Saturday, December 14, 2013

Isla Del Encanto

Winter arrived with a vengeance in Wisconsin last week. There was snow, ice, huge car accidents, and sub-zero wind chills, but lucky for me, I was 2000 miles away in San Juan, Puerto Rico - the aptly nicknamed 'Island of Enchantment'!

We started our trip with an overnight stay near O'Hare International since our flight to San Juan left at 9am, and neither of us wanted to crawl out of bed at Stupid O'Clock just to sit in Chicago rush hour traffic! I spent the 5 1/2 hour flight reading (completely fluffy trash) and the next thing I knew, we were landing. We gathered our luggage, hopped in a cab, and headed for our hotel, La Concha Renaissance in the trendy Condado neighborhood of San Juan.  Check-in was a breeze and we were quickly escorted to our room - and oh what a room it was.  We had reserved an oceanfront room, but the definition of "oceanfront" seems to vary from place to place.  In some cases, it means that if you stand on your tiptoes and crane your neck at just the right angle, you might be able to catch a glimpse of the ocean. This was definitely not one of those cases.
The solid wall of windows provided breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean and Condado beach.  Even better, the windows actually opened so we were able to listen to the waves crashing on the beach as the sea breeze drifted in.
Mr. R&R and I were both starving by the time we got to the hotel, so we opted to check out the pool area and order some snacks and drinks from one of the hotel's restaurants, Solera.  Normally I avoid hotel restaurants/bars like the plague (watered down drinks, frozen food, really expensive), but I was pleasantly surprised by Solera.  The sangria packed quite the punch and the appetizers (local root chips with guacamole and a flatbread pizza) were really good - especially when combined with the house hot sauce! While we were eating, The Groom happened to wander by, along with his sister, so they joined us for a round of drinks.

It was nice catching up with The Groom, who moved to San Francisco back in May, and meeting his sister who turned out to be absolutely awesome.  The brother/sister pair were only able to stick around for one drink since they had all kinds of pre-wedding running around to do, but Mr. R&R and I hung around the pool for another drink and marveled at how flawless the weather was and how happy we were to be there!

After a long day of traveling, naps and showers were much needed, so we headed back to our room for a bit before heading out for the evening. When we were finally ready to venture out, we took our friendly bellman's suggestion and walked down to Casa Lola for dinner.  Casa Lola is the latest offering from Chef Roberto TreviƱo - who you might recognize from tv shows like Iron Chef America (he battled Mario Batali) and The Next Iron Chef.  The restaurant specializes in a fusion of traditional Puerto Rican and Criollo (Caribbean) flavors and they do it well!  We started off with cocktails and ceviche which were both incredible!  The sangria (which has won awards) actually had a slightly cinnamon-y flavor which I promptly dubbed "Christmas in a Glass" and the ceviche was possibly the best ceviche I've ever had.
Our main courses were up next, and Mr. R&R's paella stole the show. The dish featured lots of local seafood as well as spicy chorizo, and a huge piece of churriasco in the center.  I may have speared a few bites when he wasn't looking - and a few more when he was!
Thoroughly stuffed, we made our way back to the hotel and stepped into the elevator only to find that the car was already occupied by a drop dead gorgeous woman and two burly looking private security guards.  Our ride passed without incident and we drifted back to our room wondering who the woman was.  By mid-day on Friday, we had our answer.  It turns out that the movie 22 Jump Street was being filmed down the beach from our hotel and everyone was buzzing that the star of the movie, Channing Tatum, and his wife were staying in our hotel.  Mr. R&R pulled up a picture from the previous days's paparazzi shots and we had our answer - our elevator companions weren't Mrs. Tatum and her two security guards.  They were Mrs. Tatum, a private security guard, and Channing Tatum himself!  Yep...I'm so out of touch with pop culture that I was standing right next to Channing Tatum and I had no idea.  By the end of the week I actually felt sorry for both of them since they couldn't even eat lunch by the pool without other hotel guests angling to get a picture.  I'm happy to say that I was not among the amateur paparazzi.

On Friday afternoon, we parked ourselves on a couple of lounge chairs in the shade near the hotel's beachfront 'Serenity Pool' to do a little reading and relaxing before the wedding festivities got underway.  We'd been there for about half an hour when The Groom and his sister came by and invited us to join them for beers on the beach.  Of course we immediately abandoned our post in the shade and headed for the beach where we were handed bottles of local beer and introduced to another couple (the guy used to work with the groom and his wife grew up in the Milwaukee area) from Colorado.

The six of us hung out on the beach, drinking beer and playing in the ocean waves until the groom and his sister had to go, and the rest of us were getting a little crispy from the intense sun.  Mr. R&R and I grabbed a little lunch at a restaurant that served what the Groom proclaimed was 'the best pizza in Puerto Rico'.  I'm pretty sure that there was some truth to that claim, because that was some damn tasty pie!

Friday evening brought a lovely cocktail reception for the bridal party, their families, and all the out of town guests at Oceano, a very trendy nightclub located right on Condado Beach.
We staked out some real estate on one of upper decks, along with a group of people Mr. R&R knows from work and the couple (S & L) from Colorado, sipping mojitos and nibbling on canapes.  At one point, The Groom's sister (KC) came by and told us that the lobby of our hotel was one of the hottest local hangouts on weekends and since the cocktail party was winding down, we moved the party back to our hotel.  

We all hung out drinking more local beers as recommended by KC.  Of course we were out far too late, but it was definitely a good time!
Alcohol...the great social lubricant
Saturday brought the wedding...the whole reason for this trip.  After a lot of swearing, a ton of bobby pins, an obscene amount of hairspray, and some patient mirror-holding by Mr. R&R, I managed to tame my hair into a somewhat respectable updo and shimmied into my dress.  I must say, we got quite a few looks from other hotel patrons while we perched at the lobby bar enjoying a drink while we waited for S&L (we shared a cab to the wedding).

