As a brief spritz of rain passes over Castillo San Cristobal in historic Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, our group takes shelter under a stone portico. Completed by the Spanish in 1783, the massive seaside fort is a prime example of the rich history and architecture found on the U.S. territory, and an excellent place to catch beautiful views of the sunset over the Atlantic Ocean. It’s also a hint of how much the Caribbean island has to offer, something Milton Segarra, president and CEO of Meet Puerto Rico, hopes to reinforce with planners.
“We’re making a shift in our positioning of Puerto Rico,” Segarra said over dinner to a group of meetings journalists, under that same portico (the fort has held events for up to 300). “Every place has a convention center, hotels and beaches, so we’re putting our efforts into highlighting that memorable experience for each group.”
Maybe most memorable of all is the passion and infectiousness of our Puerto Rican hosts, whose clear pride in their small tropical paradise is on view during our visit to the city’s culturally vibrant Santurce district. The buzz of Friday happy hour is just beginning at La Placita (“the little plaza”), a several-block area surrounding an historic market. After rum drinks at an open-air bar led by our culinary guide from Spoon Food Tours, we saunter to the plaza where a band playing traditional Plena music has appeared. Another block and we arrive at Jose Enrique restaurant, one of the island’s hottest, for a dinner of exquisite Puerto Rican fare: savory longanisa sausage, succulent dorado on a bed of malanga (a taro type root) and tart tamarind sorbet.
An hour’s drive outside of San Juan, our group arrives at El Yunque National Forest. The only tropical rainforest in the U.S. federal park system, it’s located in the La Cordillera Central mountain range that runs the length of Puerto Rico. We hike through dense forest and hear fascinating insights from our guide on the colorful orchids, unusual tropical plants and trees, and chirping coqui frogs and other fauna.
At the stately 416-room Ritz-Carlton San Juan, much of the 24,000 sf of meeting space has ocean and pool views, including a ballroom-adjacent veranda for up to 740—ideal for post-meeting receptions. The lounge and other interior spaces use tropical colors and plants for an open and airy plantation feel. In the lively Condado district, the 483-room La Concha Renaissance has retained much of its retro cool tropical modernism from the original 1958 construction, while adding sleek modern designs to its ocean-facing rooms and lobby lounge—a hip, expansive gathering area with a lounge club vibe.
Several properties over, the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel is set to retake its place as the grand dame of San Juan hotels. We’re greeted by the original spiral staircases, terrazzo floors and elaborate railings and other details. First opened in 1919 by a scion of the Vanderbilt family, the 320-room property reopens in December 2014 after a major renovation and the addition of two new towers, restoring its glory from the days when Hollywood starlets graced the halls.
An hour’s drive from San Juan, the sprawling 984-room El Conquistador Resort (a Waldorf Astoria property), including one-, two- and three-bedroom villas, will keep groups well entertained. Most impressive for me is its private Palomino Island a ferry ride away, which has hosted groups up to 1,500 for private events, fireworks included.-John Anderson