One perfect day…in San Juan, Puerto Rico

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The old fort in San Juan

There is nothing quite as nice to us Torontonians as getting on an airplane and jetting off to warmer climes in mid-winter. It’s magical to arrive at your beachfront hotel and shed those winter layers – of clothes and cares. We’re just back from a few weeks of doing just that and we started our adventure in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

For a bit of background…A place we’ve been to on several trips in the past, San Juan never loses its charm as both a bit of the Caribbean with an American flavour. It’s not quite that sleepy Caribbean hideaway, and yet it’s not Florida either.

Since Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the US, we are able to pre-clear US customs and immigration at Pearson Airport before leaving Toronto making our entry into Puerto Rico as smooth as any domestic flight. San Juan’s population is just shy of 400,000 making it a city about the size of Halifax (with its surrounding municipality) in Canada. What we like about it is the combination of the old San Juan which everyone photographs, the lovely beaches and the modern shopping experience at the Mall of San Juan, the upscale place for that shopping fix. But our perfect day does not include that modern-day mall experience…

The perfect day begins with breakfast at the San Juan Marriott in the Condado district. A beautiful residential district, the Condado is home to an array of wonderful (and not so wonderful) restaurants, hotels and above all, homes and condos. It’s not strictly tourists, but on this beautiful, sunny 27C day, you’d be hard-pressed to believe that! No matter, we’re heading into Old San Juan, a 5 km walk along Ashford Avenue which follows the beach on one side and the lagoon on the other. Not many people walk this way, so it’s perfect for us.

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Enjoying our 5k walk int Old San Juan

We’ve been to San Juan at least four times before, so its maze of streets in the old district are not such a mystery to us. We have a destination today, though. Patty has been putting off her flip-flop purchase until she could browse an actual Flipflop Shop. She usually buys them in Phillipsburg on the island of Sint Maarten, but our original cruise itinerary (which included her favourite flip-flop spot) changed, so we’re in search of the San Juan franchise. The shop is easy to find among the cobbled streets, and we are successful in our purchase.

After strolling the fabled streets, it’s time for lunch…and a beer which we drink only when the weather is hot. This is the day! We’re looking for the pub/tavern/restaurant where we have eaten on two previous visits. Since we don’t have an address and cannot actually remember its name (!), we have to rely on our memory of landmarks in the vicinity.

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We don’t think we’ll forget Nano’s again!

Without too much difficulty, we find Nano’s where the people are friendly (and speak English), the beer is cold and the club sandwiches delicious. Then it’s time to find a taxi back to the hotel. It’s now too hot to walk another 5 km!

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Beer…the great rehydrator!

The hot afternoon is a perfect time for a long walk along the Condado beach. In the past, we’ve been able to go for miles without ever leaving the beach. What we find today, though, is extensive erosion since Hurricane Maria so much so that at a certain point we actually have to leave the beach, take to the street, and rejoin it farther along. Such a shame, but the walk is relaxing nonetheless.

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One of the reasons we’ve chosen the San Juan Marriot this time (in addition to the fact that our Platinum status with Marriott keeps us coming back to their properties) is because we’re able to have an oceanfront balcony. The times we’ve been here before, we always stayed down the beach at La Concha, a Marriott Renaissance. We do love the vibe of a Renaissance, but on our last visit things seemed to be changing – and they don’t offer beachfront balconies. Since we’re here for six days, we wanted to be sure we have private outdoor space. So, later in the afternoon we sit with a glass of local rum and coke and listen to the waves crashing on shore – and they are, indeed, crashing.

Later we dress for dinner which we have booked for Seraphina, the Italian restaurant at La Concha where we eat outside, enjoying the lively street scene. Later in the week we’ll have Puerto Rican cuisine!

The next thing on our “agenda” will be a mixology class at Casa Bacardi tomorrow. Stay tuned!

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So many beaches, so little time: The travel dreams of many

The deserted beach ringing the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda just coming into view as we approach from Antigua via fast ferry.
The deserted beach ringing the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda just coming into view as we approach from Antigua via fast ferry.

What is it about beaches?  When we want to conjure relaxing thoughts, we often find our minds wandering to the sounds of the waves rolling in and out, the wind, the seagulls.  There’s just something about them, and this world is full of extraordinary swaths of sand that beckon travelers.  Our recent return from the South Pacific and Australia with the plethora of beaches inspired us to pause and consider beaches we’ve walked – because, make no mistake about it , we prefer to walk a beach rather than lie on one – and beaches we’ll walk in the future.

Our most recent beach experience was Manly Beach in Sydney, Australia, the subject of our most recent video.  An urban beach, it really does go for miles and the boardwalk is a magnificent way to see it in its entirety.  And Manly did remind us a bit of Waikiki, which for all it has to recommend it, is not one of our very favorites.  So, we started to think, what were our favorite beaches?

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Barbuda

A few years back we spent some time at the St. James’s Club, a wonderful resort in Antigua.  With its crescent-shaped beach within a lagoon, it offered many of the beach-side amenities everyone craves.  However, it wasn’t especially long, had little wave action and was bordered by the resort.  That trip, however, did take us to a beach that holds some our best beach memories.  We decided to take a trip to Barbuda.

We embarked the fast ferry, known to us now as “the vomit comet” (we were thankfully among the few who did not…well, you know) that beached itself along the deserted shores of the tiny island of Barbuda.  Although there are a couple of small, low-rise hotels along the beach, for the most part it was completely deserted.  We walked for kilometers in the sun listening to the sea roll in and out.  It was heaven.  Even now, years later, as we think about that day at the beach, we relax and breathe deeply.

