One of San Juan’s most divine hotels started as a Carmelite convent
Now, here’s an eye-opener: Before sailing from San Juan last week, I spent an extraordinary night in a convent.
I’d wager that few who know me would believe I’d willingly enter a convent but when you’re talking El Convento, they’d be be ever so wrong.
El Convento is a small, luxury hotel located on Cristo Street in Old San Juan, directly adjacent to the Plaza of the Nuns and across the street from San Juan Cathedral. The place has a ton of history. Originally built in 1651, it housed Carmelite nuns for 252 years before closing its doors in 1903, laying vacant for a decade and then gasping for breath as a retail store, dance hall, a flophouse, and other unsavory incarnations. After decades of failure, El Convento was marked for the bulldozer until a 1957 renewal program headed by the heir to the Woolworth fortune acquired the property from the Diocese of San Juan for $250,000 and transformed it into a deluxe hotel. Since its reopening in 1962, the property has attracted celebrities like Rita Hayworth, George Hamilton, Pablo Casals, and Ethel Merman and is designated the official guest house of the island’s government for visiting heads of state.
Let me backtrack a second here. I discovered El Convento about 30 years ago, coming across it while wandering around Old San Juan during a cruise-ship visit. I was attracted to the Spanish decor, arched corridors, and serenity of the place and have spent every call since at the property’s restaurant and bar, set amid lush gardens and a mystical courtyard with a 300-year-old Spanish fruit tree spreading its branches above. So when I learned that my Viking Star cruise would sail from San Juan, I figured it was time to don my habit, arrive a day early, and spend the evening before sailing at El Convento.
If I hadn’t been taught by nuns at Catholic school (all of whom pretty much convinced me that I’d burn in Hell forever for wearing too much eye shadow and chewing gum in class), I’d probably believe that it just might be the kind spirit of those prayerful Carmelite sisters that’s responsible for the caring and giving nature of every employee of El Convento. After a sampling of the restaurant’s new menu, a delightful Puerto Rican–inspired selection, I’d proclaim the cuisine divine and the bar’s mojitos (I had a regular one and a passion-fruit variety) nothing short of glorious…although I’m still picking passion-fruit seeds out of my teeth.
The next time you’re blessed enough to visit Old San Juan, climb the hilly cobblestone path to Christo Street and immerse yourself in the art-filled splendor of El Convento. It’s a heavenly choice for a pre- or post-cruise stay or even just a blissful meal and a couple of mojitos.
— Judi Cuervo
Photos: RF, Judi Cuervo
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