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PUERTO RICO HERALD
Picaresque, Picturesque, Plucky, Playful, Perfect Playa: Piñones
By Natalia de Cuba Romero
July 25, 2003
It was a sunny weekday in 1997 and instead of working, I and my friend Mele were on our way back from buying a couple of chairs from the Haitian vendors on Road 187 in Piñones, just east of Isla Verde and the airport.
This type of bargain-shopping triumph (I got two wooden chairs for $11 each; if Id bought the Mexican originals to complete my dining set, they wouldve been $50 each) on this type of day (playing hooky from the job) on this type of ramshackle beach road simply screams for una fría (a cold Medalla beer), and an alcapurría (deep-fried plantain fritter) at one of the many shacks have been part of Piñones beachfront landscape for decades.
In those days it was nice enough to be in Piñones during the day, eating and drinking and taking dips in the sea, but once the sun started to go down the mosquitoes got vicious and the atmosphere turned a bit more dangerous loud, with dubious characters in nebulous automobiles, reports of petty and not so petty crimes. They may have been just rumours, but with so many other places to go at night in the San Juan area, I would just as soon give Piñones a miss.
But on that afternoon, as we cracked open sweating-cold cans of Medalla with a satisfying hiss, Mele said, "I sense something new. Ill be right back." And she set off across the beach, beer in hand and Dora the Explorer eyes wide open, while I chatted to the owner of the shack from my bar stool in the shade.
She came back, unceremoniously yanked me off the stool and said, "Youve got to see this."
"This" was Soleil, a sunsplashed and sparkling bistro in bright colours, with suns and moons scattered across the walls, a cement bar window open to the sea, martini glasses, nouvelle Latino cuisine served with panache yucca mashes shaped like pears around huge prawns, delicate seafood soups a slice of West Bway incongruously plopped in the middle of palm trees, beach scrub and shabby wooden shacks populated by the ladies in rollers frying cod fritters. What in the world?
As it happens, we met the owner, Sergio López-Castillo that very day. He and then partner Rhonda had just opened Soleil a month or two previous. As a pioneer in Piñones trying a crazy concept that involved good food and lots of drink, he had our instant appreciation. As an Argentinean, he was a fellow fútbol lover, so that was enough to make us instant friends. Weve gone back again and again and again, bringing everyone we know and a few we dont -- to check it out. Weve held many a party there too!
Soleil today has evolved from a one-story, one room bar/restaurant into a two-story, outdoor dining, art gallery, entertainment complex that still keeps its barefoot in the sand feeling, still serves Nuevo latino food but in good Viejo latino immense portions. The Caribbean Cioppino with saffron, mussels, fish, calamari and shrimp is fresh and lively, there are ceviches of scallops and other bright seafood, and Angus filet mignon or fried whole snapper for a stick-to-the-costillas meal.
And all around, Piñones has evolved too. Right in front, the municipality constructed a most excellent bike path about six-miles long that hugs the undeveloped palm-shaded coast, except when it slips into the mangrove forest for an adventure in boardwalk riding amidst crabs and in the middle of the day incredible heat. Theres a cool miradero (observation tower) that gives you a great view of the coastline. You can stop along the way for cold beers and fried snacks anything with bacalao (salt cod) at La Comay, be it tostones (fried plantain disks) topped with it or fritters is outstanding. And you can also take a dip into the ocean whenever you like.
If you dont have a bicycle of your own, there are rentals at the trailhead at El Pulpo Loco (next to Soleil) for about $5 an hour or $20 a day (Id do the day rental).
Surfers have long known that Aviones, along the Piñones Road, is a consistent wave spot, but the currents can be very tricky. Do some asking around before you start paddling out.
Next time youre in San Juan, slip away from the urban experience into something a more comfortable. Todays Piñones has a rustic élan that you are going to love.
The Data: Wednesdays 7pm-10pm Eddie Wakes (such a molasses voice!) and Angel Rosario create Jazzy Soleil; Thursdays from 10pm- 1 am 70s and 80s revival with Funky, Funky Groove; Fridays 7pm 10pm Salsa Moon Experience (experimental salsa); Saturdays 10 pm 1 am blues with Blue Sky Band; and Sundays 2 pm 5 pm bomba y plena. Call Soleil for schedule changes and for free (sober) transportation from Isla Verde and Condado. You will LOVE not having to find a park in Piñones at the weekend.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.