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A Vibrant San Juan Gets Its Groove Back


April 18, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

San Juan clubs open early, collapse late.
PHOTO: Jeffrey A. Salter

SAN JUAN, P.R. – THE night sky darkens slowly and the sea flattens, with only the gentlest waves breaking on the shore, the sea and the sky becoming one, the line between the two blurred, gone. The beach girls have retired to wash off the sand and put on the flimsiest skirts to show off newly bronzed legs. The jet skis that noisily crisscross the water all day are finally still, the beach chairs are folded and stacked away, the vendors are gone, and, from a rooftop nearby, the beach seems untouched, placid, silent.

But there is no quiet here at Wet, the rooftop bar in one of San Juan's splashiest hotels, the Water Club, a novelty among the scores of nightclubs, cocktail lounges, restaurants and discos that are making San Juan the new South Beach – a South Beach with five-century-old architecture and 21st-century resorts, Caribbean breezes and long stretches of powder-soft beaches shaded by native coconut palm trees.

Starting in Old San Juan – the 500-year-old Spanish colonial area that is the cultural capital of the Caribbean – a strand of hotels, high-rise condominiums, casinos and dance halls runs east toward El Condado, a residential and tourist haven, and Isla Verde, near the airport. In the last few years, this cordon of glitz has made San Juan the premier playground of the West Indies.

"It's the atmosphere, the history, the new restaurants," said Martyn Duff, 42, a British hair stylist who is the regional creative director for Vidal Sassoon in North America. "Those are the surprises that make me want to return. I go to Miami Beach all the time, but now I'm building Puerto Rico into my travel schedule."

Mr. Duff, who lives in New York, visited San Juan some six years ago and came away disappointed. "The first time," he said, "I didn't get the greatest feeling. It seemed too American, too many fast-food joints, but I was doing it on the cheap, staying far out, near the airport. This time, I stayed at a fabulous hotel and I spent more time with people who knew the city, who guided me better and took me to the best places, especially Old San Juan. It gave me a totally different feeling about the place."

But it's not just the energized social scene at the Caribe Hilton, where Mr. Duff stayed, or the dashing style of the Water Club, where Derek Jeter was spotted hanging out at the bar this past Thanksgiving weekend, that has savvy travelers looking at San Juan with new eyes. And it's not only the new resorts and the ever-grander casinos. What makes the difference is Old San Juan.

Every day, cruise ships and airlines bring thousands of travelers (at least four million annually), filling hotels in the metropolitan area and resorts throughout the island. This season, the most expensive hotels in San Juan – the Ritz Carlton, the Caribe Hilton, the Wyndham El San Juan – are racking up nearly full houses (85 percent to 90 percent occupancy) at rates that start at around $225 a night and go through the roof. The hotels have been busy throughout the winter, and the war seems to have made little difference.

"We've been lucky this season," said José Campo, the general manager of the Caribe Hilton. "When the war started, we had some cancellations the first week, but we went back to normal, and we will be fully booked for Easter and the rest of the month."

Over at the Water Club, Katie Sorota, a manager in the reservations and sales department, agreed. "We are continuing to sell out as we have been in the last months."

Right now, the Water Club, on a hard-to-find cul-de-sac along the beach in Isla Verde, has travel magazines and San Juan hoteliers gaping. No question, it is self-consciously up to the minute, ears and eyes cocked to the latest Miami and Los Angeles trends. Its two bars – Liquid and Wet – are the must-see-and-be-seen-at lounges. The thrill starts in darkened elevators (with built-in waterfalls) that whoosh guests up to the rooftop. On a late Friday evening, Wet seems shrouded in cigarette smoke as a swirl of couples – locals and foreigners – shove in and around the bar, sampling the sushi fare, drinking martinis and gin and tonics. The bar is not yet overflowing; people are not hanging off the terrace rails; more bodies could be piled up at the bar, but there is not a spare table, not much room left to spread out on the banquettes. The air moves slowly around all these buffed bodies swaying slyly to the rhythms of the lounge's house mix. The April issue of Travel & Leisure rates the people of San Juan among the most beautiful in the United States; the evidence to back that up is all around us.

Over there in one corner, on a ground-hugging, bedlike sofa, and over there, on the curvy, oval white molded-plastic chairs, 20-something couples slurp each other, and waitresses in skimpy, thigh-baring white cotton skirts, their pushed-up breasts bulging out of baby tank tops, set the sloshing drinks on knee-high cocktail tables, bending down, spilling out of their tops.

