“You need this time for yourself,” my wise coworker told me. It was a week before the first time I’d be leaving my family to spend a few nights sleeping by the breezy beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico. And she was right. After birthing back-to-back kids (now two and four years old), I did deserve a-kick-your-feet-up type of trip.
It turns out San Juan is exactly the place to go for those craving a quick, laid-back getaway. U.S. citizens don’t need a passport to enter the country, most major airlines fly there, and the city is easy to navigate. Just under a four-hour fight from NYC, Puerto Rico is close enough for a much-needed winter weekend getaway — in January, the coldest month in Puerto Rico, you can expect a high of 83 degrees Fahrenheit during the day with a low of 70 degrees at night. Beloved restaurants and bars are walkable from major hotels, and Ubers arrive in minutes. As I exited the airport to meet my driver for my short weekend away and the warmth of the sun hugged my face, I felt the hustle of New York start to fade away.
There are many guides to the “essential things” to see and do in Puerto Rico. You could venture off to the gorgeous waters of Bioluminescent Bay, hike a rainforest, or go beach hopping — but sometimes the most indulgent, satisfying vacations include just staying local.
Where to Stay in San Juan
Hotel Condado Vanderbilt has the amenities of a large resort, but the intimate feel of a boutique hotel. There are the usual bells and whistles you’d expect: multiple restaurants at different price points, a full-service spa, an expansive gym (including an indoor cycling studio), suites with kitchenettes, beach service, and a plethora of pools. However, the property is not sprawling by any means, and walking from the East tower to the West won’t make you break a sweat. You’ll quickly get to know the staff and develop favorite waiters or cabana butlers. It took less than a day for me to feel cared for and at ease.
The hotel was developed in 1919 and originally owned by the Vanderbilt family (hence, the name). It was designed by Warren and Wetmore who also did NYC’s Grand Central Terminal and Arizona’s Biltmore Hotel. In 2014, the hotel underwent a $200 million renovation, revitalizing the original Spanish Revival building and adding two towers of suites. Today it retains the elegant charm of its Roaring Twenties inspiration — such as the glamorous Marabar Martini Bar and Cocktail Lounge, where you can indulge in a Krug Champagne and caviar tasting. Yet it also has modern touches, such as cold and hot pools, a high-tech gym, and contemporary cuisine.
It’s always a good idea to stay in a suite, but especially here, thanks to the wrap-around balconies with beach views, bathrooms with separate soaking tubs and waterfall showers, as well as kitchenettes and cozy living room spaces. While this trip was all about solo time, I envisioned my family staying with me — the kids camped out in the living room, while my husband and I could be tucked away in the primary suite. In the morning we could make our own breakfast (or order room service) and enjoy it in the dining room with the door to the balcony cracked, letting in a salty breeze. In the evenings, I’d take advantage of the babysitting services offered so my husband and I could go out for drinks at STK, the famed more “clubby” restaurant at the hotel.
When you need to take a dip, choose from two collections of pools — all tended to by butlers. There’s an expansive pool and gorgeous infinity pool overlooking the Atlantic, situated by the family-friendly Ola restaurant. The adults-only section features a collection of chic dipping pools, as well as a secluded hot tub with a waterfall.
Should you crave putting toes in the sand, there’s a small patch of beach onsite. Or, in under five minutes, you can walk over to the sister property, La Concha Resort, where there’s a larger beach section dedicated to Condado Vanderbilt guests and full beach butler service.
Where to Eat and Drink in San Juan
In the nature of keeping a minimalist itinerary, the culinary experience at Condado Vanderbilt is worth staying local. For a modern fine dining experience, 1919 Restaurant is not to be missed (the name, is a nod to the hotel’s heritage). Chef Juan Jose Cuevas left Puerto Rico to work at the famed Blue Hill Stone Barns in New York, among other restaurants, before opening 1919. The restaurant is one of the city’s only farm-to-table spots and celebrates fresh produce; in fact, 80 percent of the menu is comprised of local or house-made ingredients. Think delicately cooked salmon with green beans and peas or melts-in-your-mouth gnocchi with local white beans. The dark Art Deco vibe is sexy — enough so that it is a hotspot for marriage proposals.
For a cool, casual meal try Tacos & Tequila, an innovative spot for innovative Mexican fare. This is the place to bring a group of friends and share one too many cocktails while staring out over the beach — as one wall of the restaurant is completely open to the waterfront. Try spicy margaritas, roasted carrot salad, and big ole fried fish to share. And don’t miss the Queso Fundido dip, which stays gooey and delicious thanks to tetilla cheese, gruyere cheese, poblano peppers, caramelized onions and roux (the key ingredient ensuring it doesn’t get solid fast).
When you’re ready to venture off the resort, book a table at La Picara, a cosmopolitan restaurant by Chef Xiomy, one of the top female chefs in the area. You won’t regret ordering the croquetas de jamón, salmon poke bites, or Sancocho soup (Chef’s take on a classic Puerto Rican soup traditionally served after festivities).
For those seeking something more casual, stop by Raices in Old San Juan for craft beer and mofongo — while the beef mofongo was delicious, the savory vegetable version had us licking our forks.
End your night at La Factoría, a multi-bar speakeasy in Old San Juan. The vast space features everything from a candle lit wine bar nook to an intimate dance floor. Trust us and order the lavender mule.
What to Do in San Juan
While I highly recommend parking yourself on a lounge chair by the body of water of your choice, there are some activities worth exerting some energy.
Book a spa treatment at the Coronado Vanderbilt Spa, an elegant 10,000-square-foot spa and fitness center. It features one of the only private Hammams, a Turkish steam bath space, on the island. Services are held in luxe-looking treatment rooms with Art Deco-style gold mirrors. Massages begin with a healing sound bath and feature custom-blended essential oils meant to energize the soul, soothe tired muscles, or calm the mind. Local ingredients are also incorporated into treatments, such as the Chocolicious Mani-Pedi featuring a scrub comprised of ground cocoa beans from Loiza, Puerto Rico. It left me with baby feet.
Leave the hotel on the East side, and on your way to the beach, you’ll walk through La Ventana al Mar park. This patch of greenery features odes to local celebrities, such as Lin Manuel Miranda and Ricky Martin. It’s another idyllic spot to relax and revive — you may even catch a local doing yoga on a grassy patch.
Take a five-minute cab ride to Old San Juan to walk around the colorful cobblestone streets, try the local cruise (such as Raices, above), and shop at the indie boutiques.
That said, feel no pressure to do anything at all. When given the option to explore or nestle in a chair with a book, I chose the latter, moving around the property to find different nooks and lounge chairs until sunset. It turns out, that three nights in breezy San Juan was exactly what I needed to remind myself it’s OK to take a break from motherhood. I’ll admit, I did opt for the first flight out to make it home in time for my kids’ bedtime routine, but I kept the image of the peacefulness I found in Puerto Rico with me as I dealt with temper tantrums, sleepy-time refusals, and negotiating the importance of eating dinner.
Featured image courtesy of Coronado Vanderbilt Hotel.