Caribe Hilton: Historical…and Home of the Piña Colada
UPDATE: 3/26/19 Following the disaster of Hurricane Maria, one of my favorite hotels has been closed for 18 months. Great news! Starting May 15, 2019, Caribe Hilton is open again! It took $100 million and lots of elbow grease, but you’ll find it was worth the wait.
Meet the hotel trifecta: island history, beachfront property, and birthplace of the Piña Colada. What more could a traveler ask for? How about ocean views and quick access to Old San Juan? Welcome to the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Radios, Air-Conditioners, and a Fort
Built on 17 acres as a luxury hotel for the wealthy, the Caribe Hilton opened in 1949. It had 300 modern rooms with private balconies. It was the first hotel in Puerto Rico to place radios and push-button air-conditioning units in every guest room. Conrad Hilton himself oversaw the management of his first international hotel property.
The Caribe Hilton property even came with its own fort, the 17th century Fortín San Jerónimo, which the Spanish built replace a smaller fort that had been used to battle Sir Francis Drake in 1595. San Jerónimo was crucial in the 1797 battle with the British navy, helping withstand a siege on San Juan. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, it has sustained damage over the centuries. Conservation efforts are underway; the Caribe Hilton hopes to offer it as a venue in the future.
Then came the Piña Colada
“Better than slapping Bette Davis in the face,” declared actress Joan Crawford when she tasted her first Piña Colada. Bartender Ramón “Monchito” Marrero wanted to make a special cocktail for the hotel’s guests that celebrated the island’s famous rum and deliver a tropical taste. He spent three months perfecting his concoction. He mixed the rum with coconut cream and pineapple juice…and the Piña Colada was born on August 15, 1954. Marrero continued to serve his drink for 35 years at the hotel. In 1978, the Piña Colada was declared the official drink of Puerto Rico.
Today the Piña Colada is served at the Atlantico Pool Bar or in the large open space of the indoor Caribar, where ceiling-to-floor windows look out to the ocean. The enormous bar has seating on four sides, as well as side areas with comfortable sofas and chairs. There’s also a framed proclamation presented in 2004 by the Governor to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Piña Colada. Daily Happy Hour specials include tapas such as the Puerto Rican version of charcuterie, along with ceviche, and yucca fries.
Pool? Beach? How about both?
Caribe Hilton has the rare combination of both a sandy beach on the Atlantic Ocean and multiple sparkling pools. Choose the salt water to swim in the warm waves and wade to an “island” complete with pillows and lounge chairs. Then stroll over to one of three pools, including an infinity pool with a waterfall and swim-up bar. Kids get their own pool, too. Two whirlpools offer yet another way to relax. Guests can rent water equipment near the pool.
The grounds of the hotel are spacious and well-groomed. Hammocks swing in a palm tree grove. A tropical garden and bird sanctuary are tucked behind the main building. The hotel’s 15,000 sq. ft. full-service Olas Spa and fitness center are a few steps away. There’s not a sense of being crowded in public areas, even during busy times.
Rooms with a view
Caribe Hilton has 652 rooms, including villas and studios. Standard rooms in the original hotel are decorated in soothing neutral colors, with a small table and two chairs on each balcony. Upper level rooms have spectacular ocean views; lower level rooms enjoy garden or resort views. Expect to pay about $200 per night.
The newer Condado Lagoon Villas at Caribe Hilton feature one- or two-bedroom suites with kitchenettes and sitting or living rooms. Guests at the Villas have a private pool and check-in. Because the Villas sit back on the property, views aren’t as pretty as the original hotel’s; however, some rooms do have views of the Atlantic Ocean or Condado Lagoon from the balcony. The Villas are a good option for families. Prices start at about $300 per night for a 700 sq. ft. Junior Suite.
Be warned that the Caribe Hilton is classified as a resort, so a non-negotiable 18% charge is automatically added to the bill. The resort charge covers Internet; health club and tennis court access; certain beach activities; beach towels and umbrellas; and a daily newspaper.
Getting around San Juan
Caribe Hilton is conveniently located between Old San Juan and the thriving Condado district. Old San Juan, with blue cobblestones and historical sites, is about two miles away. Walk, take a bus, or ask the doorman to hail a taxi for the short ride. Condado is an easy 20-minute walk. Find Art Deco buildings and five miles of beaches. Restaurants and bars are abundant in both areas.
The Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport is a short 10-15 minute drive from the hotel. Taxi rates are about $20 each way. There is also a $1 per bag charge. Taxi rates are fixed between tourist zones in San Juan. However, short rides are metered.
Looking good at 70!
Even after a $50 million renovation that closed the hotel for almost a year in 1999, the balance of retro and contemporary is still fresh. The expansive open-air lobby includes six restaurants, boutiques, a convenience store, and a bustling Starbucks that serves Puerto Rican pastries, including traditional cream cheese-filled Quesitos.
Almost 70 years after opening, the Caribe Hilton remains one of the most famous hotels in the Caribbean. Staying at a landmark hotel is always a satisfying experience. And when that hotel is in a city loaded with history and hospitality, all the better!
NOTE: Since I was there in late 2016–maybe because of the renovation costs–there is now a $30 per day “resort fee.” Grrrrr…..when you go, please gently complain. Thank you.
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