Passing through the entrance hall of El Convento Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, one traverses to an alternate dimension, another historical period, to an enchanted place; the humidity of a Caribbean island wrapped in a softly scented aroma of sea and morning mist.
The first stone of a two-story building was laid down in 1651, it became El Convento or “The Nunnery” of the Carmelitas Sisters Congregation for some three and a half centuries. While vacated for fifty years and escaping demolition in the early 1900’s, the structure, mystique and charm of El Convento survived conversion in the 1950’s to a Hotel and was opened in 1962. The savior of El Convento was Mr. Robert Frederick Woolworth, heir to the famous Woolworth department stores. With help of Mr. Jose Alegría, together they crafted, rather than transposed, the old nunnery into an innovative, concept hotel design with furniture and decoration inspired by the XVIII century.
I wonder how many secrets are contained inside the walls of this hotel; how many stories, tears, prayers, hopes, admonishments, regrets, music, and as of now, laughs and joy. From the moment you cross the threshold, a spell has been cast; a glance at the floors convince that you are part of an unfinished chess game, the contrasting floors and ceilings, orange and purple, the antique paintings and furniture draw you into a style two centuries in the past. The service is excellent. The best service that you or I can receive anywhere and that I have received in Puerto Rico. An expression of welcome and greeting is pervasive, a “Good Morning” or “Good Afternoon” will emanate from every member of staff; from the maintenance guy painting the walls to the server in the Restaurant or Bar through to the manager on duty at reception. Whatever, time of day, weather, rain or shine; you will not be ignored. After a hard day of travel, negotiating airport security and then squeezed into a metal tube with people you only share a destination with; what more, could make your day than the colorful and picturesque streets of Old San Juan topped with the sincere smiles and greetings that will receive you when you enter El Convento.
For comparison, Old San Juan is El Casco Viejo of Panama, Cartagena of Colombia and for continental Europe, the many small towns on its the coast; San Juan breathes a coastal culture and is steeped in history.
But it is not only the history and ghost stories that validate how special is this hotel, El Convento is member of Historic Hotels of America and affiliated to Small Luxury Hotels.
It is not only a place to explore and read history in its walls, it also offer the following restaurants: “Patio del Nispero” and “El Picoteo”. The latter is my all time favorite, in part due to the Spanish Tapas Selection, the sangria, their attentive servers, and the ambience, which I would describe as “casually romantic”.
El Patio del Nispero is located in the hotel’s atrium, within the internal garden space, nestled around a Nispero tree. Its namesake provides both inspiration and ambiance for the restaurant with some of their entrees and cocktails using Medlar fruit as a base and the fruit attracting bats which can be seen buzzing through the tight spaces. However these creature stay well away from the diners.
Instead of Nuns, you will see a bride walking around. It is one of the preferred spots for wedding receptions. The activities in any or all of the banquet rooms in the first floor: Jose Campeche, Antonio Martorell and Francisco Oller. These are the names of famous and distinguished Puerto Rican artists. The Antonio Martorell room was actually decorated by the artist and whose pieces we can long appreciate adorn its walls; this room is part of the first original building and it is the most popular of the three rooms.
The bedrooms are located in the three top floors and they are beautifully decorated taking you back to the Spanish colonial times without sacrificing modern features like WIFI, cable, blower, air conditioner, and exclusive toiletries. There are towel services during the morning and again in the afternoon and you will not miss the nightly chocolate posited on your pillow with beautiful messages or notes for the guest; messages that enhance the romantic atmosphere at night.
Walking from your room and through the halls takes you on a trip of charm and mystique. The orange and brown floors contrast well with the yellow arches of the ceilings and the brown wood beams. Where are the ghosts? They are everywhere according to legends who is actually a common conversation topic with the staff. There are small tables and chairs on each floor just outside the bedrooms adding charm to the relaxed atmosphere. Drinks can be ordered for you to enjoy and a little of private conversation at one of these tables or perhaps for you to lie in wait for a ghostly apparition.
Every day, at the end of the afternoon, on the third level, the hotel offers a “happy hour” for their guests. This is not the same “happy hour” or “wine tasting” that is experienced at other hotels in United States; this is customer service par excellence. The variety of wines (around six) are of very good quality, plus there are crackers and Spanish cheeses that you can taste while relaxing on the veranda or resting in the area around the small pool while absorbing a view and sounds of Old San Juan.
And, in the morning, you can also have your early Puerto Rican coffee; real coffee, a drink to satiate and savor not “American” coffee.
It is an impressive boutique hotel. Now, I do not want to stay anywhere else when I go back to Puerto Rico. I hope that their level of service does not change whoever is their guest; foreign or domestic. Those of us that live abroad, enjoy and appreciate going back to a place that makes us feel more than welcome and “at home” while taking us to another era any time we want.
If you want to experience a charming and eye opening getaway, please visit htpp://el convent.com or call 1-787-723-9020 in the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico.