Reed Travel Features

SAN JUAN -- The word "historical" practically has been redefined by the renovated, 57-room El Convento hotel on Cristo Street in Old San Juan, which officially opened its doors in December.

The property is located in the New World's first Carmelite convent in the oldest city under the U.S. flag, dating to the Spanish conquest.

The opening signaled the beginning of a yearlong celebration of the 350th anniversary of the former nunnery, now a registered historical landmark.

Authorized in 1636 by decree of King Philip IV of Spain, the convent was built by Spanish soldiers garrisoned in the Old City.

It opened in 1651 and was occupied by the Carmelite nuns for the next 250 years.

In 1903, San Juan's archbishop found it impractical to repair the structure again, and the nine remaining nuns departed.

El Convento, vacant for the next 10 years, was purchased from the nuns by the church for $350 and rented out, first as a dance hall and then as a flophouse, without running water, sanitary facilities or electricity, during the next 50 years.

In 1953, the former convent became a parking lot for garbage trucks.

The wrecking ball loomed, but Robert Woolworth purchased the building from the church in 1959 for $250,000.

The new owner added three stories and spent three years converting the property into a 100-room hotel that opened on Jan. 27, 1962.

Although a social triumph, the hotel never made money and became a gift to the government of Puerto Rico in 1971 in lieu of back taxes.

In 1995, the shabby, rundown building was sold to a group of San Juan business executives, who began a $15 million renovation, spending an average of $275,000 for each of the 57 guest rooms.

The project was headed by Hugh Andrews, former president of the Williams Hospitality group and now head of San Juan-based International Hospitality Enterprises.

The ambience of the lower two floors of the hotel is enhanced by the presence of the galleries of resident artists and artisans, specialty shops, outdoor cafes and restaurants.

The hotel part of the structure, which is reached by a private, keyed elevator, occupies the third, fourth and fifth floors and has a concierge-style reception area with a check-in desk and small lounge.

Original Spanish handmade furnishings were restored and replaced.

Tile floors, covered for years with a glued-down carpet, have been repaired and polished.

Facilities include the outdoor Garden Terrace for enjoying complimentary breakfasts and evening wine; the Mirador Terrace, with a pool and a Jacuzzi; an indoor fitness and massage center; a music room; a library; a small casino, and a business center.

Each guest room has a

multiline telephone with a data port, a television, a VCR, an iron and ironing board, a refrigerator, a coffeemaker, a hair dryer and robes.

Rates include daily continental breakfast.

Winter rack rates through April 30 range from $285 to $345 per room, per night, single, and from $315 to $375, double, plus tax.

From May 1 to Nov. 30, the rate range is $195 to $320.

The four suites start at $500 for a junior unit, $750 for a one-bedroom suite and $1,200 per night for the presidential suite.

Getaway, family and romance packages are offered.

El Convento is a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World.

For reservations, call (800) 468-2779.

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