You may have heard the saying that good things come in threes. From fairy tales to Hollywood blockbusters and even hotel stays, the “rule of three” principle suggests that things that come in threes are inherently more humorous, satisfying and effective than any other number of things, a winning trifecta if you will. Take our recent Spring fling in Puerto Rico, a three-night, three-hotel journey that inspired a trio of travel experiences at the Condado Collection’s La Concha Resort, Condado Vanderbilt and Condado Ocean Club, where our story unfolded with Goldilocks-finesse and a fable fit for retelling.
It started, as memorable journeys do, with a serendipitous conversation aboard a flight from New York City to the Caribbean island commonwealth of Puerto Rico that played out over and over again with the locals and ex-pats we met during our visit. Like the Puerto Rican flight attendant who shared her love for her homeland over coffee and cookies in the air and proudly exclaimed that she and her husband were building their dream retirement home on the island after working for decades in the United States. And the lovely Miss Rosa, a Latin from Manhattan, whose expertise in international luxury hospitality enriched our spa experience at the Condado Vanderbilt even before it began, her colleague Elena Rivela, massage therapist extraordinaire who studied abroad and brought back her skilled hands to the land she loves, and one of most amazing chefs we’ve ever had the pleasure to be delighted by, Juan José Cuevas, who triumphantly returned home to his native island with an accolade-studded, Michelin-starred culinary resume few chefs can match, and one that takes your dining experience at his 1919 restaurant to a level you couldn’t have imagined before.
What is it about Puerto Rico that not only lures its accomplished native sons and daughters “back to the farm after they’ve seen Paree,” borrowing a famous song lyric, but also entices travelers of all ages and interests from around the world? Its resiliency is one, with a historic legacy of rebounding and rebuilding, robustly I might add, after an unfair share of natural disasters that would have decimated a less spirited island. Memories of hurricanes bent on devastation, like the monster sister storms Irma and Maria whose unearthly gales a few short years ago were unprecedented, are just blowing in the wind today. Zika, of the mosquito madness, seems to have flown the coop. A major 6.4 magnitude earthquake in early 2020, just before COVID shut down the island, only rattled residents here. In fact, Puerto Rico set a new tourism record in 2021 and its outlook for 2022 puts it at the top of travelers’ vacation lists.
Its tropical beauty, a sun-washed melody of powder sand beaches, emerald rainforests, majestic land-locked mountains and aquamarine seascapes, is another. You can hike, bike, bask, swim and surf to your heart’s content, avoiding the crowds or embracing them with like-minded gusto in the eye-candy setting of your choosing.
There’s history here too, lining the cobbled streets of Old San Juan, its walled forts and culturally rich museums, each paying lasting tribute to a self-governing US territory that experienced centuries of Spanish colonial rule before fighting for their hard-won independence.
We loved all that, sampling a taste of all the treasures that are on offer here in our three-day getaway. But if there’s one thing that really pulled us in, it’s the common thread that connects all its charms, weaving an invisible web over all who happen upon this island gem, sharing a welcome zest for living that has proven irresistible to singles, families and thrill-seekers alike.
The ever-present Latin spirit, an exuberant marathon of dance, music and all-encompassing joy, was out in full force at La Concha Resort, where we spent our first night in the Condado district of San Juan. We were welcomed with bracelets that gave us anytime access to all the guest amenities and activities available at the hotel, including the in-lobby casino and palm-lined pools. We had drinks, island-themed and infused with local fruit, with our dinner of Puerto Rican fare overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, where it was served by an attentive and amiable waiter who clearly loved his job – and his island home. He was from the mountains he told us, describing it as a cool alpine paradise where nature never failed to stir his soul, but it was the city and this hotel, he explained, that make the good times roll for visitors and locals out on the town. After taking a spin through the casino, we retired to our spacious seventh-floor suite and looked out at the lights of San Juan blinking promises of nighttime fun, before nodding off to the beat of the pulsating music below and the fireworks that illuminated the sky above. One bed down, two to go.
A great breakfast on the hotel’s seaside terrace fueled our excitement for our next overnight stay, a walk and a world away from La Concha Resort. The Condado Vanderbilt is a historic landmark that has reigned unequaled on the Condado beachfront since 1919. Built for and by the wealthy elite, it welcomed celebrities and heads of state with the understated elegance and impeccable service we indulged in during our stay.
Our ocean suite took full advantage of the setting with windowed walls and twin terraces that rewarded us with panoramic views of a tropical paradise wherever we chose to look. Inside comfort ruled. We enjoyed a spacious living room and dining area, complete with a wide screen smart TV that could not compete with the views, and a Sub Zero refrigerator, ice maker and wet bar that spoke volumes about the priorities guests relish here. Our balconied bedroom was tucked away to ensure both our privacy and reverie with a sink-in-soft queen size bed dressed in sumptuous 300 Thread count Rivolta Carmignani linen, along with an Apple TV enhanced flat screen TV to keep us connected to news from the outside world should we wish to do so. We didn’t. A separate rain shower, soaking tub and custom-made dark wood dressing area added to our in-room reverie, as did the chilled bottle of champagne our butler knowingly kept on ice for a late-night toast.
