Sub-zero record-breaking temperatures blanketed much of the U.S. this winter. But while many wore calluses into their hands from continually digging their cars out of the snow, I was laying on the crystalline white sand beaches of Puerto Rico; letting my sun-baked skin bask in the glow of the tropics; relaxing as the hypnotizing sounds of azure ocean waves lap at my feet. And the best part is that I was still in the U.S., with full access to my cell phone so I could take work calls and pretend I was miserable like most of the people that were calling. I could just imagine their red noses constantly dripping, their cheeks red with frostbite from the biting chill in the air. New York was 19 degrees. Puerto Rico? 82, sunny, humid, and just plain perfect.
Poolside oasis set majestically by the Condado Lagoon.
If you aren’t in a warm place right now, you’re likely feeling either jealous or itching to plan a trip, because the Caribbean is great also in the summer. You might also be angry that I’m so happy and you’re so cold. And even if you are in a warm room, or near a beach, I bet you don’t also have luxurious casinos to play blackjack in while wearing an open Hawaiian shirt or flip flops, sipping rum punches all day.
I wanted to visit Puerto Rico for a long time. You know all those disclaimers you read when you’re buying something online, or shipping something? Those notes that say something along the lines of “shipping accepted in all places, see below for Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Alaska…” and wherever else on that list? Well I get it now. Puerto Rico is far. It took me about 13 hours to get here from California, but it was well worth the commute, especially since I was flying over what looked like a frozen tundra.
Hilton Condado Plaza's luxurious casino.
In Puerto Rico, gambling is legal, which I didn’t find out until my friends told me to meet them in the casino. I actually thought they were joking and complimented them on being funny. But to my chagrin, there actually is a legit casino in almost every major resort in the area! And speaking of resorts, depending on what part of the island you’ll travel to, you’ll have a lot of choices.
I stayed in the Hilton Condado Plaza Hotel and Resort. I promise I’m not just saying this for the article; I’m fairly certain that the Hilton Condado Plaza is the nicest resort in all of San Juan, which is the main city and capitol of Puerto Rico. I didn’t realize how nice it was until I saw it in the daytime though.
Splendid decor at the resort's restaurants & bars.
I arrived late, later than I’ve ever arrived on any trip. My flight went from San Francisco to New York, where I had a four hour layover, and then eventually I got to Puerto Rico, alas: 1:45 a.m. No, that wasn’t a typo. I actually am starting to think in Spanish a little. But did I go to bed at 2:30 a.m. like most people would do? Nope! I went straight to the Hilton Condado Plaza casino, met up with my friends, and gambled straight through the night until the sun came up. Puerto Rico is one hour ahead of EST - or Atlantic Time, and four hours ahead of PST, so technically it felt more like 10 p.m. Hit me!
The Hilton Condado casino is really had a $5 minimum blackjack table, which seems to be an endangered and rare circumstance in places like Las Vegas, and other cities where gambling is a big draw. Another thing that was great about the $5 tables was that you could play two hands at once, and still only have $5 on each hand, whereas in Vegas you’d have to have double the minimum bet ($10) on each hand. So I was up, then down, then up, then down, then I made some big bets, then back to little bets. All-in-all, I ended up losing about $100 that first night, but I had a great even if I wan't a high-roller.
The people at the tables were fun and friendly, and the dealers were especially awesome as were the free drinks. As long as you’re gambling, you can drink as much as you want. I even challenged their cocktail menu by asking if they could make something like a chocolate milkshake for me. They did! And the dealer told me that in the 20 years he’s been working their, he never had seen anybody order a chocolate milkshake from the tables before. Gaming con batidos
The casino was actually so great, that throughout the duration of my Puerto Rico trip, I ended up spending most of my time there. I wanted to go spelunking in some of the beautiful caves on the island. I wanted to see Arecibo, where the world’s largest radio telescope and observatory is. I wanted to see so many things on this beautiful island, but I just couldn’t seem to tear myself away from this beautiful resort!
Cool off with a poolside drink cooler.
The Condado area is just outside old San Juan and about half way between the old city and the airport. It essentially is a tourism corridor where most of the high-end hotels, restaurants, and clubs are. The problem with the Hilton Condado Plaza is that there’s just too much to do in the two days I was staying there. Not only does it have a lovely lobby and casino, but their pool and spa and beachfront activities are more like an amusement park resort for vacationing adults than anything else.
The watersports center has kayaks & paddleboards.