"That girl is wearing nothing underneath!" whispers an ogling, T-shirted bachelor, his eyes running over her body. Smoke spirals up to the canvas awning. The heavy pounding of staccato rhythms muffles the chatter, the giddy chirping, the romantic sweet-nothings. Trophy girls in flowery tops with big cleavage strike poses while sucking cigarettes beside their muscled boyfriends, the guys with big watches and fitted T-shirts. "Everyone wants to get into Wet," said Luz Bonet, 33, a sales clerk at the Cigar Shop at the Caribe Hilton. "You're not with it if you haven't been there."

No doubt, Wet can fill an hour or three on a weekend evening, a rubbing of elbows with the cool and hip. But Old San Juan fills three nights, or perhaps a lifetime.

Once, not so long ago, this square-mile promontory of 16th-century Spanish colonial homes and imposing buildings was a picturesque but nearly abandoned collection of decaying houses and boarded-up offices. Its narrow, dark streets and alleys were left mostly to prostitutes and hustlers. Over time, the buildings were rescued and restored. Now they are washed in brilliant colors, flowers spill down from balconies and ceiling fans churn in renovated shops and galleries. Restaurants, clubs and bars live side by side with expensively renovated private homes. On the cobalt-blue cobblestone streets (over 500 years old and made from the ballast of Spanish galleons), tourists and residents mix easily, day and night.

On nearly every weekend evening, the lines outside Dragonfly, on Calle Fortaleza, an Asian-Latino restaurant and bar, begin to form by 6 p.m. and remain for hours, patrons enviously peering through the glass-paned front door into the enamel red-and-black bar where the most chic San Juaneros, those with movie-star looks and the clothing to match (black, mainly), enjoy close encounters like a secret society. Dragonfly takes no reservations. Neither does Aguaviva next door, Old San Juan's newest seafood restaurant, where even dull halibut has somehow been made sexy and the bar can barely contain the crowd elbowing for the rare empty table. The room looks like an aquarium, a plunge under the sea, and the hum of imaginary waves is mesmerizing.

"Old San Juan is a village; it has the flavor of Latin America, and the girls and boys are better looking here." True. Guy Smith, a 32-year-old New York lighting designer who noticed the girls and boys and who has worked at Roseland and other clubs and has whiled away late nights in lounges in Miami, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, is falling in love with San Juan. We are walking up Calle Fortaleza and his eyes are turning here and there where club crawlers congregate under ancient street gaslights.

Around midnight, just at the time when other cities are rolling up the sidewalks, Old San Juan gets a second wave. On Calle Cruz, Enlaces, a hip-hop, post-rock gallery-lounge that is the newest haunt for San Juan's young hipsters, is gearing up for all-night action – maybe a D.J. contest, salsa, soul, reggae, bomba drums. Stage lights play prettily on a large indoor pool. The building is odd, gutted, hardly restored and has a spooky feel. Inflated inner tubes painted light pink, yellow and blue float on the pool. The evening is barely begun at Enlaces. There are adolescent girls with thick eyelashes and roving eyes, sizing up wiry boys in undershirts. The stage is quiet still, the bartender leisurely slides beer bottles down the counter. It's early, not quite midnight.

Down the hill, on Calle Recinto del Sur, the party is hitting the high notes at Oleo, an art gallery and lounge in an exquisitely restored house. Out front, lithe young women in slick black dresses usher selected guests upstairs to the club. In a long main room decorated with large paintings, partygoers squeeze around the polished bar, sprawl on cushioned wall benches, puckering their lips for bites of sushi. Coming into the bar alone or with boyfriends, or peeling away to private rooms furnished with elegant chairs and ottomans, girls in skinny black dresses and five-inch heels flow through the club. In the roped-off V.I.P. room, the select few can enjoy their own bar and elaborate daybeds. The designer clothes and latest haircuts suggest cosmopolitan San Juan, a sliver of haughty attitude without a trace of false sophistication.

Outside, the night is far from over. A drizzle has fallen and dried just as quickly, the streets and alleys are noisy with people coming in and out of clubs, drifting, moving in circles up and down the cobblestone streets. And now the question is, said Emily Rivera, a 26-year-old clubgoer sizing up San Juan's rocketing night life, do you go to Rumba or Candelas, do you want hip-hop freestyle or jukebox salsa? It's that simple.

The next day arrives brilliantly, with not a cloud, not a speck of imperfection. At the pool bar of the Caribe Hilton, the world seems to integrate – children and grandparents, cruise passengers, conventioneers, couples and singles, hunky guys with tousled Javier Bardem looks, athletic young women in chopped-up hair and ladies of the spa. The miniature yellow flowers turn the color of tangerines, the fronds of palm trees become translucent in the sunlight, and the bar tape deck is playing – what? – hip-swinging house pop. Disco at 10 a.m.

