What surprises many elite visitors is both Puerto Rico’s history as a luxury playground for the super rich and the diversity of the island’s tourism offerings today.
In the last century it was names like Vanderbilt and Rockefeller who graced the island; that generation of elite liked it so much they built grand resorts, then came so frequently they became major investors. After World War II Puerto Rico transitioned from agricultural hub to a manufacturing center. The island is about the size of Connecticut, and if it were an independent country, it would rank 84th in the world in GDP, with nearly four million people.
In the last century it was names like Vanderbilt and Rockefeller who graced the island
While San Juan held its position as a Caribbean airline hub and regional business capital, in the past 30 years luxury resorts aged and either closed or slipped down a few notches. The island’s traditional market of wealthy Northeasterners found newer and sexier resort destinations from Los Cabos and Riviera Maya to Turks & Caicos, Dubai, Maldives, Tahiti and even luxury tent camps in Thailand as ultra-long-haul planes like the 747-400, Bombardier Global Express, Gulfstream G550, Boeing and Airbus Business Jets made traveling the world a one-stop proposition instead of the milk runs of old. For example, today there are more daily nonstop first- and business-class seats from New York to Hong Kong than to San Juan.
That said, friendly government policies designed to boost tourism investment, and the interest of global luxury brands to expand their footprint, is combining with Puerto Rico’s natural assets to create a perfect storm of opportunity. Diverse visitor activities from soft adventure (think the world’s highest zip line, trekking through rain forests, horseback riding, sport fishing, kite surfing, diving, three bioluminescent bays) to world-famous Michelin-star chefs, haute local cuisine (with such kitchen luminaries as Roberto Trevino, Juan Cuevas, Mario Pagan, José Enrique, Dayn Smith, Fernando Parrillo, Federico Figueroa and Jose Carles), electric nightlife, over 20 championship golf courses, world-class beaches, a state-of-the-art convention center, high culture that includes the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra, a rising crowd of local artists, an 18,000-seat events center that draws acts from Lady Gaga to Elton John and its position as a US territory has Puerto Rico well on its way to holding an important place in world tourism.
BIG SEASIDE PLAYERS
One of the men putting the shine back on Puerto Rico’s star is Friedel Stubbe.
A descendant of farmers who emigrated from Germany in the late 1800s and a fan of John Naisbitt’s Megatrends, hemoved the family assets from agriculture to residential real estate using property as a “platform to create happiness.” His forward-thinking “green” concepts in the 1980s included reserving at least 50 percent of his developments for space to relax and play.
Now controlling the legendary 1,400-acre Dorado Beach sanctuary built by Laurance Rockefeller 15 miles west of San Juan on the north coast, he will open the first Reserve by Ritz-Carlton in the western hemisphere on December 12. The 115-unit property features 13 Residences by Ritz-Carlton with plans to build 13 more, going for as high as $8 million.
The top suite is a restored building influenced by the land’s original use as a coconut plantation. With four bedrooms, a park-like backyard and full lap pool, Su Casa will rent for $30,000 a night. Accommodations are split into 11 buildings, six on one side of the arrival veranda, and five on the other, making it perfect for groups or incentives that want half the inventory without impacting other guests (five groups are already contracted). Its Spa Botánico may feature the world’s first treatment rooms in a tree house, and there will be a Jean-Michel Cousteau Ambassadors of the Environment program. Fourteen one-bedroom suites offer basketball courtsized bathrooms, plus a patio plunge pool or rooftop Jacuzzi, and all of the units are a literal stone’s throw from the beach. Underscoring the importance of the opening, Ritz-Carlton President Herve Humler has brought in well-regarded General Manager Alejandro Helbling from its acclaimed Bulgari Resort in Bali and enticed Spanish molecular gastronomy king Jose Andres to tease the palates of eager guests.
“I never thought I would be sitting in Puerto Rico with Chinese and Russian investors,” Stubbe told me as we sipped wine at his modern home overlooking one of Dorado’s three championship golf courses (it hosts a PGA Latin America Tour event each year).
