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PUERTO RICO HERALD
Making The Most Of Schizophrenia
By Natalia de Cuba Romero
May 23, 2003
Okay, so Puerto Rico can be a schizophrenic sort of place. Not exactly Latin America, but not quite the United States, it's not surprising that getting a handle on our identity is challenging at best and psychotic at worst.
However, there are days when that split personality can be stimulating, exciting and totally fun. Like the days I had recently at one of the island's wildest natural resources and one of its wildest hotels.
It had been some time since I'd visited the Caribbean National Forest -- El Yunque -- just 45 minutes (or less if you drive like a native) outside the San Juan metropolitan area. I take that back. These days, the San Juan metro area has sprawled so extensively it practically nibbles at El Yunque's toes. So let's say 45 minutes from Luis Munoz Marin International Airport.
Still on my island tour with the inimitable and inexhaustible Kate, on holiday from Prague, El Yunque was a critical item on her must-do list. However, before attacking 28,000 acres of rain forest armed only with walking shoes and a bottle of water, I felt strongly that one should enjoy a sensational dinner and a good night's sleep in fine style.
So the night before our excursion, we checked into The Water Club (888-265-6699/787-728-3666; www.waterclubsanjuan.com) in Isla Verde.
The Water Club is one of my favourite hotels anywhere. I'm not alone. There's not a major travel magazine in the world that has not sung its praises in the two years since it opened.
It has all the basics: beachfront location, floor to ceiling ocean views from all 84 rooms, convenience to the airport and all the urban pleasures of San Juan. But the Water Club is not your ordinary beachfront hotel.
As cool as anything you'll find in New York or Miami, just looking at the blue glow from the windows of its stark, white self as you drive up in the evening tells you you're in for something different. The first time I walked into the minimalist chic of the lobby. I asked co-owner David Kurland -- himself a movie-star chic sort of guy -- whether I was cool enough to be there. He said yes, but I went up to my room to change into something more hip anyway. After all, people like Derek Jeter, Marc Anthony and Dayanara and Giorgio Armani are among the many celebrities who have stayed there.
But The Water Club -- despite the undulating leather banquettes, the soft groove music, the faux pebble flooring, the fashion conscious and ever-so-good-looking staff, the glacial blue lighting, the modern takes on fountains that splash down the walls and elevators -- despite being the most hyper-hip place in town, is anything but off-putting. The service is warm, the decor is actually user-friendly and the rooms, with fluffy pillows and duvets and crisp light robes are fun and cozy.
I'd hung out in the bars -- Liquid on the lobby level and Wet, the rooftop lounge, that are popular hang outs for the smart set these days -- but I'd never eaten in the restaurant, Tangerine. What the hell was I waiting for? Chef Cesar Fernandez' menu is a series of Euro-Asian aphrodisiacal selections that weave together a sensual tapestry. The sea bass on a bed of sea urchin risotto instantly made my Top Five Dishes Ever list, right next to my dad's bouillabaise. It's no wonder that Chef Cesar has been invited to cook at New York's prestigious James Beard House in September. Hint: we dined out on the terrace, but I'll definitely eat indoors next time.
The open-air was lovely, but the white dining room with tangerine accents has a great deal more chi-chi foodie atmosphere. Followed up by a nightcap in the grooving atmosphere of Wet with the lights of Isla Verde sparkling below, it was a perfect evening.
Thus fueled by urbane urban pleasures, the next morning we donned adventure gear and headed for El Yunque. These are the contrasts that make Puerto Rico so captivating. Within an hour of leaving a world class boutique hotel, we were slogging through mud in the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest system.
Perhaps we don't have the wildlife or size of Central American rain forests, but we also don't have to drive thousands of miles from civilization or get vaccinations or even have to wear hiking boots to plunge into primeval forest. And we do have the Puerto Rican parrot -- one of the ten most endangered birds in the world -- and the singing of tree frogs to accompany us on our treks.
The Las Minas and Big Tree trails are the easiest and very visually rewarding -- they end in a dramatic waterfall pool you can swim in. But the walk I love starts with the Mount Britton trail going to Los Picachos and Roque El Yunque, among the highest points in the forest with sweeping vistas. The recent rains have left the trails pretty messy and for this trail you should have sturdy shoes, but a reasonably fit person should have no trouble. We spent a gorgeous and vigourous three hours in the company of ferns, tabonuco trees, bromeliads and more, taking pictures and worrying about the encroachment of development on the forest, which you can see very clearly, even as you're admiring the remarkable panoramas. After all, El Yunque is one of the vital organs of the island's natural health and also supplies drinking water to about one-fourth of the population.
And then, this being Puerto Rico, we hopped back in the car and in no time we were lounging like starlets at the rooftop pool of an utterly luxe hotel. Schizophrenic, perhaps, but what could be better than that?
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.