If travelling from the UK,Puerto Rico may not currently be top of anyones list, considering a caribbean getaway. There are currently no direct flights, so getting there is bit more of a schlep than say Barbados or St Lucia. However, having just spent a very good week in Puerto Rico I would suggest it may be worth reconsidering, particularly if you can extend your stay and spend a night or two in New York or Miami, both of which are stopover options.
As with all Caribbean islands it would be easy to arrive, head for a resort, plonk yourself on a beach, and never do more than that. Puerto Rico has beautiful beaches but it has so much more too, including the evocative capitol Old San Juan which is where we spent a couple of day after of course indulging in plenty of beach time.
When travelling we like to seek out the unusual and the quirky particularly when finding somewhere to stay. The Gallery Inn, in Old San Juan was both. On our arrival, with our too heavy bags, we literally stumbled through an unremarkable green doorway, immediately down some stairs and into a surprising courtyard littered with sculptures, a fountain and places to sit beneath straw parasols. We were greeted by an elegant lady with a large parrot on her shoulder. Another parrot was situated next to the reception desk, where he squawked loudly and continuously so that we strained to hear what any one was saying as we checked in.
After we recovered from our initial surprise we realised The Gallery Inn was quite special and absolutely unique. It is the home of Jan D’Espo an artist who has over time created and added to her home, so that now it is made up of 6 interconnecting town houses with 25 guest rooms. We were encouraged on arrival to explore, and we did. We wandered from room to room packed with sculpture and paintings, past fountains, brick patios and antique arches we were both amazed and intrigued in equal measure. Our jaws were pretty close to the floor when we came across the sunken garden and swimming pool constructed around original tumble down walls. So many hidden corners and nooks and crannies in which to nose, it was truly fabulous.
The Gallery Inn is also home to a magnificent steinway piano and recitals are regularly held. On our arrival we were encouraged to go along to a recital that evening in the music room featuring a very young and gifted pianist called Rolando Alejandro. We didn’t need asking twice. We sipped wine, sat amongst music loving locals and lost ourselves in the music and the moment. We felt very privileged to be part of such a magical evening.
After our encounter with the steinway, we soon discovered that wherever you are in Old San Juan you are never far from music. The city has its own sound track which runs constantly providing plenty of background atmosphere. Music seeps from bars, musicians play on the street, and live music is a feature of many restaurants. As you might expect its hot in Old San Juan, and hot weather does not necessarily lend itself to wandering around cities but this city is on the sea, so it doesn’t take too much to find a cooling breeze. With an abundance of bars and cafes in which to refresh yourself with a cooling beer or iced coffee, sight seeing in Old San Juan is pleasingly easy. We ate and drank very well too. Coconut shrimp, Mahi Mahi, mango, papaya, sweet pastries and of course the odd cocktail or two.
We spent a whole day wandering the streets of Old San Juan, taking pictures of the pastel coloured buildings, and seeking shade in churches and the thick walled rooms of the Castillo San Cristobal. I have a particular obsession with doors and windows and took so many pictures of doorways from smart to rustic to falling down. There is much to see and absorb. A favourite pass time when travelling is people watching and there is ample opportunity for this in Old San Juan. Take a seat anywhere to watch Puerto Ricans at work and play. Of course there are plenty of tourists in Old San Juan but it manages to maintain an authenticity which does not require much seeking out.
Old San Juan is about 45 minutes from the beautiful coastline where resorts such as the luxurious St Regis Bahaia Beach are situated. Here the silky soft beaches are wide and empty, and lined with palm trees. Opportunities to take to the water are plentiful from snorkelling the reefs to kayaking through mangroves at day with the iguanas or at night with the magical bioluminescence
The Gallery Inn, Old San Juan, the beaches of Puerto Rico and the mix of music, colour, vibrancy and flavour in this little Caribbean island provided just the restorative, nourishing balm we were looking for.