Old and new coexist at refurbed El San Juan

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A guest suite with an ocean view at El San Juan Hotel, which opened in 1958 and changed owners several times before joining Hilton’s Curio Collection.
A guest suite with an ocean view at El San Juan Hotel, which opened in 1958 and changed owners several times before joining Hilton’s Curio Collection.

I checked into El San Juan Hotel in San Juan for the first time in the early 1990s.

It was a stunner, starting with the oval-shaped crystal chandelier in the grand Palm Court Lobby, and its rose-colored Carrera marble floors, the vaulted arch over the front desk area, lively background music and the buzz and energy of people enjoying themselves.

Over the years since, I dropped in or stayed there several times, most recently in late April to see the results of its $65 million propertywide renovation project, following a six-month closure.

The oceanfront El San Juan, now a member of Hilton's Curio Collection, opened on Feb. 1, 1958, under the InterContinental Hotels brand, which was a subsidiary of Pan Am and the reason the hotel was (and is) a 10-minute drive from San Juan's Luis Munoz Marin Airport.

"Throughout the 1960s, Puerto Rico was very popular with American tourists because jets had halved the traveling time of the earlier prop planes," said Rafy Sanchez, the hotel's associate director of sales. "Puerto Rico had a warm climate and hotels with casino gaming and exciting nightlife, and El San Juan was the epitome of headline entertainment," with Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra appearing onstage at the hotel's Club Tropicoro.

One of the four pools at El San Juan Hotel, which reopened in February after a $65 million refurbishment.
One of the four pools at El San Juan Hotel, which reopened in February after a $65 million refurbishment. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers

While the '60s were the heyday for Puerto Rico's tourism, the '70s were a bust due to the energy crisis that reduced tourism numbers and hiked operation costs.

"By 1979 the hotel was in desperate straits; by 1980 it was bankrupt and in early 1983, the grand doors were sealed," Sanchez said.

It was remodeled and reopened in 1985 under a new owner who positioned El San Juan for the upscale leisure traveler.

Several owners and more remodelings followed, until 2015 when El San Juan changed hands again, and the new owners shut down the hotel in August 2016.

On reopening day in February, Sanchez, who has been with El San Juan for 17 years, gave 27 tours of the reborn hotel, telling guests that "we feel we have our own icon here."

One of his favorite stories involved the 4,000-pound Czech crystal chandelier that hangs from the dome-shaped ceiling above the lobby's Oval Bar.

"It was commissioned in the 1950s and installed in 1961," he said. "It joins similar masterpieces that hang in Milan's La Scala and in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg [Russia]. Prior to our renovation, the last time it was cleaned was in 1985."

The entire chandelier was dismantled, and all 7,000 crystal pieces were removed by hand. To my eyes, the chandelier, while beautiful, looked tilted and a bit off-center.

"Everyone says that," Sanchez said. "It's perfectly centered, and you'll see that it is after three or four drinks."

The 4,000-pound Czech crystal chandelier in the Palm Court Lobby. Installed in 1961, the chandelier was dismantled, and all 7,000 crystal pieces were removed and cleaned.
The 4,000-pound Czech crystal chandelier in the Palm Court Lobby. Installed in 1961, the chandelier was dismantled, and all 7,000 crystal pieces were removed and cleaned. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers

Opposites coexist seamlessly in today's El San Juan Hotel, the old and the new. The elegance and opulence of the past are honored, along with added modern elements, including the cobblestone entrance plaza with an 8-foot, spherical sculpture by local artist Luis Torruella; fast WiFi; upgraded decor and furnishings in the 388 guestrooms, suites and villas; four pools; and an array of restaurants such as the new Cana featuring seasonal local menu items blended with international cuisine, overseen by Puerto Rican chef Juliana Gonzalez.

"We have returned the hotel to its former glory and have added new, modern elements, guest experiences, facilities and activities," said Stefan Huber, managing director and general manager.

The spa is scheduled to open on June 1, and the Noodle Bar is expected to open at a later date.

One facility not reopening at El San Juan is the 7,500-square-foot casino, one of several gaming facilities to close in Puerto Rico in the last five years.

Puerto Rico's draw as a gaming destination has faded in recent years, due in part to the high government tax placed on casino revenues, according to Huber. "The nearby Ritz-Carlton has a small casino, which is what we suggest if our guests want to gamble," he said.

On my last evening, I sat at the redesigned Gold Bar for a mixology class with bartender Sergio.

"I'll teach you how to make our signature drink, the PR58," he told me. The name stands for Puerto Rico 58, in reference to the year El San Juan opened.

It's a heady concoction of Don Q Coco rum, Bacardi Black rum, Novo Fogo cachaca (unprocessed sugar cane juice from Brazil), soursop juice, guava nectar and lemon juice, shaken and served with a garnish of toasted coconut flakes. A decidedly decadent libation and truly fitting for the jewel that is El San Juan Hotel.

Nightly rates begin at $199; see www.elsanjuanhotel.com.

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