Like watching fireworks, you may all “Ooo” and “Ahhh” to your hearts content as I cover my trip to San Juan, PR and then on the Carnival Victory. Today, I’m going to cover San Juan, PR or rather OLD San Juan, which is where we stayed for two nights and days before embarking on the cruise. We’ll begin with the adventure that is… flying in the winter, and I’ll keep it short.
DH and I began the 20th of January with an early wake-up so we could get our butts on out the door and to the 7 AM Van Galder bus that would take us right to O’Hare Airport in Chicago. We were hoping to get out before the winter storm hit, which we didn’t do, but we DID get out just as it was starting. We boarded our flight on time, got out just shy of two hours later after two restarts of the plane and the planes computers, and two deicings. We caught our connecting flight at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and got into San Juan at 9:30 PM local time and hopped a cab over to our hotel, the Casablanca, in Old San Juan. There was a small mix up with DH’s and my room – someone had canceled our reservation for the first night – BUT, they did happen to have one more room, they didn’t have a key for it other than the master key. No worries! We got into our room and met our group down in the lobby.
Now, because airlines think that domestic flight passengers can survive a whole day on peanuts or pretzels alone, we were hungry! Our group asked where the restaurants were and were told to head down a couple streets, so we made our way out onto Calle de Fortaleza in the direction we were told to go, but we came across the restaurant, Aquaviva. I immediately ordered the Apple Caipirinha, DH ordered the Watermelon Vivatini and we were quite happy with our choices. I love caipirinha’s since I had my first one at Hinterland Brewery in Green Bay, WI, and this apple version was awesome – I’m in love with it… well, maybe just lust. Drinks ordered, we all perused the menu and opted for lighter fare due to the late hour. DH and I split the SOFO Ensalada and he ordered the Tomato and Shrimp Ceviche while I went with the Buneaulos de Bacalao (cod fritters with lemon aioli). The service was fantastic, the food excellent and the decor hip with its tropical sea vibe and octopus-like fixtures; cool blues and whites.
We headed back to the hotel for sleep, and come morning we met our friends after breakfast, which is available in the hotel. Within Hotel Casablanca is Rick’s Cafe (yes, like the movie), where they serve a Continental breakfast of toast, cereal, juice and/or coffee. Since I’m a big breakfast kinda girl, I opted for the “pay” menu and got the Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon served on what was supposed to be brioche, but was whole wheat (toe-may-toe/toe-mah-toe); it came with roasted potatoes and had a VERY dijony Bearnaise sauce. The Puerto Rican cappuccino that was served with the meal was wonderful! A large vessel full of raw cane sugar (yummy!) was plunked down in front of me for my coffee, and while I’m a big fan of raw cane sugar – I’m a no-sugar-added person when it comes to my coffee. DH opted for the scrambled eggs and bacon with toast and juice (he’s not a coffee man unless it’s Kahlua), and we were both thoroughly satisfied with our meal.
Fueled-up, we made our way out into Old San Juan to explore and to head to Castillo San Felipe del Morro at the far west end of the peninsula. I’m a History buff – I should be considering it was a subject I was going for a major in in college, so I love National Historic sites and museums. The fort was very informative, and had lots of levels to explore. I also learned, well… I read about, how to fire a cannon. This is useful knowledge to have, no?
Thoroughly crispified from lots of sun, and with companions who are more advanced in years that ourselves, we heard the siren song of food and drink and thus headed back into the streets of the city proper. We came across El Picoteo bar de Tapas and grabbed a table in the shade on the veranda. Mojitos, sangria and their Ultimate Cuba Libre were ordered. The drinks were all lovely and as for the tapas… Mmmm! DH ordered the grilled chicken breasts wrapped with Serrano ham and served with a tomato and cheese sauce. I ordered the Queso Manchego, slices of sheep’s cheese drizzled with truffle honey and served with bread. SO GOOD!
