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Old San Juan Leads The Way In Modern
And Centuries-Old Architectural

Masterpieces!

Old San Juan, a bristiling city of over 40,000 people, is not only one of the most cleanest cities in the region, but boasts of accommodation fit for the rich and famous as well as those who pay more attention to their pocket-book rather than the luxurious surroundings.

Accommodations range from US$150 a night in quaint and impeccable rooms in 18th-century historical buildings to US$1,500 in suites and villas, which are the favorite destination for celebrities and the rich and famous.

The warmth and friendliness of the people of Old San Juan is matched only by the delicious cuisine and luxurious accommodation to be found in different parts of the city of magnificent 18th-century Spanish architecture and cobblestone streets..

History has it that the island of Puerto Rico, 110 miles by 35 miles, with a population of nearly four million, was discovered by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the Antilles in 1493. The Spanish newcomers named the island San Juan Bautista in honor of St. John the Baptist and found it populated with Taino Indians.

Spanish Conqueror Juan Ponce de Leon was the island's first Governor when Puerto Rico became Spain's most important military outpost in the Caribbean and the target for several attacks. In 1521, concerned about threats from English and Dutch enemies, Spain began constructing massive defenses and fortifications around the city of San Juan.

In 1898, after the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States under the Treaty of Paris. In 1917 the U.S. Congress granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship. The island has a Governor who is elected every four years. It has a resident Commissioner in Washington who represents the island's interest but does not have a vote in Congress.

The island is blessed with magnificent beaches, rain forests, stunning caves, inhabited islands, pristine reefs and more than 500 years of glorious history, which collectively offer a wide range of activities, including hiking, fishing, scuba diving, snorkeling, surfing, golf or tennis.

The Hotel El Convento, located in the heart of historic Old San Juan is setting new standards for comfort and luxurious service for its 58 exquisitely appointed guestrooms and suites, with surroundings reminscent of the former 16th-century convent. It is hailed as a privileged environment of elegance, replete with unparalleled luxury and impeccable personal service.

Establishment of the Convent followed the granting of a petition in 1646 to war widow Doña Ana de Lansos y Menendez de Valdez by King Phillip 1V. She was the granddaughter of Don Diego Menendez de Valdez, a captain general of the Spanish amy and governor of Puerto Rico from 1582 to 1593.

Doña Ana de Lansos y Menendez de Valdez, widow of Captain Pedro de Villate Escovedo, inherited a vast fortune on her young husband's death in 1625, in an attack by the Dutch, who, with the French and British, were constant enemies of Spanish pwoer in the Americas. Childless, Doña Ana resided across from the cathedral on a property where two houses she had provided for as a war hospital and a religious school were destroyed in the war-torn island.

There was no convent in Puerto Rico at that time. To enter a cloister, a lady had to travel to Havana or Santo Domingo, or all the way to Europe. Young ladies' prospects for marriage were reduced with every new battle in the wars of the Indies. To pay for the convent construction and maintenance, Doña Ana donated her home and its adjoining land, a rectangular plot, sold all her possessions in a move hailed by many as a great contribution.

The soldiers of Colonial Spain garrisoned in the Old City erected the three-story convent, designed by an army engineer. The walls (sun-baked clay brick) were three feet thick to withstand Indians, European enemies, hurricanes and tropical heat. Doors and grilles over slottred windows were mahogany and ausubo (ironwood), a dark wood from the West Indies that increases in strength with age.

The building's characteristic Spanish features were an enormous, open interior courtyard framed by tiered balconies and arched corridors. Nuns' cells were tiny rooms with single beds and straw mattresses. The spacious chapel had a domed ceiling.

In July 1651, the Monastery our Lady Carmen of San Jose was inaugurated, better known as the Carmelite Convent. Doña Ana was the first to enter the cloister and became the mother superior. With her were her sister Antonia and four protégés.

The Convent on Cristo Street, was and still is adjacent to the Plaza of the Nuns, the city's second oldest park. Across the street is San Juan Cathedral built in 1521. The one-story structure with a thatched roof was desctroyed by a hurricane and rebuilt starting in1540. The Western Hemisphere's oldest cathedral, it is one of the few examples of medieval architecture remaining in the New World.

The first Carmelite Convent in the Americas housed the nuns for over two and a half centuries, (252 years). On December 9, 1903, the Archbishop of San Juan decided further repairs were too costly and the nine remaining nuns and two novices moved a few days before Christmas.

Vacant for a decade or more, the church purchased the abandoned building from the Carmelite nuns in 1913 for $151. They rented it first as a retail store then a dance hall. Then, for the next forty years, it served as a flophouse without running water, sanitary facilities or elecltricity, just as in the 1600's. In 1953, the ruin was a parking lot for garbage trucks.

It was slated in 1957 for bulldozing to build a badly needed downtown parking garage just as an urban renewal program began taking roots in Old San Juan.

