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San Juan Overview
As an anchor on Eastern and Southern Caribbean itineraries -- not to mention a turnaround port for many ships -- San Juan is a place where just about all cruisers, at some point or another, are going to wind up. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, and San Juan is its urban hub. The city, by and large, is divided into new and old. The new includes a business district and outlying neighborhoods, concentrated with hotel chains like Isla Verde. The old is, of course, the historic city within ancient walls. Both offer many Americanisms. (Senor Frog's has a prime outpost, and you'll never want for a McDonald's Big Mac.)
Get beyond that, though, because of all America's Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico offers the most exotic aura. The melange of indigenous Taino culture, combined with European and African influences in San Juan (and all of Puerto Rico, for that matter), is one major factor. Add to that its own unique influences in areas ranging from cuisine and music to history and art. And there's more: folks who have traveled to Cuba say that Old San Juan reminds them more of Cuba, at times, than Cuba itself! It's also very Spanish (think Seville) and even a bit Italian (reminiscent of Naples). Finally, the city evokes just a wee taste of South America (like Buenos Aires).
For those who visit San Juan as a day-stop on a Caribbean itinerary or embark or disembark there, the island's biggest appeal is the old city. Most cruise ships dock right in the heart of Old San Juan, which dates back to the 16th century. The old, walled city has been exquisitely preserved, and its sprawling forts, cobblestone streets, antique shops and art galleries make it an ideal first stop. Its mainstream attractions include the imposing El Morro fort, which dates back to 1539; the Cathedral of San Juan, where the island's first governor, Ponce de Leon, is buried; La Fortaleza, the oldest governor's mansion on U.S. soil; several colonial plazas; and the triumvirate of Calle del Cristo, Calle San Jose and Calle Fortaleza for shopping. Calle del Cristo, in particular, is chock-full of art galleries, artisan studios and distinctive boutiques.
But, if you're a "been there, done that" visitor to Old San Juan, there's much more to explore.
And there's one more thing to keep in mind: many cruises stay in port until late at night. That makes it possible to sample some of the city's vibrant restaurants and nightlife (as long as you keep an eye on the clock).
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Other Eastern Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Freeport • Grand Turk • Jost Van Dyke • La Romana (Casa de Campo) • Labadee • Nassau • Princess Cays • San Juan • Santo Domingo • St. Croix • St. John (U.S.V.I.) • St. Maarten • St. Martin • St. Thomas • Tortola • Virgin Gorda
Medalla Light is the local beer, and while Bacardi is the better-known rum produced in Puerto Rico, the locals prefer Don Q -- an equally (if not more) venerable brand. For a great thirst quencher, try the signature drink at the hip Marmalade restaurant; the M317 martini consists of Cointreau jelly, limoncello, triple sec, Campari and grapefruit espuma (a whipped cream without eggs).
Top-notch bottles of Bacardi or Don Q rum are great souvenir ideas. We also love the artisan crafts that are showcased at the Plaza Arturo Somohano in downtown Old San Juan. (While artisans vary, products include hand-tooled leather belts, gorgeous sea-glass jewelry and herbal soaps.)
Spanish and English are the official languages of Puerto Rico. In tourist areas, English predominates.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Since Puerto Rico is an American territory, the currency there is the U.S. dollar. ATM's are widely available throughout Old San Juan and in tourist beach resort areas.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock in two places. The best location is just across from the Sheraton Old San Juan (formerly known as the Wyndham) because you walk off the ship into the heart of the old city. Other times, your ship will dock just across the bay -- a stone's throw away -- but it's farther than it looks, and you'll need to take a taxi to get anywhere.
Old San Juan is undergoing an awesome renaissance. If you haven't been there lately, you'll be amazed at how beautiful and spiffed-up its European-esque buildings are, particularly the many that are freshly painted in cheerful pastels of lavender, blue, yellow and pink. The Latino music phenomenon has led to the rebirth of new, fresh "nuevo Latino" cuisine, which, in turn, is attracting more attention to the island's quality art, crafts and antiques.
On Foot: It's walking distance into compact, yet fascinating, Old San Juan. Streets are uneven (constructed of blue cobblestones, cast from furnace slag), and hills are steep, so wear comfortable shoes.
Taxis: They're available at the dock. You can also hail mini-buses (called "omnibuses"), which shuttle along main routes; to hail one, respond with a wave when the driver toots his horn.
Trolleys: There's a free trolley that will take you around Old San Juan and to the forts. You can pick it up across from the information booth, between cruise piers three and four.
Renting a Car: Rental car agencies, such as Hertz (800-654-3131) and Avis (800-831-2847), operate out of Condado (about five miles from Old San Juan).
