- A bold generation of Puerto Rican chefs, artists and hoteliers is ready for a close-up
- Puerto Rico now boasts world-class hotels including the St. Regis, the W and Ritz-Carlton
- There's a resurgence of national cuisine after decades of European mannerism
Melvin Martínez, a burly, soft-spoken 35-year-old painter, stands in the center of his studio in San Juan's Santurce neighborhood. A fleck of silver glitter is stuck to his neck, another twinkles from his brow.
Martínez is one of the stars of Puerto Rico's burgeoning arts scene and the winner of the prestigious Castellón Painting Prize. His canvases are brash, textural tornadoes of newspaper, paint, scraps of magazines and barrels worth of glitter.
"I'm inspired by the movement of Santurce," he says, referring to the epicenter of San Juan's cultural renaissance, "by the chaos and the structure."
There's a lot of movement to be inspired by. From this low-lying warren of streets, with its bustling colonial farmers' market called La Placita, an exuberant creative energy has radiated outward touching the entire island. And a brilliant crop of artists, designers, chefs and entrepreneurs are now emerging and, with them, a reconfigured national landscape.
Puerto Rico now boasts world-class hotels like the St. Regis Bahia Beach (for all service details, see "Where to Stay in Puerto Rico," below), which opened in 2010 on a former coconut plantation, the W Retreat & Spa, on Vieques, an island once used for bomb tests, and an upcoming Ritz-Carlton Reserve, opening December 2012. There used to be only a few worthy golf courses, including one built by the U.S. Air Force for Dwight Eisenhower around 1940, but now they are legion, among them the Royal Isabela, undoubtedly one of the finest courses in the hemisphere.
San Juan, Puerto Rico's biggest city, "is the sexy younger sister of New York," says Sotirios Kotoulas, a Canadian-born New York architect and professor at the University of Puerto Rico. His friend, architect José Javier Toro, smiles a bit ironically and chimes in, "Yes, it's the Cinderella city."
It is often said that there is no place like Puerto Rico, whose bitter war for independence against Spain ended in 1898 with an American invasion, whose occupation ushered in the American century but whose continued purgatory -- neither the 51st state, nor an independent country -- seems aberrant in the 21st. But this exceptional status as an unincorporated territory has also allowed for the free flow of both trade and people with the United States.
Today, Puerto Rico is unique among the Caribbean islands: wealthier, more urbane, more developed; Caribbean in spirit but North American in mind. This strange and not untroubled history has pushed Puerto Ricans to forge, as Jorge Duany, author of "The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move," argues, a cultural identity instead of a nationalist one.
Celina Nogueras Cuevas, a young curator and author of "Frescos: 50 Puerto Rican Artists Under 35," says this no-man's-land extends to the arts. "North Americans think we belong in Latin American art," she says. "Latin Americans think of us as a part of North American art. We're certainly not Caribbean art. The truth is we're all those things and none of them."
At one of San Juan's newest galleries, Roberto Paradise (Calle San Francisco #266; 787-429-4887), tucked on the fifth floor of a residential building in Old San Juan, the 34-year-old gallerist Francisco Rovira Rullán sees this ambiguity as an engine. "Our political uncertainty," he says, "is a seed for innovation and also for conflict."
Heading east out of San Juan on PR-3, roadside signs whizz by like a NASDAQ ticker: Walgreens, Starbucks, Burger King, Subway. Yet off the highway, one quickly passes through cinderblock villages through open fields and into El Yunque, the tropical forest that dominates the eastern part of the island. Here you'll find the St. Regis Bahia Beach.
Unlike the megaresorts of the 1950s, the 483-acre property feels more untouched than the fields around it. A walking trail wends its way through the grounds: a dense mangrove forest, flamboyant trees bursting with crimson flowers. Guests are kept company by a chorus of coqui, the ubiquitous native frog whose iambic croak gives it its name and Puerto Rico its natural soundtrack.
There's much to do during the day -- a golf course that trumps Trump's a mile away, a 10,000-square-foot spa that provides lip service to native rituals while offering impeccably executed treatments, a sprawling pool, an even grander beach and a restaurant, named Fern, by Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
But, for me, the magic of the St. Regis happens at dusk or later, when gigantic sea turtles clamber onto the sand to deposit their eggs. Large sections of the beach are cordoned off to protect these eggs, and it seems to me a testament to how much attitudes have changed toward nature and toward Puerto Rico that guests are happy to be woken up at 2 a.m. to huddle bleary-eyed as inch-long reptiles dig their way out of the sand, slowly loping their way into the water and their new life.
Back in Santurce, chef José Santaella is preparing to open his new restaurant, Santaella (219 Calle Canals, Plaza del Mercado; 787-725-1611), in a former hardware store a stone's throw from La Placita. I'm sitting with the architects Kotoulas and Toro and Nono Maldonado, the handsome grandfather of Puerto Rican fashion, a former Esquire editor and Santaella's cousin. (Conversations in Puerto Rico often start with, "Oh, he's my cousin!")