The rest of our group was due to arrive in the city mid-afternoon so we made our way back to the hotel, where I stopped off at Walgreen’s for some after sun product. Sorry Walgreen’s… your sensitive skin after sun product is not my friend! It took two days, but I developed some LOVELY hives on my arms, legs and abs. I also got myself a hat. No, not one of those wide-brimmed floppy hats. I got myself a Panama Jack Panama Fedora in white straw with a black band. Maybe not the best choice for sun protection, but I like it and it called to me to be added to my hat collection.
We met our friends in the late afternoon, and they too were hungry like we were after our flight, and were told to try a restaurant that was off of Plaza Colon, the name escapes me – because they weren’t open yet, so we opted for Cafe Berlin. The most memorable dishes ordered had to be the Mofongo!!! One of our group ordered the mofongo with garlic sauce and another ordered it with criollo sauce. The Criollo Sauce slathered version was the winner. I tried a bite from each, along with a bite of some candied mango from another plate that was in our group of eight. DH ordered a mojito and I opted for the Strawberries & Cream Martini, I was in need of something sweet.
Earlier in the day I had made reservations for dinner at Marmalade, which was conveniently across the street from our hotel. Since our dining time was late (9 PM), we spent the rest of the evening wandering Old San Juan and enjoying the sites. What a lively town! And, despite many warnings I received about Old San Juan being a dangerous place, I never once felt unsafe. There were people everywhere! There was also a decent amount of Police on foot patrol walking the city.
Marmalade was fantastic. Did you hear that? FAN-TAS-TIC! I opted for the Marmalade Lemonade for my cocktail (delish!), and our group of friends is not shy about sharing our food and drinks, so I tried everything that was passed, from the Kiwi Libre to the White Devil Martini (like an Almond Joy). Dinner was equally wonderful. I opted for the Ceviche (red snapper) for an appetizer and the rest of our group all received a small cup of the house specialty, the Tiny White Bean Soup…. it’s crack in a cup! It is SO GOOD that they have recipe cards for it on the bar (yes, I snagged one). My dinner I kept light and had the Heirloom Golden Beet salad. It was incredibly tasty, and filling, and the portion sizes were PERFECT! The Owner Chef of Marmalade, Peter Schintler, stopped by our table and visited with our group. Talk turned to the Midwest (he went to school at University of Iowa) and UW Madison football coach, Brett Bielema, who also went to U of I, and frequents Marmalade a few times a year. Peter was very engaging, and we all had a lovely visit with him.
The next morning, Sunday, I opted for the “pay” menu at Rick’s Cafe again, and went with the poached eggs with spinach and blue cheese. This came again with the roasted potatoes and Bearnaise sauce, and of course… the cappuccino! DH went with the Ham & Cheese Crepes. It was another great breakfast and we were off to explore the city again with the group. On Saturday DH, our friends and myself had found, Parque de las Palomas…. or “Pigeon Park”. Now, being the mischievious kind of friends that we are, and having our friend M being one of those people terrified of birds… we HAD to take her there. So, we hiked up to Pigeon Park, where M screamed and I bought a $1 bag of cracked corn to feed the pigeons. I had a great time being covered with “flying rats” and had made a friend of a large pigeon, I assumed to be a male, who kept post on my wrist and didn’t want to share with anyone else. After the trauma for M at Parque de las Palomas, it was back to exploring the island. DH and I broke off seperately and we headed to the north wall of the city, which looks down into La Perla. La Perla is NOT where the tourists want to go. So, we looked down upon what appeared to be a deserted suburb, viewed the rocky north coast of the peninsula and made our way back to Plaza Colon where we took up post on the corner of O’Donnel and Fortaleza.
We sat in the shade of some trees, a man was playing guitar for tips nearby and we watched the tourists, the locals, the traffic, the birds and the rats. Hey, every city has them, you just don’t normally see them. We discovered that the rats were living under the wooden “deck” we were sitting on, and apparently we were disturbing them, so they were running back and forth through the undergrowth of the planting bed adjacent to us. After a while, and seeing a lot more people heading in the direction of the cruise ship, we made our way to the hotel to pick up our bags and meet up with our group so we could walk on down to the pier.
Next up, Graffiti!!