 The wedding was held at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico and I think it was easily the nicest wedding I've ever been to.  Prior to the ceremony there were butler passed sangrias and appetizers and much time was spent people watching and enjoying the mariachis.

Just as the sun was sinking low in the sky, it was time.  The bride looked like something straight out of an old Hollywood movie, and although the entire ceremony was in Spanish (so I didn't understand a word of it), it was beautiful.
 After the ceremony, the newlyweds ascended the museum stairs for a champagne toast (again all in Spanish). and then it was time to party!
There was champagne, music, champagne, dancing, more champagne, and good times with friends - both old and new.
Seriously... I married James Bond's better looking brother!
The festivities wound down around 1:30am and while we were waiting for our cab to arrive, S, L, Mr. R&R and I all realized we were starving - and maybe a little tipsy.  The four of us made our way to a little open air sports bar near our hotel that seemed to specialize in all things 'drunk food'.  We must have been quite the sight - two guys in tuxedos and two women in evening gowns - drinking bottles of Medalla and scarfing down burgers and chicken wings at 2am!  It was definitely amusing to all of us.

Mr. R&R and I didn't make it back to our room until 3am on Sunday, thus we were a little slow to get moving.  When we finally made it out the door, we were both in need of coffee and brunch, so we wandered over to a little place across the street called Cafe del Angel. From noon on, Cafe del Angel specializes in authentic Puerto Rican cuisine, but during brunch hours they serve everything from the traditional bacon/eggs/pancakes to sandwiches. I ordered the Cuban sandwich and it was the best damn Cuban I've ever had and the accompanying cup of Puerto Rican style coffee cleared my head right up!
The rest of the day was spent staring at the ocean from Plaza Ventana al Mar, sipping sangria by the pool, and playing in the crashing ocean waves. 
Plaza Ventana al Mar - Window to the Sea
Playing in the ocean was by far our favorite thing to do.  There were high surf warnings and the beach was red flagged (meaning: stay out of the water), but the locals were out boogie boarding and plenty of people were venturing out into the water, letting the waves push them back toward the shore.

The water was so warm and I was having so much fun swimming with the waves that usual fear of open water was non-existent.  I knew full well that that water was full of seaweed and an assortment of sea creatures and I just didn't care. I'm starting to think an ocean triathlon would be fun - except that swallowing sea water really hurts my throat!
Main Pool Area
Dinner that night came from Orozco's - another restaurant specializing in traditional Puerto Rican fare and highly recommended by KC.  It was another memorable meal.  One of my co-workers grew up in Puerto Rico and she pretty much ordered me to try her favorite food while I was there, so we started out with alcapurrias for an appetizer. These little fritters are made of mashed yuca root and green plantains wrapped around pernil and fried and they're good!

Mr. R&R ordered the Puerto Rican Combination and I went for the Seafood Mofongo.  After sampling each other's meals, mine was the clear winner this time, but I was still a little jealous that he got to try so many things in one sitting.
Roast Pork, Arroz con Gandules, Fried Sweet Plantains, and Pastel
Mofongo al Mariscos
We were also convinced to sample the tres leches cake for dessert along with another cup of delicious Puerto Rican coffee.
We spent the rest of the evening hanging out with S, L, and KC in the hotel lobby and doing a little more celebrity spotting - Ice Cube was also staying there!

Monday was our final day in this beautiful island paradise and we decided to take a cab into Old San Juan and check out the two historic forts that cling to the coastline.  First up was Castillo San Cristobal.  This 17th Century fort was built by the Spanish and was used again by the US Army during World War II.

 Old structures always fascinate me.  It's amazing to see what people were capable of building without the aid of modern technology.  I was particularly interested in the fort's water system.  The fort was build in such a way that rain water was collected and channeled into huge cisterns beneath the foundation to provide potable drinking water.  The Spanish also banned all animals from the fort to prevent contamination of the water supply.  They were definitely ahead of their time.

I think my favorite part was the Dungeon, or more specifically the art preserved on the wall.
These ships were allegedly drawn by a sea captain awaiting execution. 
On our way out, we passed by a large group of people staring over a wall, so of course we had to stop and see what they were looking at.
We took a leisurely stroll along the coast to the older of the two Spanish coastal fortifications: Castillo San Felipe del Morro.  Construction began in 1539 and the fort was used in some form of military capacity until 1961 when the US Army turned it over to the National Park Service. 

It was pretty cool to see where cannons once sat (on semi-circular tracks to make moving them easier) side by side with platforms that were built during World War II to hold anti-aircraft guns. I can definitely see why it was declared a World Heritage Site.

Once we'd had our fill of history, we took a short stroll through the streets of Old San Juan, which were mostly clogged with the sort of tourists that drive me batty, so we caught a cab back to Condado and wandered over to Casa del Angel for a late lunch.  Let me tell you...mojitos make Monday's so much better!
And lunch didn't suck either.
The rest of the afternoon was guessed it...laying by the pool and playing in the ocean.  Neither of us were hungry for a full dinner after our late lunch, so we kept it low key with a cheese plate and cocktails by the pool, followed by a walk through Plaza Ventana al Mar.  It was a great way to end a great vacation.
We had a little time to kill the next morning before we had to leave for the airport, so we hung out in our room with the window open, reading, and listening to the ocean...soaking it up before we headed back to the frozen tundra.


April said...

Wow! Everything looks amazing....and the food....oooooooooooo I would be fat, dumb, and happy after munching my way through all of that!

Mary said...

I was in a near constant state of carb coma!

Anonymous said...

You guys looked amazing! And so did all the food!