A private chef for a decade, Santaella, who has worked with Eric Ripert, Gary Danko and Ferran Adrià, has catered to San Juan's very well-developed upper crust, but at his restaurant the feel is more democratic. Designed by Toro's firm, the space is lit by grids of Edison lightbulbs, contrasting with the dark wooden tables and the gently glowing bar. There are no tablecloths.
"I call it the Momofuku approach," Santaella says, referring to David Chang's informal/formal restaurants in New York City.
Santaella and his main rival, Jose Enrique (176 Calle Duffaut; 787-725-3518), whose eponymous restaurant is just a few blocks away, represent the resurgence of national cuisine after decades of European mannerism.
"Puerto Rican cuisine had a moment in the '80s with Alfredo Ayala," Santaella tells me, as we try his empanadillas, turnovers whose traditional heavy filling has been replaced with mint, dill, cream cheese and chives, "but then there was a slump. Now there's a new movement."
Across the square, Jose Enrique does something similar with a fresh market menu that changes daily, while a few minutes away, Italian-born chef Christian Darcoli of Pinoli (414 Ave. de Diego; 787-273-1611) works with local organic farmers to cultivate his zucchini blossoms, which he gently fries and fills with fresh burrata and an olive pesto.
Even the international chefs take their cues from the locals: José Andrés visited roadside Puerto Rican pork stands to prepare his Ritz-Carlton Reserve restaurant; Jean-Georges gets much of his produce from local growers and harvests herbs in an on-site greenhouse; Alain Ducasse at Mix on the Beach -- his restaurant at the W Retreat & Spa on Vieques -- applies haute French technique to mofongo (plantains) and morcilla (blood sausage).
On my last night, I end up at a party at the house of Alberto de la Cruz, one of the best-known art collectors there. De la Cruz is the president and CEO of Coca-Cola Puerto Rico Bottlers, and his penthouse apartment in Condado, a stylish coastal neighborhood of San Juan, is so populated with art, one wonders how he lives there.
Paint cans by Kelley Walker and Wade Guyton line the floor, a chocolate disco ball by Walker hangs in one room, canvases by Neo Rauch and Imen Dorf cram the walls. I try to slip a quarter into the jukebox before I realize it is art (by Christian Holstad). De la Cruz wears all white linen and the conversation -- Art Basel plans and gossip about the artists Allora + Calzadilla -- is a sort of disembodied art talk, though there runs an undercurrent of political excitement.
President Obama is due to arrive in San Juan in the morning, his first visit as president and a nod to the increasing power the Puerto Rican electorate holds. (Though Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico cannot vote in the presidential elections, the four million Puerto Ricans living in the States can.)
On de la Cruz's balcony, Agustín Arteaga, director of the Museo de Arte de Ponce (2325 Ave. Las Americas, Ponce; 787-840-1510), a tremendous collection on the island's south side founded by industrialist Luis Ferré in 1959 but only recently a player on the contemporary art scene, explains the unlikely role his museum plays. "We're 75 miles from San Juan, in the middle of nowhere, founded by an MIT engineer who wanted to bring art to the people here, and yet we're routinely lending out our art to major museums around the world."
Arteaga looks to where the lights of Condado stretch below us, like flecks of glitter against the dark sky, and shakes his head. "But it's Puerto Rico," he says, "strange and magical things are to be expected."
Where to stay in Puerto Rico
There are two wildly different but equally interesting options in San Juan.
La Concha Resort (rooms from $300; 1077 Ashford Ave.; 787-721-7500) is a scene-y 483-room hotel on the water, with a breezy midcentury interior and a lobby and pool that at night are full of the young and stylish.
Deep in Old San Juan, The Gallery Inn (rooms from $100; 204-206 Norzagaray; 787-722-1808) is a sprawling complex of charming old houses and sculptures by its idiosyncratic owner, Jan D'Esopo. (Obama stayed here during his visit in 2008.) Rooms are ornate and ramshackle.
For those yearning nature and space, there's the St. Regis Bahia Beach (rooms from $500; State Rd. 187; 787-809-8000), 30 minutes to the east, and in December 2012, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve (100 Dorado Beach Dr.; 787-626-1001) will open on Dorado Beach, west of the city.
In Rincon, there is really only one place to stay: The Horned Dorset Primavera (rooms from $260; Apartado 1132; 800-633-1857), a Relais & Châteaux property, whose Moroccan-inspired cottages abut the Caribbean Sea.
And in Isabela, where Stanley and Charles Pasarell have just opened the Royal Isabela (greens fee, $250; 396 Ave. Noel Estrada; 787-934-5648), the Caribbean's most ambitious golf course, 20 lushly appointed casitas will open on April 1, but until then, it's an easy day trip from Rincon.
On Vieques is the two-year-old W Retreat & Spa (rooms from $420; State Rd. 200; 787-741-4100), where egg-shaped chairs and striped rugs create a rough-luxe vibe. Its Alain Ducasse restaurant, Mix on the Beach, serves locally inspired dishes like morcilla with roasted apples and a type of cornbread called pan de maíz.
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