By evening you can barely get to Old San Juan even from the Hilton, which is ordinarily a 10-minute ride away. On Saturday night, on any weekend night, the traffic is bumper to bumper and parking is nearly impossible. But it's worth it, especially if you've wrangled a reservation at Barú.

In a town where "restaurants of the moment" come and go virtually overnight, some actually last beyond the expected expiration date – the Parrot Club, which gave San Juan a new level of fashionable dining and lounging; Dragonfly, a hot ticket any night of the week; Amadeus, one of the original creators of Nuevo Latino cuisine; and now, it's Barú. No wonder. You are swathed in attention, while the flowers of San Juan chic bloom right in front of you. Young women come in striped tuxedo pants à la Kidman, in plunging décolletage à la Hayek, in bare midriffs à la Aguilera. Men, always with less plumage, fade into the background. Tables are set close to each other the better to build a flirty party atmosphere. There is a hint of salsa-rock-pop in the air, enough to keep the blood pumping. A reed-thin waiter, a young actor of earthy Gypsy looks, swims around the tables, closing in on the women, whispering, "While you're here, you are the queen."

The seduction lasts all evening. Tapas-like dishes of Mediterranean-Caribbean origin come to the table with a flourish, with a twist of the wrist, with a sigh that says, this is absolutely divine. And, just when it's time to go, past midnight, the owner, Rodolfo Pérez, a flamboyant 40-year-old Colombian with Antonio Banderas looks, swoops in. His arms spread out, taking in the whole room, from the romantic back room of candles and high tables, to the open-to-the-sky garden, to the main room, center stage. He moves swiftly, unveiling this dish of escargot with shiitake mushrooms, uncorking that bottle of Ribera del Duero, ordering up little cups of the killer agua ardiente, embracing one client, kissing another. "This is your home," he says, "la casa del amor." In Old San Juan, at that very moment, you believe it.

Visitor Information

From palmy beaches to chi-chi clubs, from hip bars to gay discos, there is just too much to do in San Juan. And just about any season is a good season. Some seasons are wetter (hurricanes occasionally hit the island in late summer and early fall), some are a bit hotter and some are pricier (December to April), but on the whole, there's really no bad time to go.

Where to Stay

The Caribe Hilton (San Geronimo Grounds, Calle Los Rosales; 787-721-0303) a newly expanded resort near Old San Juan, with a splendid private beach and terraced pools, tennis courts, a spa and shops. Rooms start at $285 to $385, depending on the season.

The Water Club (2 Calle José Tartak, Isla Verde; 787-728-3666) a Miami-style boutique hotel with waterfalls in the elevators and a plunge pool on the rooftop deck. Ocean-front rooms start at $259.

El Convento (100 Calle Cristo, Old San Juan; 787-723-9020) an elegant restored convent with al fresco bars and patio restaurants. Rates from $275.

Night Life

Barú, (150 Calle San Sebastián, Old San Juan; 787-977-5442) is restaurant as theater and romance. Don't even think of getting a table after 9 p.m. on weekends; entrees from $16.

Aguaviva (364 Calle Fortaleza, Old San Juan, 787-722-0665) has Latino seafood cuisine that makes even humdrum fish seem lush. No reservations; entrees from $20.

Dragonfly (364 Calle Fortaleza, Old San Juan, 787-977-3886) hotbed of chic and Asian/Latino food. No reservations; count on a wait. Entrees start at $15.

For drinking, dancing and mating, among the best places to hang out are Oleo (305 Calle Recinto Sur, Old San Juan, 787-977-1083), with house music in an exquisitely appointed artsy space; Wet and Liquid, at the Water Club (787-728-3666), fashionable bars with attitude and weak drinks; Enlaces, (255 Calle Cruz, Old San Juan; 787-977-0754) a hip-hop lounge that's the rage with young hipsters; Rumba (152 Calle San Sebastián, Old San Juan; 787-725-4407), jukebox salsa and bomba madness; Kouros (1515 Avenida Ponce de León, 787-977-0771), high-glam disco for gay girls and boys, open Fridays and Saturdays.

Sun and Surf

The best beaches in metropolitan San Juan? The lively boy-meets-boy and girl-meets-boy sand-and-tan beach strip along El Condado; the private beach at the Caribe Hilton; and the quiet beaches in Ocean Park. If you want romantic seclusion, take a 30-minute flight to Culebra, the island where Flamenco Beach ranks among the prettiest in the Americas.

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