When Frederick William Vanderbilt, a scion of the Vanderbilt family, developed the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel nearly a century ago, he used the best of everything. He hired the architectural firm that designed Grand Central Station in New York City, located the palatial hotel on the beach, and filled it with marble floors and crystal chandeliers. Although the property had its ups and downs after it opened, and was nearly demolished at one point, it reopened last year following a decade-long, $270-million renovation that restored the 95-year-old to its former grandeur — and then some. The renovation added two 11-story towers, which now flank the original hotel, with suites, a spa and fitness center, and a terrace restaurant.
The Vanderbilt was home base during a late-September/early-October press trip sponsored by Meet Puerto Rico, as well as prima facie evidence of a recent infusion of high-end glamour on the Caribbean island and U.S. territory. The hotel was just one of a select group of ultra-luxurious spaces we toured, each offering a unique setting for small corporate or incentive meetings.
NUNS AND LETTERS
At the Vanderbilt, we were enveloped in luxury from the moment we stepped into the elegant lobby. We checked into balcony suites overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, then sipped champagne cocktails as we toured the hotel’s art-filled lobby bar, second-floor meeting spaces, and plentiful terraces and swimming pools. The Vanderbilt’s fine-dining restaurant, 1919, was closed for a private event, but we had a memorable meal at the property’s bright and casual Ola Ocean Front Bistro, which, like 1919, is presided over by Chef Juan Jose Cuevos, a Puerto Rico native who worked with Chef Dan Barber in New York City.
The next day, we drove 30 minutes west to Dorado Beach, a secluded Ritz-Carlton property tucked into a riot of foliage. Built on a former coconut and grapefruit plantation where Laurance Rockefeller established a resort in the 1950s, Dorado Beach has a comeback story of its own. Rockefeller’s resort is gone, but the $342-million hotel is likely to have pleased the late conservationist: Every accommodation as well as the resort’s meeting space opens onto the beach, offering sweeping, coconut-palm-fringed views of the ocean.
While the vistas were extraordinary, it was Dorado Beach’s five-acre Spa Botanico that made our jaws drop. Guests enter through a sweet-smelling “Apothecary Portal” — a rustic building filled with sheaves of dried botanicals — into a series of linked gardens, grottos, and waterfalls, where they can book massages in a hammock, a tree house, or a private pavilion.
For lunch, we were guests at the smartly decorated Sophie’s at Saks Fifth Avenue, in the recently opened Mall of San Juan, which has brought a number of high-end brands, including Saks and Nordstrom, to the island for the first time. We returned to the Vanderbilt’s serene spa for massages of our own, then gathered for a tour of Old San Juan. Dusk fell as we walked along the historic city’s narrow, cobblestoned streets and our guide relayed highlights of the island’s colonial period and links to the continental United States (Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1898).
Our walking tour ended at the Hotel El Conventa, a former convent that was established in San Juan in 1651 and housed an order of Carmelite nuns until 1903. In the 1950s, the building was purchased by the Woolworth family, which converted the structure into a luxury hotel. The property is built around a tiled plaza, where we sipped tropical drinks under an enormous níspero tree. The conversion added two stories to the convent, and we wound our way upstairs, to a colorfully eclectic suite where Gloria Vanderbilt stayed while in San Juan, and a book-filled library. A high point was the ground-floor Salon Martorell, an 800-square-foot meeting space designed by Antonio Martorell, one of the island’s most prolific and popular artists, around the theme of “Las monjas letradas” (“nuns and letters”), and including walls painted with images of Spanish and Puerto Rican saints and nuns.
Dinner, which was served in the salon, was its own work of art — seven courses paired with wine, including branzino ceviche, guanbana sorbet with smoked watermelon, and salmon confit, topped off with caramelized upside-down pineapple cake with pumpkin-spice sorbet.
The next day we left San Juan and headed east, toward El Yunque National Forest, which is both the second-oldest park and the smallest forest in the U.S. National Park Service. While compact, El Yunque is diverse, with 228 species of trees. We drove through palm, almond, and sea-grape trees, arriving at The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort in time for breakfast. We sampled a local specialty bread, pan de Mallorca, while learning about the resort’s status as a certified Gold Audubon Signature Sanctuary, the first and only one in Puerto Rico. The property, which opened in 2010, removed exotic invasive plants and restored thousands of native plants and trees, and employs a full-time marine biologist.
From there we continued to El Conquistador, a Waldorf Astoria Resort — which at nearly 1,000 rooms over five distinct “villages” was the largest property we visited. El Conquistador is so big, in fact, it resembles a small town spilling down a 300-foot mountainside, with its own funicular. If the resort is a town, then its town square is the Grand Atlantic Conference Center — the second-largest meeting facility in Puerto Rico, with more than 100,000 square feet of event space. And since we were scouting out high-end venues, we toured El Conquistador’s Las Casitas Village, a mountaintop enclave of private villas, with butler service, private pools, and prime access to the resort’s golf course and best views.
We skimmed over the blue waves in El Conquistador’s catamaran to the resort’s private Palomino Island, where we had lunch (and more piña coladas) underneath a huge ficus tree. The island can be rented out in its entirety for private events. And then the ultimate luxury: an hour or so to ourselves to swim, kayak, jet-ski, or simply lounge under an umbrella in the white sand.
ON THE ITINERARY
› Condado Vanderbilt Hotel 450 guest rooms; 15,000 square feet of meeting space, including an oceanfront ballroom
› Dorado Beach, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve
100 guest rooms and 14 one-bedroom suites; a 4,558-square-foot ballroom, a boardroom, private dining areas, and a 6,000-square-foot private villa
› Hotel El Convento 58 guest rooms; with meeting facilities for 10 to 300 attendees, including the updated 1,500-square-foot Salon Paoli and six more conference spaces.
› St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort 139 rooms and suites; 26,000 square feet of function space, including a conference center with a 2,960-square-foot ballroom and outdoor spaces
› Las Casitas Villages, A Walforf Astoria Resort 157 luxury cottages; part of El Conquistador, with nearly 1,000 rooms across five villages; Grand Atlantic Conference Center, with more than 100,000 square feet of event space, including a 21,090-square-foot ballroom, a 19,982-square-foot ballroom, and 16 breakout rooms
For more information: meetpuertorico.com