Anyone who says that to have a luxury hotel experience, you must sacrifice character, history, and culture hasn’t stayed at El Convento. This boutique luxury hotel, located on Calle Cristo in the heart of Old San Juan, is one of the city’s oldest structures. Founded in 1651, it served as a convent for 250 years. The convent’s closing in 1903 ushered in several decades of a colorful, but sad, history: After laying abandoned for years, it was rented out as a retail store, a dance hall, a flophouse, and a parking garage for garbage trucks. Today, it has been restored to its historic glory. You can easily picture what the convent might have been like in its heyday, with the open hallways, interior courtyard and Spanish arches everywhere. It has, over the past decade, earned a reputation as being the creme-de-la-creme of San Juan hotels. For the solo traveler on a large budget, it is my recommendation as the place to stay in San Juan.
Beware: If you stay here, you might be tempted never to leave the hotel. But that would be a shame, because it is ideally located in Old San Juan, across the street from the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista and within walking distance of the lovely Paseo de Princessa along the water and historic sites such as Forts El Morro and San Cristobal. Spend the day wandering the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, admiring the Spanish colonial architecture and soaking up the history and culture of this port city. When you return to the hotel, you will feel as though you are living in the past–but with all the luxuries and amenities of the present.
The public rooms are adorned with exquisite tapestries, antique furniture, and marble floors. Your room key is no plastic key card, but a real key on a heavy metal key chain engraved with an image of the hotel. There are keyed gates separating the public areas (restaurants, function rooms, and courtyard) from the hallways to the rooms–which should make all guests feel secure, but especially the solo female traveler.
The rooms are tastefully decorated–rich upholstery, wrought-iron lamps, a settee at the foot of the bed, thick area rug, and Andalusian floor tiles in a terra cotta color. The high ceilings feature mahogany beams, and my room had a recessed archway. The bathrooms are small, but attractive and clean, and perfectly sized for the solo traveler. Turn-down service is provided.
The rooms have the expected amenities such as in-room safe, coffee maker, refrigerator, flat panel TV, and air conditioning (though some instructions on how to adjust it would be welcome). Do you like to sleep in on vacation? No problem. The beds are comfortable and come with lots of thick pillows. And nine a.m. will look like midnight as long as the floor-to-ceiling drapes and window shutters are drawn closed.
The room also has a soundproof interior door which was put to the test my first night there. A loud band played at the front of the hotel for the San Sebastian Street Festival and could be heard all the way to my room. But when I closed the soundproof door, I could only faintly hear the bass. I loved this door. I wish all hotels would install them.
Every morning I would draw open the shutters, and enjoy the view of a tiny back street that served as a constant reminder that I was in beautiful Old San Juan.
If you don’t feel like venturing out for your meals, the hotel has some restaurants on-site serving traditional Puerto Rican cuisine. I can recommend El Picoteo tapas bar for mojitos and a light dinner overlooking the courtyard, and Patio del Nispero for a scrumptious courtyard breakfast. An honors bar on the third floor offers free coffee if you prefer a liquid breakfast.
El Convento has all the facilities of a luxury hotel, including a spa, fitness facility (with brand new equipment and flooring), a business center with internet access, and a fourth floor plunge pool and jacuzzi. You don’t have to miss out on the Puerto Rican beach experience, either: They have an arrangement with two sister hotels (one in Condado and one in Isla Verde) for guests who want to spend the day at the beach.
I found one of the most delightful features to be the fifth floor patio. You can lounge in the sun and read in this quiet refuge, surrounded by the hotel’s herb and vegetable garden. You might even see one of the chefs come out to collect ingredients for that night’s dinner.
Daily between 6 and 7pm, the hotel hosts a wine and cheese reception on La Veranda Terrace on the third floor. This offers an opportunity to mingle with the manager and other hotel guests, or simply grab a bite to eat before heading out for the evening. I enjoyed relaxing over a glass of wine and chatting with some other guests as we watched the sun go down. I could not imagine a more perfect ending to a day in San Juan.
What I loved the most, aside from the luxury and rich character of the hotel, was the warmth of the staff to this solo traveler. Everyone I came in contact with smiled readily and was friendly and eager to be of help. The bilingual front desk staff (who double as concierge) were especially knowledgeable and patient with my questions. When I asked for a recommendation of a restaurant in Old San Juan with live entertainment, they booked a dinner reservation for me at Carli’s Cafe Concierto, a lovely restaurant with live jazz piano (which turned out to be a great choice).
I’ve stayed at four- and five-star hotels many times before, and while the staffs of those hotels were always professional, they sometimes lacked the warmth and familiarity of, say, the staff at a small B&B. El Convento strives to maintain that “small hotel” feel, and it succeeds. One of my fellow guests summed it up perfectly: “It’s luxurious without feeling stuffy.”
I stayed at El Convento in January 2010 at a discount media rate. The cost was still more than I normally spend on hotel accommodations. . .and it was worth every penny.