Stubbe’s vision is quite long. He established a TASIS (The American School in Switzerland) school (other locations include Lugano and London) and is planning a Johns Hopkins hospital based on the notion that world-class schooling and health care will make Dorado a primary residence stop on the global UHNW circuit.
Many here see the Reserve (with over $400 million invested) as not only elevating the island, but making it “the Hawaii of the East.” Frankly, I believe with the US being a safe harbor for assets and investments and the world becoming a smaller place, there is an opportunity to go a few rungs higher and position Puerto Rico as a global destination, a cross between Singapore (where everything works), Ibiza (where the fun never stops), Costa Rica (with soft adventure) and New York or San Francisco (for its foodie scene, culture, top medical facilities and education). Oh, and add the Latin flavor and beautiful people of Miami plus significant tax benefits for investors.
Not ready to rest, after the opening Stubbe and his son, company President Federico Stubbe, Jr. will be going to work on a second major project, a 400-room, five-star hotel on the site of the former Hyatt Cerromar. And while the Reserve may be Puerto Rico’s exclamation point, the luxury story here is deep and wide.
Directly east of San Juan is $654 million Bahia Beach, a 483-acre development that in 2010 became home to the 139-room St. Regis, including 35 suites. Owned by the father-son team of Federico Sanchez-Febles and Federico Sanchez-Ortiz (who also own El Convento, a Small Luxury Hotel property, and the Sheraton Convention Center Hotel) and by Antonio Muñoz Bermudez, Bahia Beach has 27 lots for St. Regis Residences (from $3.5 to $10 million), plus Las Cabañas (beachfront townhouses in the $2 million range), a second-phase Las Ventanas with 17 townhouses up to $2.4 million and 90 units in Las Verandas (priced up to $1.6 million). The entire complex includes a nature reserve with three marine biologists and naturalists who conduct various nature hikes, trails for biking and jogging, rivers and lakes for kayaking and, of course, in the hotel area, amenities such as a Remède Spa, Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant, Robert Trent Jones, Jr. golf course and 11 private pool cabanas with flat-screen TVs. The St. Regis features facilities for groups up to about 200 and has been a popular choice for Fortune 500 company board meetings and incentives.
In San Juan, Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, with 122 suites, will open in phases beginning in October.
It is next door to trendy sister property La Concha (popular with Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lopez and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), with its architecturally stunning Perla restaurant and over 200 suites in a recently opened condo-style tower. With nearly $500 million invested, hotel owner and IHE President José Suárez says the goal is to recreate the sophisticated elegance of yesteryear, citing The Biltmore in Coral Gables and The Breakers as the type of vibe he wants. The original building was gutted and two 11-story towers on each end have been built.
“In Puerto Rico hotels are social centers,” Suárez said, and focal points will include a lobby lounge with live entertainment and stunning views of the ocean, an outdoor terrace bar and a cigar room plus a restaurant overseen by Juan Cuevas called 1919, in homage to the hotel’s original opening year. Suárez believes that in addition to incentives and meetings, the hotel will attract guests who want to split their stays between outlying luxury resorts and city excitement.
In the northwest, just 20 minutes from Aguadilla International Airport, Royal Isabela will officially open its 20-casita hotel in October, the first phase of a master development envisioned by Puerto Rico’s most famous male tennis player Charles Pasarell.
Today, 20 holes are open on the links-style golf course co-designed by Pasarell, his brother Stanley and Pete Dye protégé David Pfaff. Called “possibly the most interesting course in the world” by The Golf Channel’s Mike Bailey, it has holes that go from a par 3 resembling the 17th at TPC Sawgrass, to breathtaking dramatic carries high above jungle cliffs with the Atlantic Ocean below, to whimsical holes like the Yogi Berra, where the fairway splits and there are two separate greens for a par 4 or par 5 (a compromise when the two brothers couldn’t agree).
