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PUERTO RICO HERALD
What Princess Wants Princess Gets - At Hotel El Convento
(Just Don't Tell Mother Superior)
By Natalia de Cuba Romero
August 1, 2003
After a month spent living out of a tent on an ashram last April, I was well sick of early wake-up bells, communal bath facilities and my thin camp mattress. No, no, this is one princesa who was ready to get back to the luxury to which she is accustomed. So, I got off the plane at Luis Muñoz Marín and headed straight for one of my preferred palaces: Hotel El Convento in the heart of Old San Juan.
I couldn't have made a better choice.
One: it's got valet parking for guests - parking in Old San Juan can be a nightmare -- and the wonderful bellhops hop right to it, so I didn't have to touch my luggage after my grueling trip, which included a stop in (horror of all horrors) Miami International Airport.
Two: it's stark raving beautiful. Set on the corner of Calle del Cristo and Caleta de las Monjas, right across the cobbled street from one of the oldest cathedrals in the Western Hemisphere, all I had to do was walk through the stone entryway in the creamy yellow walls to be transported into Old World refinement. El Convento hasn't lasted 352 years for ugly.
And Three: As a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, the staff at El Convento is committed to excellent, discreet and friendly service - these guys and girls are pros.
Added pluses? On-site restaurants that are hip destinations in their own right, a charming pool deck overlooking the Old City, leisurely breakfast on the terrace and a friendly ghost. Why leave?
El Convento really did start out as a convent. In 1646, a widowed Spanish noblewoman petitioned King Phillip IV of Spain to establish a Carmelite convent on her prime real estate across the street from the cathedral of the tiny colonial capital. The noblewoman, Doña Ana de Lansos y Menéndez de Valdez, was forrada (upholstered) in money, she was childless and she was a doer of good deeds. At that point, there weren't many eligible bachelors around - they were all getting themselves killed in the wars of the West Indies - and the popular alternative -- marrying Christ -- could only be done in Santo Domingo, Havana or Europe, as there was no convent in Puerto Rico.
King Phillip gave Doña Ana the go-ahead, she sold everything she owned and put soldiers from the local garrison to work on her sacred project. And the soldiers did a very respectable job. Three-foot walls of sun-baked brick, mahogany and ironwood doors, windows and grilles, tiered balconies, arched corridors and marvelous red tile are among the features of the building. Our Lady Carmen of San José Convent was inaugurated in July 1651 and the first to sign in was Doña Ana herself, followed by her sister, Antonia, and four others.
For 200 years, the convent functioned as spiritual home for these daughters of God (sorry folks, all wild tales of tunnels underneath the convent leading to the priests' quarters across the street are untrue, according to Della Smith, public relations maven for the hotel). What followed were sad years for such a proud structure - retail stores, a dance hall and even a flophouse and parking garage were among its employments.
Then, in the late 1950s just as the bulldozers were about to level the whole thing, enter Ricardo Alegría from the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture!
This super-hero of documentation and preservation convinced the Woolworth family to invest gobs of money in purchasing the hotel from the Archdiocese of San Juan (what were they doing running a dance hall in a former convent, I ask), adding two floors, scouring Spain for furniture - authentic and reproductions - and making the place into a hotel that Ernest Hemingway, Rita Hayworth, Lynda Bird Johnson and Ethel Merman would frequent.
Über-cellist Pablo Casals and concert pianist Claudio Arrau played in the courtyard under the 300-year-old nispero tree. The late Raúl Juliá got his start performing cabaret at Hotel El Convento, which also had a casino. But in 1970 the Woolworths handed the hotel over to the government in lieu of back taxes and the hotel once again fell into disrepair and tackiness.
Then, in 1995 a group of San Juan business executives purchased the property and set about fixing it up right. A whopping $15 million later, the 58 luxury accommodations and elegant ambience were good to go.
El Convento has been a fixture on lists of the world's best hotels ever since, the latest being the Travel + Leisure August issue. The government uses it as an official guesthouse for its important visitors and Jesse Jackson waited out his wife Jacqueline's celebrated arrest in protest of the Navy in Vieques in the Gloria Vanderbilt suite, while Marc Anthony and Dayanara made it wedding central for their splashy church nuptials, Oscar-winner Benicio del Toro called it his favourite place in Old San Juan in a recent interview and a host of celebs slip in and out of its closely-guarded privacy.
El Convento's restaurants - Café Bohemio for Nuevo Latino and Caribbean cuisine set to sultry music; El Picoteo for tapas in a swanky outdoor atmosphere and Patio del Nispero for al fresco lunch - pack the house with locals and visitors. Chef Antonio Buendía is an inventive award-winner.
And for yoga boot camp ashram refugees like me, it's the perfect place to re-enter the real world. It's got all the soft bedding, marble bathrooms and elegance I was missing, but its convent history makes it peaceful and rejuvenating. Doña Ana's ghost is said to wander the halls in her Mother Superior habit. I have yet to see her, but I know I feel some sort of soothing presence there!
One warning: a hazard of extensive travel is that you sometimes wake up not knowing where you are. It happens to me often and normally, it's not a big deal. However, when it happened at El Convento, in my confusion I went through the room door instead of the bathroom door. Click! The door locked automatically and there I was in the middle of the hall with an urgent need for the bathroom and no key. I had to run down the stairs to reception and ask for an extra key, wriggling in agony while the other guests served themselves breakfast and eyed me curiously. To the credit of the staff, they didn't even blink, although later we all agreed that it might have been different if I hadn't been wearing pajamas!
The data: Hotel El Convento is located at 100 Cristo Street in Old San Juan.
For more information and reservations visit www.elconvento.com. To email, contact email@example.com or call 800.468.2779 or 787-723-9020. There are numerous summer specials and packages available and this year the hotel is making a big to-do about the 352nd anniversary of the hotel, so ask for deals related to the festivities.
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.