"Get thee to a nunnery" (Hamlet to Ophelia) is not a line that springs to mind when planning a Caribbean hotel stay. However, if Old San Juan is the destination, there is a hotel there that fits the bill.
The Hotel el Convento, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, actually is an old nunnery, founded in 1651 by three Carmelite nuns from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.
The building on Cristo Street, embraced by the walled city of Old San Juan, is across from the San Juan Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere.
"Visitors to Hotel el Convento step into a property that exudes the charm and character of Old San Juan and our history," said Efrain Rosa, general manager.
The original convent was built by a wealthy widow who donated her money and her magnificent residence to the Carmelite nuns who prayed and stayed for 252 years until the convent closed a few days before Christmas 1903.
The building remained vacant for the next 10 years but later served as a retail store, a dance hall and a flophouse without running water, sanitary facilities or electricity.
Robert Woolworth, heir to the Woolworth family department store fortune, purchased the property in 1962 and converted the former Our Lady of Carmen of San Jose Monastery into a European-style luxury boutique hotel named El Convento. It quickly attracted celebrities, including Rita Hayworth, Ethel Merman and George Hamilton.
In 1995, a $15 million restoration returned the hotel, rechristened as Hotel el Convento, to its original Spanish colonial architecture and design with high ceilings, mahogany beams, handcrafted tiles, antique chests and wrought ironwork.
While the 58-room property exudes an Old World quality in its history, building materials, accessories and furnishings, it is very much in the present in terms of guest amenities and services, according to Rosa.
Facilities include a rooftop plunge pool and Jacuzzi; in-room, complimentary WiFi; a fitness center: three restaurants; a library; a business center; and beach and pool privileges at a nearby beach. Rosa hosts a daily manager's reception with wine and hors d'oeuvres on La Veranda Terrace.
Guestrooms occupy the top four floors of the hotel, whose private entrance is in the original convent courtyard where a 300-year-old Spanish nispero tree still stands.
Rooms are decorated with Andalusian tile floors, mahogany beams, throw rugs and hacienda-style furniture, and each room has a view of Old San Juan or the bay.
The first two floors of the hotel feature restaurants, 10 guestrooms that were added in 2003 and seven meetings rooms.
To mark its 50th anniversary, the hotel is offering a five-night package for two priced at $2,012.50, which includes accommodations, a private dinner for two, a day trip to El Yunque National Forest, an evening excursion to the Bioluminescent Bay in nearby Fajardo, a day pass to La Concha Beach Resort, a bottle of champagne and hotel taxes.
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