Puerto Rico (Elle)

Imagine, if you will, Detroit dug out, tarted up, and floated south of Cuba. The result would look and behave something like Puerto Rico. San Juan, its capital, is a funky beauty pageant of crumbling candy coloured Spanish colonial buildings next to a glorious seaside and rows of luxury resorts where Leonardo Di Caprio plays golf and Gwen Stefani takes time out from her latest tour. Flashy cocktail bars shake with the sounds of carnival-dancehall-goes-French-electro reggaeton. Fifteen minutes away sits Vieques, the real Lost. For years it was used for target practice by the American Navy, now it’s a near-deserted desert island beloved by a mixture of New York club kids, architects and fashion industry types. Puerto Rico is paradise, but it’s a very different, very downtown, edgy kind of paradise


I know I should be ordering a Mojito for credibility’s sake, but I can’t help it, I want a Pina Colada. Nothing else says holiday like Pina Colada – it’s too preposterous to order in New York or London but here in Puerto Rico, you can get away with it – this, after all, is where the creamiest bit of the cocktail menu was invented. And so I sip at my rum-based smoothie and I kick back by the pool of the Ritz Carlton in San Juan.

I’ve spent four days milling around the cobbles of the Old Town, from the fringes of the don’t-go-past-the-gates-although-it’s-pretty favela next to the white marbled tombstones of the wind swept cliff-side cemetery, to the SoFo (‘South of Fortaleza’) district’s bars and restaurants. I’ve had Pina Coladas all over town, as well as wine tasted surrounded by parrots at the ramshackle Gallery Inn hotel. I’ve won at roulette and talked about the subtle percussive nuances of reggaeton while taking up sun lounger space at Café La Plage on the beach. It’s the best not-quite-American self-governing commonwealth city with a beach in the world.

The most magical part of my Puerto Rico experience was a week offshore on the isle of Vieques. 25 minutes in a tiny aircraft sitting in the co-pilots seat took me to the location for the 60s movie version of Lord of the Flies. Vieques’ previous and controversial tenants, the US navy, decamped in 2003, leaving one end of the island a UXB no-go zone and a whole circumference of idyllic beaches colour coded for ease of manoeuvres (‘Blue Beach’, ‘Red Beach’; ‘Purple Beach’ …). Soon after ‘liberation’, the W announced it was moving in, with plans to open in 2009. In the meantime it’s boutique hotel business as usual, with in-the-know fashion types from New York joining the likes of Benicio Del Toro and Kelly Ripa of Kelly & Regis fame for very long weekends. As I ate California Rolls by the pool at the white-on-white Bravo Beach Hotel (originally Narcisco Rodriguez’s holiday villa), I chatted to some of America’s most connected art directors, all of whom are repeat visitors. Susanne Bartsch, the long reigning fashion and downtown NYC nightclub queen who lives with gym mogul David Barton at the Chelsea Hotel, bought a holiday home here years ago. Rather like some of fashion’s more offbeat trends, one wonders how Vieques became so cool as well as beautiful.

One of the reasons a lot of people have discovered the island is via the oft photographed Hix Island House, where I spent three days doing yoga and marvelling at the brutal concrete sweeps and angles of its various buildings and rooms; relentless and chic minimalist bunkers with bright flashes of Marimekko and Starck. At night I marvelled at the decibels of the jungle – Hix Island’s rooms are all open to the elements, without a fourth wall.

Nightlife is pretty nonexistent on the island, although the cocktails flow at the Kama bar and boutique hotel and around the pool at BBH of an evening. The best after dark entertainment is the tour of Bioluminescent Bay, full of glowing dinoflagelate organisms. After a hair-raising white-knuckle ride on a knackered out yellow school bus through the jungle, I boarded a motorboat to the middle of Mosquito Bay, slid into a life vest and climbed into the water. Each time I moved, my whole body generated thousands of ethereal aqueous sparks. When I cupped my hands to let water pour out, there was Industrial Light and Magic. It was as if I was floating in the Milky Way, while the real thing sprawled across the sky as bright as any planetarium show.

Ultimately it’s the unspoilt beaches that are the main attraction on Vieques. Even the sole ‘public beach’ (with a rarely enforced charge for entry), Sun Bay, is usually deserted. I drove to Red Beach and Blue Beach, and sailed to Purple Beach, and spent days without seeing a single other living person apart from my significant other. It was just us, our deck chairs and a cool box. It’s how Vieques trumps most of the rest of the Caribbean: This isn’t the place to come for flag-in-sand service. It’s rough and ready, you make your own way and fend for yourself. Vieques is your own desert island. There really is no sexier place to play at being stranded.


