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PUERTO RICO HERALD
A Beach Break that Wont Bust the Bank
By Natalia de Cuba Romero
April 18, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
There are those for whom the big names are a comfort on the road. When youre far from home, its nice to be relatively sure of the place youll be sleeping. With the international hotel chains like Ritz-Carlton, Marriott and Wyndham, youre bound to have clean, comfortable rooms, a few decent restaurants on property and a phalanx of staff on call for most any need.
San Juan is chock-a-block with just such hotels. But when you want something a little less predictable, less pricey and a lot more personal, youll want to stay at one of the many guesthouses in my favourite neighborhood Ocean Park.
For half to a third of what youd spend on a big hotel where you spend as much time waiting for the elevator as you do on the beach, you can get an equally clean and comfortable room, with the added plus that the sand is just steps away and you have a lot less competition for the staffs attention.
Ocean Park is a beachfront residential controlled access neighbourhood sandwiched between the high-rise hotels of Condado to the west and the hi-rise hotels of Isla Verde to the east. Which means that the one-mile strand of golden beach youre on is just as good as the ones that someone less clever is paying more than $300a night for.
It also means that you are in the middle of the city. Dont let the shady tree-lined streets and Mediterranean Revival mansion-houses fool you. This is not a distant suburb. In Ocean Park you are ten minutes from the airport, from the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, from Old San Juan, the casinos and virtually anywhere else in the metro area that youd like to go.
Not that you ever have to leave. This ten-block neighbourhood spilling over with bougainvillea and flamboyant trees boasts memorable restaurants, an excellent panadería (bakery), a pub-restaurant, a sandwich shop, laundromat and a convenience store.
You can buy bathing suits and surf gear there is often decent surf on the east end and boogey boarding is very popular. Ocean Parks dependable breeze makes it a hotspot for board sports. VelaUno (787-728-8716; velauno.com), the premier board sports purveyors on the island, sets up kite boards right on the beach with top instructors on hand to get you airborne in no time. Or call and theyll deliver rental windsurfers to your guesthouse.
This neighborhood, built in the 1940s, has always drawn creative people. Chefs, playwrights, television stars, artists and even former Miss Universe Marisol Malaret have called Ocean Park home. In addition, many homes have been converted to apartments, so there are plenty of young and funky folks adding to the atmosphere. It is the favourite beach of the gay community for its live-an-let-live mellowness that throws folks from every walk of life into happy harmony.
I lived in Ocean Park for five years in the 1990s and I usually stay there when Im in the San Juan area. I stay at my godparents house, but if youre not lucky enough to have family there, there are several guesthouses I can recommend highly. Room rates start at $55 in the summer and $75 in winter and rarely reach $200.
Número Uno (787-726-5010) and Hostería del Mar (787-727-3302/800-742-4276), with 12 and 17 beachfront units respectively, are the most well known. They have both been renovated recently. White walls accented with neutral textures make them tranquil places to be. And both restaurants are excellent. Under CIA graduate Chef Esteban Torres, Número Unos Pamelas the kitchen turns out creative Caribbean cuisine, beautifully presented. Reserve a romantic table in the sand. Hosterías restaurant is an airy wooden structure that overlooks the beach. It has always emphasized health with vegetarian and ayurvedic selections, but now Chef Zelma Parra, formerly of Patria, has added more zip and flourish. These are high-end restaurants with entrees in the $25 range. Next door to Número Uno is the laid-back and simple LHabitation. It caters to a mostly gay male clientele and its popular beach bar serves burgers. Tu Casa (787-727-5100), the newest guesthouse, is also the fanciest, with Caribbean beach cottage style rooms and a pool. I havent tried the restaurant yet, but word on the street is positive. At Wind Chimes Inn (787-727-4153) is not really in Ocean Park its on McCleary Street heading towards Condado -- but is worth mentioning because the converted 1920s Spanish-style villa has 20 lovely rooms.
For breakfast, head for Kasalta (787-727-7340) on McLeary, just outside the Ocean Park gates. The seen-and-be-seen factor is as much a draw as the crisp Spanish bread, monster Cuban or chorizo sandwiches, and one of San Juans best cups of coffee. Im a huge fan of the savoury pastries ask for the pastelillo de broccoli. Around the corner, Pinkys sandwich stand (787-727-3347) serves iced coffees, shakes, soups and salads too. They deliver to the beach!
So if you were putting off a trip to San Juan because of the cost, try Ocean Park. At these prices, you can stay twice as long or visit twice as often.
Natalia de Cuba Romero is a freelance travel, food and arts writer. Her column, "Sights, Sounds & Tastes of Puerto Rico", appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald. She can be reached at NataliaHerald@centennialpr.net.