Puerto Rico rises again after Hurricane Maria. A guide to your next island vacation

The blue bricks of Viejo San Juan haven't lost their sheen. Photograph by Eric Barton.
The blue bricks of Viejo San Juan haven't lost their sheen. Photograph by Eric Barton.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Perhaps the moment that might have seemed overindulgent was when the masseuse pointed to a small wooden tray of three jars of dried flowers and spices. As her hand made a Vanna White pass over the containers, she asked: “Do you want to pick a scent for your massage?”

Just earlier, in the pre-massage lounge, we sprawled on chaises, with Champagne and tiny squares of chocolate within reach, tamarind or Caribbean cherry juice available, the terrycloth of our robes as soft as marshmallow, dreamy music of harps and bells coming from somewhere. When the massage began, my wife picked lavender, and I went with spiced orange. As instructed, we breathed the calming scents in deeply and then exhaled long and slow.

There was an undeniable guilt at points living so large on a long weekend in Puerto Rico. While more than a half-million residents remain without power, we picked the temperature of our filets and watched as morning rainbows appeared over our resort’s pool. But this is exactly what we — what you — should be doing. Returning to Puerto Rico means helping to restore the tourist-centered economy. Residents want you and need you to come, and despite what you may have read, the island is in fact ready for you to spoil yourself.

San Juan Marriott Resort_Ocean View
The San Juan Marriott Resort is re-open and ready for vacationers. Photograph courtesy Marriott.

Where to stay in San Juan

Our long weekend began at the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, a gem of a hotel in the upscale Condado beach neighborhood. When I first stayed there in 2015, families jumped through waterfalls and fountains in the resort’s pool, businessmen crammed around tables in the casino, and the bar was packed with locals who danced to live nightly jazz.

This time, the hotel was mostly full of FEMA workers, military personnel and first responders, many working 12-hour shifts for a month straight, looking exhausted and uninterested in the entertainment. A handful of tourists at the Marriott booked their vacations before the storm, were staying there before or after a cruise, and a few just simply decided to be pioneer tourists to the still-recovering island.

While not as vacation-festive as the last time I was there, the Marriott appears largely unscathed from Hurricane Maria. In fact, it was one of the few properties that remained with power. Like Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca, the hotel staff spent weeks deciding who was most deserving of open rooms. Some things are just now returning to normal; while we were there, newly printed room service menus appeared, and the oceanfront restaurant began serving dinner again.

Casa Abierta’s tuna and melon ceviche
Tuna and melon ceviche at Casa Abierta's in Puerto Rico.

Restaurants and shops to seek out in Puerto Rico

Not knowing whether to expect luxury or glamping, we headed to Viejo San Juan for dinner at Marmalade. The azure-colored brick street outside was nearly empty, but inside the dining room buzzed. Chef Peter Schintler had rallied his staff to gut the place and start over, and now new curtains hung from arched ceilings and cushy banquettes promised a comfortable, long dinner.

With less access to imports, Schintler and other chefs in town have instead looked more locally, like the rabbit on special that night raised by one of his friends. While as many as 15 courses were an option, we went with the reasonable three and ate bright and stunning salads, a dazzlingly creamy white bean soup, and a cioppino overflowing with mussels, clams and snapper.

The next morning we worked off our food hangover on a bike ride through Viejo San Juan with Rent the Bicycle’s infectiously enthusiastic guide Nancy Cruz. Shops and storefronts and entire apartment buildings in the 500-year-old colonial district remain abandoned. But Cruz led us on an optimistic tour, meeting locals who were feeding pigeons in squares reminiscent of Spain and farmers from the country with trucks of vegetables thankfully growing again.

With less access to imports, chefs in town have instead looked more locally, like a rabbit special at Marmalade raised by one of the chef’s friends.

Cruz takes us past La Fortaleza, the Easter egg blue governor’s mansion, and down to the waterfront, where the hurricane clobbered a banyan tree that might have been older than the city. To right it, workers decimated its branches until it was nothing but a tall stump. Now, though, leaves as bright as limes sprout everywhere. To make the scene that much sweeter, Cruz buys a dulce de coco candy from a street vendor and hands us pieces. Creamy from the milk and shaved coconut, it leaves behind a sweetness in our mouth, even as we think about lunch.

Nancy Cruz leads bike tours with nonstop enthusiasm
Nancy Cruz leads bike tours with enthusiasm through Old San Juan. Photograph by Eric Barton.

Leaving our bikes behind, we climb uphill to a bluff that overlooks Bahía de San Juan. Cruise ships have begun dropping off Midwesterners again, but few of them make it this far from the port. So when we open the doors to Verde Mesa, we’re the first ones for lunch.

The place looks like an interior designer’s Pinterest page, with its tin ceilings and mason jar chandeliers and tables made from old sewing stands. Even though the air conditioning remained broken on our visit, Chef Gabriel Hernández manages dishes that would shine at any restaurant in Coral Gables. Hernández is a 2018 semifinalist for Best Chef: South in the James Beard Foundation Awards, considered the Oscars of the food world.

He’s also concentrating more now on local ingredients, shaving chayote for a tangy salad and using the salted cod bacalao in a modern and addictive version of a dish made by every Puerto Rican abuela. If there was a question whether you can eat world-class food in a place still recovering from Maria, this meal makes it clear you can.

Experiments in pickling led to this bright salad at San Juan’s Verde Mesa
Experiments in pickling led to this bright salad featuring local produce at Verda Mesa in San Juan. Photograph by Eric Barton.

A spa day and more food before returning home

The next day we walk along the bustling streets in Condado — reminiscent of the in-transition Miami Beach of the 1990s — and down to the Spa at the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel. Built in 1919, the oceanfront boutique has one of the few spas up and running in San Juan, but don’t let that fact make you think it’s not fully operational. The teak-lined steam rooms and saunas are oven-warm, the oceanfront pool cascades infinity-style toward the sand, and the multi-jet showers are designed to mimic a rainforest waterfall.

After an hour of being tenderized by the masseuses, we head to dinner in the Wynwood-like neighborhood of Santurce. A block party has broken out on a Sunday night, with men twirling their partners, and women letting their skirts artfully spin around their ankles.

At Santaella, the bar is jammed and nearly every table occupied with locals and suits in town to work on the reconstruction. Like everywhere else, tourists are still a rarity, but it’s full just the same, as are many of the Brickell-trendy places in town. The tuna pintxos are fat squares of tenderness, and the buttery filet comes looking as big as a baseball.

Before our flight back to Florida, we spend the morning by the Marriott pool and exploring Condado beach. There’s a moment while washing sand off my feet at the poolside showers when I make eye contact with a hotel staff member and wonder — does he have water at home?

Forget guilt. Puerto Rico needs tourists to return, to gorge themselves at the restaurants, to be pampered at the spa, to let money burn a hole through their pockets at the shops.

But this isn’t just about some duty to help the island. Puerto Rico remains a Caribbean gem, an island just a couple of hours from Miami and Fort Lauderdale, where you can still vacation in high style. Yes, you should go.

The speckled walls of San Juan’s El Morro
The speckled walls of San Juan's El Morro. Photograph by Eric Barton.