The Ritz Carlton, 6961 Avenue of the Governors, San Juan, enq 787 253 1700, www.ritzcarlton.com, doubles from £131

The Gallery Inn, 204-206 Norzagaray, San Juan, enq 787 722 1808, www.thegalleryinn.com, doubles from £102

Bravo Beach Hotel, North Shore Road, Vieques, enq 787 741 1128, www.bravobeachhotel.com, doubles from £100

Hix Island House, HC-02, Vieques, enq 787 741 2302, www.hixislandhouse.com, doubles from £102


It’s all veal chops and Frank Sinatra at Il Mulino at the Ritz Carlton (as above). This San Juan offshoot, with its white-jacketed waiters armed with parmesan and pepper grinders, is way better than the landmark NYC original. Toro Salao (367 Calle Tetuán, San Juan, enq 787 722 3330) gives a contemporary spin on classic Spanish (corn meal lollipop with manchego and chirozo anyone?) while Marmalade  (317 Fortaleza Street, San Juan, enq 787 724 3969) offers up paella bites, experiments with foie gras and plum saketinis in a swish, mod looking lounge.

Restaurants come and go on Vieques with alarming regularity, and you’ll want to avoid the carbtastic leaden ‘mfongo’ plaintain mash that’s omnipresent in local cuisine. Try the excellent nigiri at Mr Sushi at Bravo Beach Hotel (as above) or the super spicy nachos, burritos, tacos and enchiladas at Coqui Fire Café (Carretera 200, enq 787 435 1099).


The strip of giant resort hotels along Isla Verde are all about old school casino glamour, while SoFo’s bars are more upbeat. La Folie Salon & Lounge (Isla Verde Avenue 4851, San Juan, enq 787 268 7733) is hot, red, opulent and where the sleek set end up after a day at the adjoining Café La Plage beach club. The coolest dive in town is El Batey (101 Calle del Cristo, San Juan, enq 787 447 8737). It’s very rock and roll – from the jukebox to the tequila shots and the Old Town hipsters. Arrive very late, leave much later.

Over on Vieques, Al’s Mar Azul (Waterfront, Isabel Segunda, Vieques, enq 787 741 3400) looks like a just-surfaced shipwreck, but the frozen cocktails, karaoke and devoted regulars rolling in for a gossip make this the best bar on the island. Vieques’ newest watering hole is also its most fabulous: Kama (Menoz Rivera, enq 787 741 4000) has a 12 foot black chandelier hanging from the ceiling and a 1964 Triumph on the bar.


Don’t miss the gangsta gold and kitsch rosaries on sale along Fortaleza in San Juan, or the bargainous Ralph Lauren Factory Store (201 Calle Cristo, enq 7887 722 2136) and Coach factory outlet (150 Calle Cristo, enq 787 722 6830). Local fashion musts include ex Esquire fashion editor Nono Maldonado’s boutique full of dressy but relaxed tropical wear (1051 Ashford Avenue, enq 787 721 0456). Stella Nolasco sells her fashion-forward womenswear, including dark flowing pant suits reminiscent of 70s era Studio 54, out of her own Old Town store (161 San Jose Street, enq 787 723 2897).


Taxis are cheap and plentiful in San Juan but on Vieques you really need to hire a Jeep for off-roading to the best beaches (Vieques Car Rental, enq 787 741 1037). Publicos are a cross between a taxi and minibus and can be booked from restaurants and hotels, but they won’t go off-road and during busy periods you won’t get exclusive use.


Avoid hurricane season, in August and September. The rest of the year is consistently warm, sunny and humid, with December to April being driest, and coinciding with Vieques’ most active, see-and-be-seen social season.


San Juan is a three and a half hour flight from New York City. Virgin Atlantic (enq 0870 380 2007, http://www.virgin-atlantic.com) flies six times daily between London and New York, prices from £319 return. Connect in New York, JFK for domestic flights with Jet Blue (enq 801 365 2525, www.jetblue.com) direct to San Juan from £55 each way. Cape Air (enq 508 771 6944, http://www.flycapeair.com) flies six times daily between San Juan and Vieques, £50 each way.


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