Another of our favorites is the beach along the Condado in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Stretching for several kilometers along the high-end neighborhood of the Condado, it is long, wide and sparsely populated – or at least it has been on the several occasions we visited San Juan.  Despite the hotels along this beach being a drive from Old San Juan, their proximity to this beach (just walk out the back door) makes them our choice when visiting Puerto Rico.

The beach in Philipsburg, St. Martin
The beach in Philipsburg, St. Martin

Two other beaches that are among our favorites are on that list for a different reason.  Rather than a day-long beach walk, they both offer interesting perspectives.

The beach at the Crane Resort on Barbados is often listed among the best in the world.  Well, that is clearly a subjective assessment, but it is beautiful and its location on the wild Atlantic side of the island does make its roaring waves mesmerizing.  Add onto this the fact that you reach it via either a steep staircase or the elevator (!) and you can get a sense of the kind of beach it is.

The other interesting one that brings a smile to our faces is the beach in downtown Phillipsburg, St. Martin.  The locals have built a magnificent boardwalk that divides the beach from a string of shops and restaurants.  Many of the restaurants offer beach chairs and buckets of beer for a lazy day taking in the activities in the harbor.  The sand is soft and the sun is hot.

Speaking of sand, our final two memorable beaches are memorable both for their locations and for their sand – we use that word loosely!

Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France
Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France

In the south of France, the grains of sand on the beaches cannot really be described as grains at all.  They are pebbles.  The beachfront in Nice is wonderful for a variety of reasons.  It is bordered by a several-kilometers-long walkway where people stroll, cycle and roller-skate, as well as some of the most interesting beach-front restaurants where you can sit on a lounger and sip champagne to while away the day.

Finally, if you ever have a chance to visit Canada’s most easterly province, grab a sweater and take a trip to Topsail Beach just outside the city of St. John’s in Newfoundland & Labrador.  Sit for a moment in the bracing breeze and pick up a few beach rocks to skim into the waves.  Listen to the seagulls and remember what Dennis Wilson of Beach Boys fame once said:  “On the beach, you can live in bliss.”

Have a few minutes, come along to Manly Beach with us.

Return to San Juan: Vintage jewelry shopping

The view from our room at the La Concha Renaissance in San Juan, Puerto Rico

It’s been a very long time since we bought anything that could be remotely associated with the term  “souvenir” when we’re traveling.  In the early years we’d bring home the odd T-shirt, or even a mug.  We usually eschewed all those bits of knick-knacks that are always on offer no matter where you’re traveling.  Even in cities like New York, look hard enough and you’ll find city memorabilia.  Just take a walk down Yonge Street in Toronto and you’ll be assailed with all manner of flags, sweatshirts and crystal reproductions of the CN Tower.

But not for us.  Travel shopping has taken on a whole new meaning.

The pleasures of consignment shopping on vacation are legion.  And although we’re not vintage people (the only antiques you’ll find in our home are a gramophone Art inherited from his parents and an antique organ left to our son Ian by his grand-father that we’re housing until he puts down permanent roots or we sell it: whichever comes first).  We like to be surrounded by new.  But that doesn’t necessarily extend to everything in our lives.  Case in point: our recent trip to Puerto Rico.

Ramón López – the unassuming store front

It all started two years ago when we spent a few days in San Juan en route to a southern Caribbean cruise.  We had been in San Juan only once before – and only for one day.  We had not been impressed.  This time, however, we decided to give it a try.  We discovered a city and an island that has the best of the old and the new.  With miles of pristine beaches to walk, rain forests to explore and shops to discover, we were in heaven.  On our last day in old San Juan as we wandered among the cobble-stoned streets lined with restored 400-year-old Spanish style buildings, we stumbled upon a small shop whose windows were filled with the most extraordinary jewelry we’d ever seen.  Although we had already done our requisite vacation shopping (and had reached our customs limit which we will never exceed since we value our Nexus cards), we knew that we were window shopping only.  We entered.

We chatted with the proprietor who knew that we were not buying, but that didn’t matter to him.  He was delighted to show us anything and everything.  Every necklace he put around Patty’s neck, every pair of shirt studs he showed Art all had a story.  And these were stories we vowed we would return to hear more about.  So, last month we were true to our word, and the shop was our first stop in old San Juan.

Patty examines the pieces with proprietor, Ramón López

With an unassuming exterior, Ramón López’s shop on calle Fortaleza is a treasure trove of history and beauty.  And the proprietor himself, who next year will celebrate 50 years in business in this exact location, is a true gentleman, proud of his work and clearly possessed of an extraordinary eye for quality pieces.

Sr. López is a well-known figure in the vintage jewelry business, having been featured in magazine articles over the course of his storied career.  His pieces are acquired mostly from direct purchases from Puerto Rican estates.  As we tried on piece after piece, we were swept back to a time in San Juan’s history when the grand ladies would alight from carriages and make their way to the Teatro Tapia, built in 1832, now one of the oldest theaters in the western hemisphere.  Their ball gowns would be exquisitely complemented by the necklaces adorning their throats and the bracelets dripping from their wrists.  And now those pieces are in the cases at Ramón López Vintage and Estate Jeweler.

As Sr. López offered piece after piece of jewelry for us to try, Art commented that he had remarkable sales skills.

The display cases were filled with thousands of pieces of jewelry from Puerto Rican estates.

“No,” he said shaking his head, “There is no need when you have the merchandise.”  With that he clasped another bracelet onto Patty’s wrist.  So right he is!

Before we left, he shared with us several photos of his children – one a lawyer, the other a medical student – and introduced us to his wife, a lawyer, who looks after the business end of things now.  We waved good-bye as we assured him we’d be back – then we emerged back into the brilliant sunshine of old San Juan.

Oh, did we buy anything?  But of course!

Ramón López featured several years ago in a magazine spread

Ramón López is located in old San Juan at 256 Fortaleza.