San Juan, Puerto Rico: Where a pina colada trumps tea

Toronto Star April 18: “We are not a tea culture,” says the waiter at Café Puerto Rico, explaining why there is no English Breakfast on the menu. Indeed, it’s a little over a kilometre and four centuries away that the Spanish sent the English packing, firing a cannonball through Sir Francis Drake’s cabin.

So, you can’t get a cuppa everywhere in Puerto Rico, but you can have a Pina Colada in the bar where they were invented in 1954. Then wander over blue-tinted cobblestones streets to San Juan Cathedral, the second oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere. The cobblestones are made of iron scrap and ore the Spanish used as ballast to fill their ships on the way to the island Christopher Columbus renamed Puerto Rico—rich port. On the way back to Spain, the ships were full of sugar cane, molasses and coffee.

The Spanish built forts and a wall around San Juan to keep out other Europeans, and pirates. But the port is very welcoming now: 10 or so cruise ships arrive every week unloading as many as 17,800 passengers a day eager to spend an afternoon soaking up the city’s history.

Other tourists stay longer. Those in the know check into the El Convento kitty corner to the cathedral. The hotel—in a convent built in 1651—has heavy wooden doors, high ceilings and unquantifiable charm.

The oldest remaining building on the island is Casa Blanca, built in 1521 for governor Juan Ponce de León who arrived with Columbus in 1493. You can enjoy a stroll through its rooms and quiet gardens, but the governor never did. He sailed to Florida a few times, naming it on his first visit and getting hit with a poisoned arrow on his last. The guv made it as far as Cuba where he died.

Locals fly kites and tourists take pictures on the big green field behind Fort San Felipe del Morro where the Spanish fired  at Drake and his fleet 1595. Squeezed in below the fort and the Atlantic Ocean, a cemetery dating back to 1863 contains actors and musicians, prominent families and politicians who fought for independence from Spain.

But most tourists miss all that. They stay up on the green looking down into cemetery unaware that a graffiti-filled tunnel leads you to a quiet walk among the weeping angels and stories of the dead.

Puerto Rico is the “anti-all inclusive,” a tourist official says. People who visit want more than its beautiful beaches. They want history, ziplining in the mountains or kayaking in the mangroves. Germans like adventure. Canadians like paddle boarding in the lagoon in San Juan in the morning and going on a coffee tour in the afternoon.

And Americans—by far the biggest group of visitors—like that they don’t need a passport. Puerto Rico came under U.S. control in 1898, when Spain gave up fighting for its last two New World colonies, Puerto Rico and Cuba. The islands are “the two wings of a bird,” wrote a Puerto Rican poet and independence activist in the late 1880s.

“We have different histories. But were tied together,” a lunch companion tells me, showing a picture on her phone of the islands’ flags—the same design with opposite colours. They began flying a few years before the U.S. defeated Spain. “We’re part of the U.S. but we don’t think in English,” she says. “We think in Spanish. We dream in Spanish.”

When the Spaniards arrived they built churches. The Americans built hotels. In 1919, Frederick William Vanderbilt built San Juan’s first luxury hotel complete with a bowling alley, open air ballroom and majestic back marble staircase. The Condado Vanderbilt has just reopened after a massive renovation. The bowling alley is long gone (replaced with a martini bar) but the marble staircase still welcomes men in linen suits and expensive sun glasses.

More hotels followed. In 1964, Hilton opened the Condada, part of the tourism boom on Puerto Rico after the Cuban revolution. The hotel is much bigger now, with a casino and a waterslide built into a replica City Wall.

Big American hotels could soon be going back to Cuba. Puerto Ricans are happy to see an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba, but tourism officials admit it could be a “challenge” if Americans start flocking to the island just off Florida. They hope not needing a passport in Puerto Rico will trump the proximity of Cuba.

Meanwhile, the saints standing atop the San Juan Cathedral look out over the steep, narrow streets, watching to see what the next wave of geopolitics might bring ashore to Puerto Rico.

Just the facts:

The culinary scene in Puerto Rico is impressive. Here are a few suggestions:

Budatai:  This Latin Asian fusion restaurant is outstanding.  Everything we tried was remarkable, in particular the pork dumplings and noodles with scallops.

Pikayo: Another really good restaurant that served me a row of perfect scallops and a little pot of chocolate soufflé for dessert.

Café Puerto Rico: Simple and authentic Puerto Rican food. Try Mofongo, plaintains mashed into a bowl with your choice of filling—carne, shrimp, fish,—and either a creole or spicy garlic sauce.  No tea but plenty of mayo-ketchup for dipping the appetizers.

Pasión por el Fogón: For more Mofango and other delicious meals prepared: “the way our grandmother’s used to cook in Puerto Rico.” Worth the drive to Fajardo.

Barrachina: Drop by for one of the thousand Pina Coladas served every day. Ask the bartender to tell you the story about how Ramon “Monchito” Marrero invented the rum, coconut cream and pineapple cocktail and went on to work at the Hilton, causing a decades-long dispute over which bar can lay claim to the drink (they both do).

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