Watch Out For
Sidewalks in Old San Juan are narrow and uneven. When more than one ship is in town, they're almost impassible. Also, beware that crowds do inspire pickpockets; keep an eye on your wallet.
Shopping in Old San Juan. While San Juan is not a duty-free port, at least its stuff isn't taxed. You'll certainly find plenty of craft and T-shirt shops (particularly along Fortaleza and San Francisco Streets). One tip: the further east you walk (going away from the cruise pier), the more interesting the shops and restaurants become.
One great street for window shopping is Calle Cristo; highlights include Magia (99 Calle Cristo), an artisan who crafts works of art from recycled objects -- old mirrors, wooden shutters, antique windows and even pocket-sized religious icons. Prices start at $15 for one-of-a-kind pieces.
And, while not exactly exotic, we've had good luck at factory stores for Ralph Lauren, Coach and Gant on Calle Cristo. Sunny Caribbee (154 Calle Cristo) is an offshoot of the Tortola classic and features crafts, hot sauces and coffees, made from Puerto Rican recipes; across the hall, El Galapon has gorgeous masks.
A new find on our most recent visit to Old San Juan was the pocket-sized Plaza Arturo Somohano. Just a block behind the Sheraton Old San Juan (located at pier central), this tree-shaded park is home to artisans, who sell hand-made and designed crafts. They must be approved by the government to open stalls (no "made in China" stuff here). While vendors vary, on my trip, there were beautifully scented soaps from Taino Soapworks (the anise lavender is a favorite), hand-tooled leather belts, pretty (and reasonably priced) beach-glass jewelry, gourds and coconut shells and charming, hand-made, burlap handbags.
Check out the historic sites of Old San Juan, such as El Morro (tours from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., entry fee for adults), whose original parts were completed in 1539 (and which successfully deterred would-be colonial powers from capturing the island). Also in Old San Juan is San Cristobal Fort (tours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.), which was built in 1771. On weekends, the grounds of both forts are thick with locals flying kites.
Take a tour of La Fortaleza (9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.). Visit the Catedral de San Juan, which dates back to 1540. Fans of the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals should check out the Museo Pablo Casals (Plaza San Jose, Tuesday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.), where the Spanish master's collection includes manuscripts, photographs and a library of video tapes of Festival Casals concerts (played on request).
The beach: While Old San Juan doesn't really boast any of its own, the beaches in the nearby areas of Condado and Isla Verde stretch along high-rise hotels and are a 5- to 10-minute taxi ride (longer during rush hour) from the cruise pier.
Visit the Bacardi Rum Factory. This is commonly offered as a ship-sponsored tour, but it's easy to go on your own, too; take the ferry (which leaves from Pier 2, right next to the cruise ship dock, every half hour and costs $1, roundtrip, for the six-minute ride) to Catano, and then catch a bus or ferry for the 10-minute ride to the factory. (Don't walk -- it's long and hot.) The factory itself is lovely. There are gorgeously landscaped grounds (lots of hibiscus), an open-air pavilion for Bacardi-influenced drinks, a gift shop and a tour that includes an interesting film on the history and other activities (such as testing your sense of smell, making postcards and learning about rum distillation).
Been There, Done That
Natural Wonders: Visit El Yunque, the only rain forest designated as a U.S. National Forest. Located about an hour south of San Juan, you'll see numerous waterfalls, ferns and wildflowers along the marked trails. Because it's a rain forest, it will probably, well, rain during your visit -- so pack a slicker.
Art & Culture: The Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico in Santurce (just south of Condado, 299 De Diego Avenue, open from 10 a.m. Tuesday through Sunday) exhibits elegant Puerto Rican art, along with visiting themed shows. Also a must-see for art lovers is the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Puerto Rico (229 de Diego Avenue), which houses some 700 post-1940's works from artists of Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and Latin America.
For Golfers: Bahia Beach (www.bahiabeachpuertorico.com) is a hidden treasure; a car rental is required to get to this out-of-the-way, 18-hole public course that sits at the base of El Yunque and fronts the sea with a gorgeous beach, framed by palms and palmettos. Being totally public, it's also open to non-golf-playing visitors (though the club does request that you politely ask permission). Golf clubs are available for rent.
Lady Luck: Try your luck with casino gambling at the big hotels, from the Sheraton Old San Juan (right across the street from the cruise piers) to the Ritz-Carlton.
Best Beach for a Half-Day Visit: The beaches that run in front of Isla Verde's luxury hotels (about a 20-minute cab ride) are the best for short visits; ask the cabbie to drop you off at the Ritz-Carlton or the El San Juan.
Best Beach for the Dedicated Beach Bum: Luquillo Beach (near El Yunque) is a real locals' haunt; there, you'll find long stretches of sand, water sports equipment rentals and a great line of food stands, offering classic Puerto Rican beach food.
Best Secluded Beach: The aforementioned Bahia Beach is great for those looking for some peace and quiet.
Really casual, in-town joints: Right off the ship, head to La Bombonera (259 Calle San Francisco), and belly up to the counter to order a freshly squeezed glass of orange juice and one of their delicious mallorcas (or, for lunch, a classic Cubano sandwich). Nearby, the El Buren Pizza Restaurant (103 Calle Cristo, 11 a.m.) has gourmet pizzas.
Trendy dining: The Parrot Club (363 Fortaleza) is the restaurant that inspired San Juan's gourmet revolution, and while it's a bit more passe these days, it's one of the few in the trendy SoFo (south of Fortaleza restaurant district) to open for lunch. It's known for its Nuevo Latino cuisine.
Gourmet Dinners: Because many ships spend evenings in San Juan and don't depart until late-night, cruisers should also consider dinner options. Head to the aforementioned SoFo, where the hip restaurants of the moment include Marmalade (317 Fortaleza), which offers a U.S.-inspired menu. Also try Kudeta (314 Fortaleza), which, with its pan-Asian cuisine, feels like something out of Bangkok; order the paella valenciana risotto or the shrimp curry. Aguaviva (364 Fortaleza Street) is another trendy place; it serves seafood. (Note the whimsical, octopus-like chandeliers.)
Baires (Plaza del Mercado 9, off San Sebastian Street, open noon to 2:30 p.m. and from 6 p.m. on) was an unexpected find; the Argentinean-themed restaurant has live music some nights and delicious fare, ranging from grilled sweetbreads and steaks to pasta. Dragonfly (364 Calle Fortaleza, from 6 p.m.), a fabulous Latino-Asian restaurant, offers "Dragonfries," which are French fries dusted with cinnamon and ginger.
For cruise passengers embarking or disembarking in San Juan (a big homeport for Southern Caribbean itineraries), there are bewildering choices. But we narrow them down for you.
Value for Money: The best options for value-oriented hotel chains are primarily located in Isla Verde, between the airport and the beach (convenient to both). These include Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn and the Courtyard by Marriott.
Full-Service Beach Resort: We loved a one-night, pre-cruise stay at the Caribe Hilton (Los Rosales Street, 787-721-0303), on the outskirts of the old city -- there are plenty of pools, a beach, bars and eateries so you can just hang out. Or, take a five-minute taxi to Old San Juan. It has been renovated in the past few years and has a lovely on-site spa.
Most Luxurious in San Juan Itself: The Ritz-Carlton San Juan Hotel, Spa and Casino (6961 Avenue of the Governors, Isla Verde; 787-253-1700) is, hands-down, the most luxe hotel in San Juan; it's located on the beach at Isla Verde.
Best for Hip and Trendy: Try the San Juan Water and Beach Club Hotel (2 Tartak Street, Isla Verde; 787-728-3666) for its fab rooftop pool and a vibrant night scene.
If you prefer to stay in Old San Juan, here are some options.
The Grandest: The Hotel El Convento (100 Calle Cristo, 800-468-2779), a one-time Carmelite convent in the 17th century, has long been a hotel, but its recent refurbishment put it in the deluxe category.
Closest to Port: Try the Sheraton Old San Juan (100 Brumbaugh St, 800-468-2818), which is the most convenient to the main cruise ship terminal and has a bustling casino. Note: This hotel was formerly a Wyndham.
The Funky, Chic, Quirky Hotel: The Gallery Inn (204 Calle Norzagaray, 787-722-1808), facing the Atlantic, is a hodgepodge of historic houses, all decorated in the ultimate funky style by its owner-artist. A few tips: there are lots of uneven steps, rooms are small, and you have to specify if you want a window. (Hey, we told you it was quirky.)
The Cheap but Cheerful Hotel: Hotel Milano (307 Fortaleza, 877-729-9050) is a wonderful addition to the scene; more like an Italian pensione, its rooms are clean, basic and inexpensive.
Most Luxurious for a Pre-Cruise Splurge: Located on the island's west coast, the Horned Dorset Primavera is a superb choice if you have a few days to spare pre- or post-cruise. Rent a car, and drive to Rincon (about two hours); the sprawling inn (800-633-1857) is the island's premier small hotel and is part of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux network.
Staying in Touch
The Crew Station (formerly known as Soapy's Internet Station) is on the waterfront, across from Dock 2. It has some funky hours (Monday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Tuesday 1 p.m. to 8 p.m., Wednesday 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.).
For More Information
Visit the Puerto Rico Tourist Board (www.gotopuertorico.com)
Cruise Critic Message Boards: San Juan, Puerto Rico (boards.cruisecritic.com)
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: Puerto Rico (boards.independenttraveler.com)
--Updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief