Caribbean

Escaping to San Juan's Condado

written by | Posted on August 1st, 2011

Residents of Condado, one of San Juan’s most famous neighborhoods, know they live in the most convenient zip code in town. They can walk their dog in the park on their way to Walgreens, have lunch at some of Puerto Rico’s best restaurants and dance until the wee hours of the morning without having to get in the car.

Visitors are just as lucky if they choose to stay here, even if just for a few days. They can shop their days away—leather satchels at Louis Vuitton, and boho dresses at Hecho a Mano. They can “om” their way into bliss in front of the crashing shoreline at La Ventana al Mar and then settle in for a martini, or, head to the very popular lobby bar of La Concha, A Renaissance Resort, for a champagne sangria and a chance to rub elbows with the celebrity du jour. And with names like Marriott, Radisson and Conradlining Ashford Avenue—Condado’s main strip—there’s no shortage of great stays here.

eat, drink, be merry Days are all bright and fun in Puerto Rico, but the lights don’t dim once the sun starts to set. Come five o’clock on Fridays, you’ll find locals flocking to the nearest watering hole to decompress. In this part of the island, many will head to La Plaza del Mercado de Santurce just outside of Condado proper, better known as “La Placita.” If you stop by the morning after, you might not recognize it from the place where you bar-hopped and downed your weight in Medalla, the local beer, until the wee hours the night before, because, in reality, it’s a produce market where you can revive with fresh fruit smoothies or a bite of a juicy mango.

Dining well is also part of Puerto Rico’s entertainment landscape. Foodies who follow celebrity chefs will want to visit some of Iron Chef finalist Robert Treviño’s eateries. Start with both classic and creative tapas at Bar Gitano and then move on to Budatai, which has become a new classic in Condado. It serves Asian-inspired cuisine married in Puerto Rican flair—the spicy tuna pegao (the island’s version of sticky rice), sushi and lo mein with crackling fried chicken are not soon forgotten. Treviño’s newest is Casa Lola, which adds a modern spin to classic local cuisine.

“Our gastronomy is definitely one of our strengths as a world-class destination,” says Clarisa Jimenez, president & CEO of the Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association (PRHTA). “The taste of Puerto Rico’s cuisine is unique—that is why, since the 1970s, the island has become the gastronomic capital of the Caribbean. The combination of African, Taino and Spanish influences gives it a special touch.”

A must is the Puerto Rico Zest, a dining program that lets MasterCard holders enjoy a 3-course prix fixe menu ($25, $35 or $45, depending on the restaurant) at dozens of establishments throughout the island. The program also has a mobile application available for download on the Android Market and on the Apple App Store.

Gourmands might also want to plan a visit during the spring to attend Saborea Puerto Rico, which has fast become one of the premier culinary festivals in the Caribbean. Taking place next April 13-15 at the Blue Flag Escambron Beach, Saborea brings together a bevy of local and international culinary personalities, demo kitchens to learn from the pros and more. A Tasting Pavilion showcases some of Puerto Rico’s best restaurants, plus a wide range of rums, beer and spirits. There’s also a Kids Pavilion, where children learn simple meal preparations and enjoy other activities. A 1-day or weekend pass allows visitors to attend cooking demonstrations by culinary personalities, beverage seminars and other events.

classic stay You may have seen it on the news recently—just a couple of months ago, the granddaughter and great-grandson of the founder of The Flying Wallendas completed the stunt that ended the founder’s life: a 300-ft.-long high-wire cross without a net between the two towers of the Conrad San Juan Condado Plaza Hotel & Casino, where Karl Wallenda fell to his death in 1978.

Luckily, the rest of us are able to walk from one hotel tower to the other via a clear bridge that crosses Ashford Avenue. The Condado Plaza is one of San Juan’s oldest hotels still in business, a favorite among visitors for its accessible casino and great eateries. It is also home to celeb Chef Wilo Benet’s Pikayo, his flagship restaurant and one of the island’s most famous. A big plus to the property is that it has a small tranquil beach that’s more swimmer- and kid-friendly than most of Condado’s other hotels, as well as quick access to the Condado Lagoon for a spin on a kayak. Rates start at $149 per night.