trinkets and crafts are sold to tourists from the cruise ships, docked in the natural harbor.
Walking down narrow, busy streets to the marina on Sunday, I turned into Paseo de la Princesa, where more stalls were set up. The tree-lined promenade along the town’s century-old wall is a favorite of locals who mingle, buy fruit and homemade candies from stands and dance to the easy rhythms of a live band. I watched a vendor crank a lathe with a foot pedal that spun oranges naked of their skin and pulp, sending the thin strands of the peeled fruit cascading over the tabletop to form a mound on the street. Everyone on the boulevard seemed content on this warm afternoon.
I bypassed Parque de las Polomas (Pigeon Park) and followed the San Juan Wall to the edge of the grounds fronting the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a massive fort built by the Spanish in the 16th century to control the entry of San Jose Bay. The area became a national park in 1961 and a World Heritage Site in 1983.
Although old San Juan isn’t a big area, without a map it’s easy to lose your way. Still, walking aimlessly has benefits. I turned down St. Sebastian Street past rows of brightly painted homes, many with ceiling to floor windows and filigreed balconies of the colonial period and came to Plaza de Armas, a 16th century square surrounded by statues representing the four seasons. This too is a favorite gathering place for locals and vendors, but lunch won out over shopping, and the long gleaming wood bar at the Parrot Club, a sparkling, colorful bistro, gaily decorated with paintings and palm trees was time well spent. The cuisine is Latin fusion — tastes and zesty flavors of the Caribbean islands, Mexico and South America — which brings out the best in chicken, steak and fish dishes.
I doubled back to the Plaza de Armas to shop, while trying to decide which restaurant to visit for dinner. Aguaviva, recommended by a fellow traveler, was my choice. It’s expensive but worth-it. The shrimp cocktail and fish entrée were divine. I’d have liked to experience more than a smattering of the flavors and sights of Old San Juan, but that would be reserved for another time. Ponce was my next scheduled visit.
If you miss downtown Ponce, you’ve missed one of the loveliest municipalities in Puerto Rico. A tour on a bright red trolley (it runs on diesel) started out in front of the red and black striped 130-year old Parque de Bombas (Fire Station) and chugged around the historic zone. The Town Hall and Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the middle of Plaza Las Delicias – Ponce’s Town Square – and the Plaza del Mercado (the marketplace), in addition to the Teatro La Perla, with its characteristic six-column entrance are among the excellent examples of neo-classical architecture. The Art Deco movement left its mark in Ponce as well, as did the unique Ponce Creole style, an eclectic mix of Spanish Creole, neo-classic and Art Deco architecture, which made the most of shade and air distribution. Another highlight of the town is the renowned art collection of Luis A. Ferré, which spans the Middle Ages to the 19th Century. Opened in 2010, the Ponce Art Museum provides educational and cultural services to the community.
Restaurants in Ponce offer excellent cuisine, as evidenced during dinner at Lola in the charming renovated Ramada, where I stayed, and the stunning restaurant at the Hilton Ponce Gold & Casino Resort, which overlooks the sea. Mediterranean in style, dishes are mildly piquant, and the choices are as eclectic as the town itself.
Floating in seawater that’s 33% more saline than the ocean, while bioluminescence — the concentration of plankton — causes me to glow with every movement was worth the arduous journey going from Ponce to Vieques.
I’d heard much about the island, and with the exception of the half-hour’s awesome night swim, felt it needed more daytime exploration. After a boat, skiff, ferry- and bus-ride, I was ensconced finally in my room at El Conquistador in Fajardo.
In addition to the pools El Conquistador provides, it also offers short ferry rides to Polomino, its private island, where guests can partake in a variety of water sports or relax on a wide expanse of glorious beach.
An easy half-mile swim away is Polominito, a lonely little island rimmed by white sandy beach surrounding a cluster of tropical trees. I felt refreshed and rejuvenated. Maybe the fountain of youth is here after all.
On my last night in Puerto Rico, big spender that I am, I played the penny slots in the resort’s casino. Walking away with my winnings ($3.00), I knew that wasn’t all I’d won. Puerto Rico was the grand prize.
About Denise Mattia
A writer and photographer, Denise Mattia’s works are published nationally and internationally and include all aspects of leisure travel: art , culture, resorts, spas, food and wine and sports’ activities. She's the founder of the soon to be launched Yum-Yum-Traveler, a site devoted to reviewing restaurants in addition to her travel articles from around the world. She lives and works in Manhattan, where she was born.