As you might expect for a Vanderbilt-inspired retreat, our visit to the hotel’s world-class spa was pure bliss. It wasn’t just the soothing ambiance, uber-thoughtful services – and freshly prepared Passion Fruit mojito – that ensured our serenity. It was also the staff, expertly trained and exceptionally skilled, that turned our pampering treatments, a sorely needed deep tissue massage and a pedicure, into a science of healing arts that worked miracles from head to toe.
What followed next was both expected and almost obligatory given the chaises that were lined up on the hotel’s inviting ocean-facing terrace and the Tequila and Marguerita bars at the hotel’s two swimming pools that bookended the property. Succumbing to the sound of the surf, the warmth of the sun and a parade of minted mojitos, we couldn’t believe how the afternoon, postcard-perfect, literally flew by!
Dinner at Condado Vanderbilt’s signature 1919 restaurant topped off the day with an over-the-top chef’s choice dining experience uniquely designed for the privileged few. Of course, how often do you have the opportunity to dine with a passionate Michelin-starred chef who personally prepares a globally inspired, locally sourced 9-course farm-to-table feast that defies convention or comparison anywhere? That it was served by a dedicated culinary team mentored by the best in the business and enhanced by wines, sommelier-selected, to toast every taste was icing on the proverbial cake, from our starter soup to our last bite of dessert. During the course of the evening, we savored a trio of crudo delicacies delicately spooned and served with the smoothest sake we’ve ever sipped. We devoured a deceivingly simple salad of green and white asparagus, arugula, parmesan and prosciutto that was simply delicious with an aromatic young French wine equally so. More good things came in threes as we dove into a dish plating a baby clam, a succulent scallop and a lone mussel on a bed of kashimiri rice superbly sauced; a melt-in-your-mouth Mahi fillet finessed with flavor and grains; and hand-crafted, house-made cavatelli pasta, topped with a lamb ragout and kissed with chopped shishito peppers that kicked it up to a new notch we never experienced before. Different wines were professionally paired and poured with every course, highlighting a bevy of wines, reds, whites and roses from Europe’s finest wine-producing regions, including a delectable Douro and a velvet Bourgogne from a private vineyard in Rully, France, that has remained a personal favorite since my visit there in years past. The chef’s spoon-tender Wagyu beef wowed us into speechlessness. Our cheese chaser, our 8th plate of the night, tricked us into eating more than we ever thought we could manage, thanks to a deceptively sugared serving of arepa, even before we scooped up our coconut gelato, fittingly finished with glittering flakes of gold and nestled atop a decadent marriage made in heaven with chocolate nibs and quinoa. More wines, from the sublime to the sweet, followed as the evening’s light and simple servings slowly geared up to more complex combinations, “from barely touched to substantially enhanced in flavor,” as described by the chef himself.
Meeting Chef Cuevas in-between courses was among our most favorite treats of the night as he is as down to earth as the artisanal ingredients he favors for his food. Devoted to sustainability, organically focused farming and close relationships cultivated with family farms, he is gifted with grace, goodness and a generosity of heart, characteristics not surprisingly shared with the Michelin-starred gourmet cuisine he so carefully cultivates. Not to mention that he patiently listened to our queries and compliments, giving us his time and undivided attention even when a dining room full of guests waited expectantly for his genius to appear on their plates. Heading up culinary operations for all of the Condado restaurants in Puerto Rico after garnering international acclaim as one of the world’s best contemporary chefs, Juan José Cuevas trained at world-renowned restaurants, including Akelarre in San Sebastian, El Raco in Barcelona, Noma in Denmark, and Blue Hill Restaurant in New York City, where he learned firsthand about organic farming, sustainability, and seasonal cooking. In bringing these practices back home and using them to create sophisticated dishes that speak to Puerto Rico’s culture, he is introducing a new kind of tourism here. So while others flock to the casino with wishes of fortune on their minds, we hit the jackpot at 1919, before making our way to bed #2, dreams of sugared plums dancing in our heads.
A little further down the beach lay our next bed at the adults-only Condado Ocean Club. Our room was beach cottage themed and trimmed with muted sand and aqua touches to present an authentic sense of place. Our balcony overlooked the hotel’s dating pool, a watering hole designed for winks and drinks, with DJ’d music primed for dancing in the day and in the dark. Wanting to make the most of our island time, we ventured out on an easy 4-mile walk to Old San Juan, standing still in time as enduring testimony to its colonial past and culturally colorful roots. After a quick stop at the island’s oldest restaurant for a traditional plaintain-based mofongo, we ubered back to our resort in time for our dinner date at the Club’s terraced eatery, aptly named Social for the connections it inspires. True to our experiences at our first two Condado Collection properties, we were transported by the service, the scene and the suggestions that made our subsequent meal choices, Oranged Cauliflower Popcorn, Chilean Sea Bass, Grilled Pork Chop, Barrilito Bread Pudding, and Gianduja Mousse Cake, Puerto Rican-styled, chef-conceived and outstanding in every way. A special shout out to our hosts, including the hotel’s wonderful food and beverage director, an ex-pat excited to live and work in Puerto Rico, and our amazing server whose background in the culinary industry includes owning his own farm-fresh restaurant in a verdant valley town mid-island and magical. Regrettably, a break-of-dawn wake-up call for an early morning flight sent us up to bed, now numbering three, for our last night away from home.
Which begs the question. Could the very discerning Goldilocks find a bed that “was just right” in Puerto Rico? Truth be told, she would find three of them at three very different Condado Collection hotels. ☐