Driving through the verdant green mountains to the Southwest side of Puerto Rico, I was amazed at how lush, and undeveloped much of the land was. Arriving at my destination, the landscape filled with stunning beaches and inlets was breathtaking. Things are finally starting to look up for Puerto Rico, after struggling to recover since Hurricane Maria hit in 2017. Hollywood is also calling with more film productions than ever planning to shoot on the less populated region of the island, where tranquil beaches and healthy tropical forests are abundant.
I was eager to leave busy San Juan to explore another side to the island. My first west coast stop was at the famed Rincón Beach, widely known as the surfing capital with its reef-lined Atlantic beaches hosting world-class surfing competitions. The small, laid back area of Rincón positioned where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world on its Caribbean side.
Stopping for lunch at the beautiful The Horned Dorset Primavera Hotel was a treat with its 16 luxury suites and villas available for rent. Celebrities like Benicio Del Toro, Scarlet Johansson, and Diana Ross love to hide out here, and it is obvious why. With a romantic bar and villas positioned on the crashing waves, it is the perfect getaway. We dined in the Chateau Rose Restaurant with the charming GM Wilhelm Sack and toured the elegantly furnished villas and Presidential Suite, all with individual private plunge pools. It was nice to spend the afternoon and have massages listening to the waves crash before heading out for more exploring.
One of my favorite places in Puerto Rico is Guánica. Bordering the Caribbean Sea, it has the largest area of dry coastal forest in the world and is also a UNESCO site. Many visitors also love to swim in the Parguera Phosphorescent Bay where the marine plankton glows when disturbed by movement.
Both Rincón and Guánica have become popular with millionaires and entrepreneurs building large waterfront villas overlooking the mangrove forests and neighboring Gilligan’s Island. We took a boat to the small island which hosts manatees and Hawksbill turtles. The calm waters around the island perfect for wading and feeling like your own Robinson Crusoe.
Our base for a few nights was the stunning Villa Mariposa, an exclusive villa positioned in the middle of Guánica’s Dry Forest. The large modern villa has five bedrooms and a fantastic infinity pool overlooking the waterfront.
Directly adjacent to the villa is the Copamarina Beach Resort & Spa, and truly the only resort in the area. Our villa provided a tender to drop us off directly on the pier in front of the hotel where we enjoyed an amazing wine paired dinner of decadent pastas and lamb lollipops at their Restaurante Alexandra. The Copamarina has 104 rooms, suites, and villas and also includes a private three bedroom luxury villa for extended families. We enjoyed the resort and its friendly staff so much that we returned for spa treatments in a bungalow over the water. This is an excellent property for families wanting to get away from the busy city life for a fun weekend away.
Located only 25 minutes from Guánica is Ponce, a beautiful, well-preserved old town that offers up grand old mansions built in a Creole architectural style. Puerto Rico’s second largest city has a traditional center square with the downtown Plaza de las Delicias. We visited the famed Castillo Serralles (Serralles Castle) for rum tasting and exploring the magnificent grounds of the estate.
Castillo Serralles is the former residence of the most powerful rum-producing family in Puerto Rico, the Serralles family, producers of Don Q rum. Built in the 1930s, the Serralles Castle is the perfect example of Spanish Revival architecture and is located on a hill in a prized position overlooking the entire city of Ponce.
We enjoyed rum tasting and my new guilty pleasure appetizer Bacalaitos (fried fish fritters) with Puerto Rico’s only female rum master blender Silvia Santiago and I was thrilled to meet a diverse team of talented women who are making it their mission to help bolster the economy and reinvigorate the film community of Puerto Rico (and Ponce). They plan to employ a majority of local crew and work with local universities and charities to give back to the area for their upcoming independent film “Season of the Witches.”
I spoke with director Deborah Riley Draper and writer/producer Sherri Daye Scott on why they decided to film in Ponce. “After Hurricane Maria, nobody thought it would be possible to shoot in Puerto Rico, but it made me that much more adamant about shooting there” says writer/producer Sherri Daye Scott, “Most filmmakers also have no idea about how great the tax credits are for shooting there and how generous they are in supporting films. This is also a way as creatives that we can give back to the island.”
“Eighty percent of the film’s budget will be spent in Ponce,” says director Deborah Riley Draper, “We will be the first film to shoot Puerto Rico for Puerto Rico since the Hurricane. I also want people to remember that this is America, this is ours, and we all get to share this, and we are supporting our own when we come to Puerto Rico.”
It was time to say farewell to the West Coast, and we took the three-hour drive back to San Juan with my new favorite local expert Ricardo Miguel Martinez to spend our final evening. We stayed in San Juan’s trendy Condado neighborhood, at the all-new 96-room boutique Serafina Beach Hotel. Packed with young, fashionable visitors, drinking cocktails on the pool deck, this hotel is bringing a South Beach vibe to Puerto Rico. All of the rooms and suites are oceanfront, but I prefer the Penthouse with private terrace for more space. The breakfast is one of the very best on the island, and the hip atmosphere is what keeps the crowds returning.
We enjoyed a special wine paired dinner at the beautiful newly reinvented 1919 Restaurant located at the famed Condado Vanderbilt Hotel. Its Michelin starred Executive Chef Juan Jose Cuevas prepared a wide variety of locally sourced contemporary light meals building up to hearty entrees for every taste imaginable. Kudos to the restaurant and Chef for feeding thousands of hurricane survivors in the weeks following Maria.
Another one of my favorite places to stay is the stunning Dorado Beach- A Ritz-Carlton Reserve located just 20 miles from the San Juan Airport, providing some of the most beautiful private villas and suites. My favorite is the huge, 8,000 sf, five bedroom Su Casa villa, or you can choose from 29 spectacular oceanfront villas for the ultimate secluded luxury experience in Puerto Rico.
This was one of those amazing journeys where the people became the star. It is the courage and resilience of the people of Puerto Rico that are showing what it really means to be a survivor. Despite the extreme circumstances of getting their island back to normal, and the devastating losses, they continue to be welcoming and excited to show off the place they are so proud to call home, and I can’t wait to return.