The pool has a secluded beach and protected swimming area. The larger part of the water sports complex offered windsurfing, aqua cycling, kayaking, and snorkeling in their artificial reef. But it seemed that people were more comfortable staying poolside in one of the three pools that overlooks the Condado Lagoon. There also is a waterslide, whirlpool spa, and a number of private look-out points with hammocks and special views that you could reserve for more privacy.
There is also a ping pong table where I dominated every challenger that went up against me, as well as a game room, a 24-hour exercise room, and tons of poolside bar and restaurant options when you get hungry. There’s also a clay tennis court that lights up at night. And as if that isn’t enough, each day they have a calendar of activities like Ping-Pong tournaments and other interactive events. This is why you need to stay at least a week, so you can experience all the hotel has to offer and still have time to go out and see Puerto Rico.
The entire island is only a couple of hours across in drive time. About an hour from the Condado area is El Yunque Rainforest, the only tropical rainforest in North America. Covering about 28,000 acres, this vast jungly playland boasts well-kept hiking trails to hidden waterfalls. One of the best is La Mina Falls; about a 40 minute. hike from the visitor area. I braved the cold waters and swam right into the powerful stream. Swarms of other hikers followed suit to cool themselves from the humid air.
Only about 15 minutes in the other direction from Condado is Old San Juan; the cultural gem of the island. Old San Juan is surrounded by castle walls, colonial artifacts, and an ever-evolving neighborhood of old Spanish architecture and modern shops and restaurants. The streets are mostly cobblestone, and colorful Colonial-style buildings are packed in tight. As I wandered through the Old Town, I felt a bit of New Orleans mixed with Spain. It’s a beautiful, safe, cultural area that is an absolute must-see.
The one thing I’ll say about Old San Juan that was a bit disappointing, but also expected, was the cacophony of American franchise businesses in the old structures. I walked down an old cobblestone street, rays of sunlight peaking through palm trees, and I felt like I was someplace else . . . until I was standing in front of a Walgreens, or a Coldstones, or a Wendy’s. It felt almost as though American capitalism gently laid a blanket of corporate consumerism over a quaint Spanish village.
On the other hand, it was quite convenient to be able to access Google Maps everywhere I went, and to search for a nearby restaurant or Starbuck’s just like I would at home. The one thing that doesn’t work well is public transit on Google maps. I had to navigate the city the old fashioned way by asking people or doing research before-hand, which is even better than the digital divide.
Explore Fort San Cristobal in Old San Juan.
Food-wise, I wanted to try something authentically Puerto Rican, such as the Mofongo. Mofongo is a fried plantain-based dish, like a mashed banana pot pie. The center is usually stuffed with some kind of delicious steak or meat, and it is delectable! The Condado Hilton Plaza has a great Mofongo at their famed Pikayo restaurant, as well as a number of other is land inspired delicacies. I ate at the hotel's Café Caribe, which had impeccable service which made me especially satisfied eating there.
Grab a quick bite at Eight Noodle Bar near the casino.
Spending a full day out on the town and hiking in the rainforest did tire me out, so having a nice room to come back to is imperative. The Condado Hilton Plaza Resort has 572 deluxe guest rooms and suites with sleek contemporary interiors. It had all the benefits expected from an upscale hotel.
Rest comfortably in perfectly-designed rooms.
The free wifi, flat screen TV, ocean view, and quiet comfortable; what makes this room different is definitely the shower. Its smack dab in the middle of the bathroom surrounded by glass walls. Quite sexy. It's called a steam shower because there’s nowhere for the steam to escape; the effect is something that feels like a sexually explicit movie set combined with Superman’s glass cave. If you’re planning on letting out your exhibitionist behaviors, this would be the perfect place to do it. It’s a fun place to take a shower.
Become your own spectacle in the steam shower.
But don’t spend all your time in the shower, there are breathtaking views and postcard sunsets to enjoy at the Condado Hilton Plaza. Couple that with the slew of activities in and around the resort and it becomes a vacation in and of itself. Linger longer to visit rainforests and beaches and all sorts of cultural gems to be experienced throughout the island. Whether you love the casinos and trendy nightlife, or wish to tuck away into a private beaches, or want to lounge and enjoy the watersports amenities, remember; Puerto Rico is a big island, and you may just need to venture out from the Hilton Condado Plaza once in a while.
Explore the beaches and tide pools.
— Feature by Josh Edelson, Jetsetters Magazine Adventure Correspondent; photos courtesy of the Hilton Condado Plaza.