In 1959, with Operation Bootstrap, Ricardo Alegria from the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture persuaded Woolworth store heir, Robert Frederick Woolworth, a resident of the State of Maine, to purchase the convent property from the Archdiocese of San Juan for $250,000 and transform it into a deluxe hotel named El Convento. It sparked the development of business, tourism and employment in Old San Juan.

Three years of hard work converted the decayed structure into the hotel. Two floors were added to the original convent's three stories, creating 100 rooms, including ten suites at that time.

The interior designer, accompanied by a photographer and Mr.Woolworth, journeyed throughout Spain to find furniture for the hotel. When he couldn't get authentic pieces from Spain's Golden Age, he commissioned reproductions of enormous chandeliers, wrought-iron fixtures and decorative tiles. All wood objects, furniture, louvered doors and overhead beams were handcrafted of walnut or mahogany. Lampshades were goatskins. while bedspreads and rugs were woven in Granada by gypsies.

The halls and galleries were filled with antigues: tapestries, paintings, shields and swords, carved chests, highbacked chairs and settees were upholstered in satins and velvets, canopied beds were installed in guestrooms with elaborate headboards, beamed ceilings and window shutters. No expense was spared in this massive renovation work.

Plumbing, wiring, and then an elevator and air conditioning were installed. Arched corridors that once led to nuns' cells now opened to eight different styles and guestrooms on the five floors. The rectantular interior courtyyard was so spacious that it had a dining room at one end, and at the other, a swimming pool.

El Convento Hotel delebrated its official inaugural on January 27, 1962. The Woolnor Corporation, a private company of the Woolworth's, managed it. The hotel did not have a casino when it opened but decided to have one the next year.

El Convento Hotel was an immediate success. A European-style luxury hotel, starkly different from the new, glitzy hotels that lined the neighboring fashionable Condado strip in San Juan.

El Convento was a throwback to the era when hoterls were themselves destinations. It was a self-contained, intimate resort offering fine dining, deluxe accommodations and international entertainment. Ovenight it became the trendy place in the Caribbean for what were known at that time as the "beautiful people".

The riich and famous flocked to El Convento: Ernest Hemingway; Hollywood stars Rita Hayworth, Robert Montgomery and George Hamilton were among the famous. Celebrities included Lynda Bird Johnson, Ethel Merman, singer Johnny Desmond, and concert pianist Claudio Arrau.

The Convent Chapel was transformed into the Ponce de Leon Room, a truly elegant dining room, strictly black tie with old, Old World Spanish décor, windows with stained glass coat-of-arms and a small dance floor.

By the end of 1970, the Woolworth family decided the casino business was unprofitable and terminated the casino license. In 1971, they officially presented the hotel as a gift to the government in lieu of back taxes. The hotel was then government operated but it was decided that professional management ws preferable and a contract was awarded to CIGA, an Italian Company associated with giant hotels such as the Gritti Palace in Venice.

There followed a succession of operators and eventually the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company retained a Mexican hotel chain to manage the property. The Mexicans changed the name from El Convento Hotel to Grand Hotel El Convento.

The Puerto Rican Government invested $1.4 million to modernize the hotel, the first renovations in the 20 years since its opening. The facelift which led to the closure of the hotel for ten months, included weatherproofing half the courtyard and erection of a plastic canopy over the bar and dining area. The Hotel was renovated again in 1986 and was later sold by the Government to a group of San Juan business executives.

It is the only luxury hotel in the heart of Old San Juan and has since returned to its original name...Hotel El Convento. It was closed in December 1995 for redesign and reopened again in January 1997. It was immediately chosen by Condé Naste Traveler Magazine as one of the 23 best new hotels in the world. It is the designated "official guest house" of the Government of Puerto Rico for vistiing heads of state and dignitaries. It has also been awarded a four diamond AAA recognition.

The use of locally-grown fruits, ground provisions and vegetables is becoming the norm rather that the exception at leading hotels, restaurants and snack bars in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Visitors to Puerto Rico who are keen on outdoor activities are taking advantage of Tropical Trail Rides, operated by Craig and Michelle Barker whose 35 horses provide a safe two hour guided tour of secluded beaches, tropical trails, cliff caves and more.
The trail begins at Shacks Beach, which is famous for its underwater caves and then winds through almond and pine forests. It then leads to a spectacular beach called Survival. At this point, guests are given the opportunity to dismount and explore cliff caves or swim in the crystal blue waters.

"We provide gentle, but spirited, healthy horses that can accommodate beginner, intermediate and advanced riders" said Craig. "Basic lessons in horseback riding and orientation on Tropical Trial Rides rules are given to all guests.

Miles of pristine white sandy beaches, tropical forests and crystal blue waters combine to provide the kind of setting that is memorable. Nestled in the town of Isabela on the northwest corner of the Island, Tropical Trail Rides provides the ambience that satisfied the thirst for adventure, yet exciting and exhilarating.

By Edwin Ali, Jetsetters Magazine Caribbean Editor.



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