Do you have a favorite vacation spot?
Not just a favorite city or favorite theme park. I mean a favorite SPOT.
A spot so familiar and enticing you see it in your mind right now in every detail down to the specific palm tree you like to lounge under. You can visualize the hotel logo emblazoned on the plastic cup as the icy piña colada inside crowned by a freshly cut pineapple wedge cools your sun kissed hand. Ahhhh…
It’s All about the Anticipation
Daydreaming during your workday while the cold winds whip outside your office window is one of the primary attractions of returning regularly to a tried and true favorite vacation spot.
Sure, I like to explore new places and spend months mapping out in advance a detailed adventure of everything I am going to see in 15 minute increments.
I mean, that can be fun too.
But even a Type A planner like me can appreciate a vacation that requires no itinerary.
The venerable Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico is that comfortable, daydream inducing familiar spot for me.
My wife and I recently returned from our sixth and longest ever stay at the 71 year old resort, fresh off of a $100 million renovation.
I’m happy to report that except for a few new annoyances, the “Gem of the Caribbean” is better than ever.
When it opened in 1949 it was the first Hilton property located outside the continental United States and became an instant hit with travelers and celebrities alike.
Location, Location, Location
It was built on a 17 acre peninsula surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Condado Lagoon on the other with a balcony and water view from every room.
Of course it has undergone several major expansions over the past seven decades as well as survived some devastating recent calamities, including a direct hit by a Category 5 hurricane in 2017 when Hurricane Maria shut down the resort — and everything in the island territory — for months.
Eventually the Hilton reopened to aid workers who came to Puerto Rico to help the devastated island, before slowly welcoming tourists back in late 2018.
Then, mysteriously, Hilton shuttered the resort again and announced a thorough $100 million renovation.
Rumors persisted on-line that the hotel had become infested with bedbugs some time after the hurricane blew through.
Whether there is any truth to those rumors or not, it doesn’t matter now, because all the old guest rooms were gutted from top to bottom with all new furnishings, fixtures and carpet.
With all the natural and manmade disasters befalling Puerto Rico, which I wrote about here, it had been five long years since our prior visit.
I’m happy to say the Hilton has retained everything we loved about it during our first five visits, including our oceanfront balcony, friendly competent service and one of the best resort beaches in the Caribbean.
A Beach Bum’s Paradise
This is a beach lover’s resort.
Sure, the Caribe Hilton has an obligatory “infinity pool” with all the resort amenities you would expect, but I’ve never so much as dipped my toe in it.
As that great poet Jimmy Buffet once sang, “I don’t want to swim in a roped off sea. . . I’ve got to be where the wind and the water are free.”
You’ll find me and Jimmy down on the beach.
A crescent of sand stretching for hundreds of yards encapsulates a cove sheltered from the harsh waves of the open Atlantic Ocean by a rocky breakwater.
No matter how full the resort is, you’ll have plenty of room to swim, snorkel or float in the tropical salty ocean free of worries of either sharks or rogue breakers.
The resort has enough beach chairs, towels and umbrellas for everyone. I usually tip the beach attendant a five dollar bill each morning to set me up in my favorite spot at the end of the beach.
After the first few days, my favorite beach attendant had everything set up for me before I even came down the elevator in the morning.
Now that’s service!
Copper, Copper, Crime Stopper
The only disappointment about the renovated Caribe Hilton was a new policy to search every guest’s bags before entering the pool or beach area.
Each and every guest is treated like a common criminal by a rent-a-cop sporting a sheriff’s hat and armed with a plastic badge, walkie-talkie and a stick which gets shoved down into every purse and beach bag in search of unspecified contraband.
Oh, and Sherriff Hilton requires you to wear a wristband, supposedly to differentiate the paying customers from the local riff-raff.
It seemed like an intrusive solution in search of a non-existent problem.
It’s not like this is an all-inclusive resort. Whether you are a guest or not, you are paying the same eleven bucks for your piña colada at the pool bar.
And you’ll have to go get it yourself.
For whatever reason, the Hilton does not have a team of cabana boys delivering drinks to your lounge chair.
TSA-esque security officers? Yes.
Cabana boys? No.
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing . . .
. . . because the Caribe Hilton piña coladas can be addictive — even for a strictly beer-only guy like me.
After all, the Caribe Hilton is where the piña colada was invented.
Time Flies when You are Having Rum
Seriously. There is an official proclamation from the Governor of Puerto Rico hanging in the hotel lobby in case there are any skeptics.
As the story goes, just five years after the hotel opened, Ramón “Monchito” Marrero, who would go on to tend bar in the lobby for 35 years, set out to concoct the perfect tropical drink for guests who wanted a quintessential taste of Puerto Rico.
He mixed heavy cream, freshly pressed pineapple juice, cream of coconut with Puerto Rican rum in a blender with chopped ice.
The rest is history, aided by songs you can’t get out of your head by Garth Brooks and Rupert Holmes.
“If you like Piña coladas, and getting caught in the rain . . .”
Sorry about that.
Other than the famous $11 piña coladas and an occasional $6 ham and cheese panini from the lobby Starbucks, we’ve never eaten at any of the hotel restaurants. I’ve travelled enough to know that dining at the resort is never the best option for your taste buds or credit card bill.
Go to Town
Plus, one of the best-selling points of the Caribe Hilton is its location, just a $5 Uber ride from the restaurants, bars and blue cobblestone streets of Old San Juan. And it’s just a short walk across the bridge to lots of great oceanfront dining options in Condado.
Dining at San Juan’s fabulous restaurants is one of the highlights of the vacation. And with so many old favorites, who has time for an overpriced fish sandwich in the hotel lobby?
Those old favorites are what help to settle that timeless travel debate: Tried and true? Or new adventure?
It’s the memories of those old favorites that will have me daydreaming again next winter, whether they were the lobster risotto at Marmalade, the tropical breeze blowing through the palm tree at my personal spot on the beach or the melancholy slurp of my straw sucking up the last bit of frozen rum in a plastic Hilton cup.
Who needs adventure when you’ve got that to look forward to?