Plans call for the 2,000 acres to feature five golf courses, and there is permission for up to five hotels and 5,000 rooms. Next will be real estate sales and co-developers and investors Pasarell hopes to entice. Building the golf course, casitas, clubhouse and infrastructure so far has been an investment of about $70 million, and he believes that with the government’s focus on building the tourism economy, his project over the next 20 years will become one of the most significant on the island.
On Puerto Rico’s northeastern corner on top of a cliff is the 500-acre El Conquistador complex operating under the Waldorf Astoria flag. Like Puerto Rico’s luxury scene, the property has had its ups and downs from being favored by the likes of Burt Bacharach, Angie Dickinson and Omar Sharif in the 1960s to twice being shuttered before a total rebirth in 1993 and then some more bumps until Stephen Schwarzman’s Blackstone Group (which also owns Waldorf Astoria parent Hilton Hotels) acquired the property in 2006, spending over $120 million on upgrades, including $12 million on a new water park.
The main El Conquistador buildings have 750 guest rooms and just 16 suites, while the separate Las Casitas Village offers 157 one-, two- and three-bedroom villas, three private pools, butler service and access to the full resort including the Caribbean’s only Golden Door Spa, 23 bars restaurants and lounges, and its private 100-acre Palomino Island, a 12-minute ride by the hotel’s high-speed catamaran. The island serves as the resort’s beach and can handle private parties up to 2,000 (Yamaha dealers recently had a meeting in the 21,000-square-foot conference center that is part of the main hotel and used the island for an event). Like at Dorado, there is a helipad. And of course there is golf—an Arthur Hills layout that has challenged me personally in past years.
Niche hotels are also opening: Fishing legend Captain Omar Orraca last month opened the 11- room Tarpon Nest Lodge on a lagoon next to the airport. Spartan guest rooms emphasize storage for your rods over luxury amenities but are steps from a dock—Orraca’s boats are ready to take you to world-ranked tarpon fishing spots, three to eight minutes away.
Football legends Eric Dickerson and Deion Sanders, boxer Oscar de la Hoya and chocolate king Ricky Blommer are clients who join Orraca in hours-long battles with the 100-plus-pound fish.
A LUXE FUTURE
Back to luxury properties, the 16-room Small Luxury Hotel O:live opened in May 2011, while existing hotels have been getting investment too.
Blackstone’s Conrad in San Juan has benefited from a $47 million renovation, and The Ritz-Carlton, San Juan recently had a $10 million facelift, with a new spa in the works.
Dermot Connolly, a veteran Caribbean hotelier and managing director of the Waldorf Astoria, compares the influx of brands to when he was in Jamaica at Rose Hall and The Ritz-Carlton opened there. “It gave the entire destination credibility,” he recalled.
In terms of why there is a bright future, Nicole Rodriguez, Puerto Rico Tourism Company’s marketing director puts it succinctly: “If you use our convention center as an example, we are able to compete against Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Orlando. Why? It’s state of the art. And when you come here for business, you have all the same standards and infrastructure you get in the United States. Everything works. It’s easy to do business.”
Validation is coming from all directions. After years of lobbying, the James Beard Foundation, for the first time, will consider Puerto Rico’s chefs for its annual awards. Travel + Leisure recently named Vieques, home to the sleek two-year-old W, its “island of the year” and selected the hotel for its annual Travel Agent Advisory Board meeting, and of course its WOW Ocean Front Retreat suite was in Elite Traveler’s 2012 Top 101 Suites, while The St. Regis’s Governor’s Suite claimed a spot on our 2011 honor roll.
If there is any doubt that there will be more luxury projects in Puerto Rico’s future, one need go no further than Jennifer Fox, the president of Fairmont Hotels, owned by power players Colony Capital and Kingdom Holdings. In a recent email exchange, she told me, “We would love to be there.” My guess is quite a few of you will find Puerto Rico in your flight path as well!