Sunset over Old San Juan

Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico ©Laurel Kallenbach

Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico ©Laurel Kallenbach

March 2018 update: In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in September 2017, Puerto Rico is still struggling to rebuild. If you’re craving sunshine and tropical color, this Caribbean island could be your perfect vacation—and your tourism dollars would help our fellow Americans in the Caribbean!

This view of the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery in historic Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, is iconic. (An old edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook has this photo on its cover.) The desk attendant at my hotel shared a scenic tip: Walk to the 16th-century Castillo San Felipe del Morro fortress in late afternoon to watch the sunset. I took his advice and was not disappointed!

I wandered along the old streets on the cliff above the ocean for a while. Nice to be out of the traffic. Just as I reached the old fortress walls, the sun was at its most golden. Looking east over the walls, I could see this chapel and historic cemetery bathed in the warm light, with the Atlantic sparkling and blue. Breathtaking!

Supposedly, the Spanish colonists built the cemetery in the mid-1800s overlooking the Atlantic Ocean to symbolize the spirit’s journey to cross over to the afterlife. I can’t imagine a prettier place to spend eternity!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Puerto Rico:

 

Strolling Old San Juan’s Colorful Streets

March 2018: I’m re-posting my piece about glorious Old San Juan, which I visited in 2014. Yes, Puerto Rico is still struggling to rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Maria in September 2017, but in San Juan, beaches have been cleaned up, and most hotels and restaurants are open. So if you’re craving sunshine and tropical color, Puerto Rico beckons, and your tourism dollars help our citizens in the Caribbean!

Some of the most pleasurable parts of visiting a new place are free—as I learned while rambling among the vibrantly painted apartments and churches in Puerto Rico’s historic downtown area of Old San Juan. My entertainment during my two-day solo stay there was soaking up the atmosphere in Old San Juan, founded by Spanish colonists in 1521.

The streets of Old San Juan are a riot of Caribbean color. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The streets of Old San Juan are a riot of Caribbean color. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The architecture is a spicy mix of old-world Spanish and Caribbean tropical hues. When I got tired of walking, I stopped into some authentic local eateries to sample the flavors of the island too.

Yellow window, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Old San Juan is probably Puerto Rico’s most-visited spot, and rightfully so, with its colonial, cobblestone streets lined by a rainbow of apartments with balconies and bougainvillea. Add in palm trees, fragrant food cooking at wonderful restaurants, and sweeping views of the Atlantic, and you’ll fall in love.

I did.

On my two days in Old San Juan, I wandered among the quieter boulevards and simply drank in the colors. Except for the cars parked all along the streets, it’s easy to imagine how the town looked in the 16th and 17th centuries, back when it was a Spanish colony.

Old San Juan has shops, of course. I dropped into a few local artisan shops during the quiet hours, early morning and late afternoon when the cruise ships weren’t in port.

The inner courtyard of private home. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The inner courtyard of private home. ©Laurel Kallenbach

There are also satisfying restaurants, including modest spots where locals grab breakfast or lunch. At Café Manolin, an Old San Juan institution that serves creole-style food, I had fried eggs and beans with tortillas while I watched the old-style orange juice machine mash up oranges and spit out fresh juice. It tasted heavenly.

For high-end dining, there are many possibilities in the old town. One evening I enjoyed an early dinner at the snazzy Hotel El Convento tapas bar, where I sat on the patio overlooking the courtyard. Contentedly, I sipped a Bacardi Mojito and savored slices of Manchego cheese drizzled with truffle honey served with fresh-baked bread.

Mostly though, I wandered Old San Juan until my feet were sore or I got too hot in the Caribbean sun. That’s when I knew it was time to return to my “home” during my stay: the Casablanca Hotel. There I could nurse a margarita or cold Puerto Rican cerveza—the Old Harbor Taina brews are lovely—and watch one of my favorite movies of all time projected on the wall of the bar. Or, I walked up the stairs for a siesta in my room, which was small but comfy with a Moroccan flair.

I never got tired of taking photos of the brilliant architecture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I never got tired of taking photos of the brilliant architecture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The concierge at the Casablanca steered me to the best restaurants, and he humored me by letting me practice my Spanish. (For the record, most puertorriqueños speak fluent English.) This U.S. territory uses the American dollar. And I did a double-take one day when I bumped into the mailman wearing the traditional U.S. mail uniform—with shorts of course!

In addition, the Castillo San Cristóbal fortress and the Castillo San Felipe del Morro  are part of the U.S. National Park Service, where interpreters in those Smoky Bear hats give you guided tours of the old fort walls overlooking the azure ocean.

Mostly I loved Old San Juan’s small details, like iron knockers, glimpses into courtyards of apartment buildings, and colorful shutters. Nearly every apartment number was painted on glazed tiles.

Pink lantern, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Pink lantern, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

One morning, after breakfast, I was crossing a plaza and saw a skinny, feral cat dash out of nowhere and grab a pigeon from a flock pecking at the cobblestones. I was shocked; domesticated cats back home are rarely that fast, but clearly this cat was hunting for his breakfast!

A few hours later, I noticed a grumpy Persian perched inside the window of a posh apartment. He gazed out at the street with a pout that reminded me of a grounded teenager.

No, pampered puss, you have an easy life in your house, I thought. The streets of Old San Juan are lovely for us tourists, but they would be hard for a cat like you.

Brass knocker on a door ©Laurel Kallenbach

Brass knocker on a door ©Laurel Kallenbach

On and on I strolled the quiet streets of colonial San Juan, enjoying the arched entryways, elegant shuttered windows, and ornate iron grillwork—an art form brought to the New World by the Spanish.

Viva Viejo San Juan—viva Old San Juan!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Puerto Rico:

Reach Falls: Freshwater Fun in Jamaica

Freshwater cascades of Reach Falls, Jamaica

When we think of Caribbean islands, we usually envision turquoise and deep blue waves—and there are plenty of those in Jamaica. Hidden in its lush mountains, however, is a freshwater idyll that visitors shouldn’t miss.

Reach Falls is a refreshing destination—and a pleasant alternative to hanging out on the beach.

Cascades and Pools

What’s more exotic than a swimming hole in the jungle? That’s the magic of Reach Falls in the Blue Mountains east of the town of Port Antonio. Here, water cascades over the massive boulders in some places and forms quiet pools in others.

What I loved at Reach Falls:

  • Swimming through the blue-green water (the milky color comes from the limestone) into shallow caves and peering out at the rainforest through the rivulets of water.
  • Getting a shoulder and scalp massage by standing beneath the water of a rushing cascade.
  • Riding the flume. This is achieved by swimming vigorously upstream to perch on a rock ledge with swirling whitewater around you. Then launch yourself into the current, and let it carry you downstream.

    Deep, clear pools are perfect for a cool dip on a hot afternoon.

Details: There’s an entrance fee to Reach Falls. Facilities include picnic tables, toilets, changing rooms, and lifeguards for general safety.

You can hike up the river to Reach Falls and explore the lush jungled area.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally published: June 18, 2010

Read more about my travels in Jamaica:


Tropical Dining with a Jamaican Twist: Sustainable Mille Fleurs Restaurant

No good hotel is complete without an innovative restaurant, and Hotel Mocking Bird Hill’s Mille Fleurs is just such a place. I savored every mouth-watering bite during my stay there—and each was both sustainable and satisfying.

The romantic Mille Fleurs restaurant in Jamaica focuses on organic, island-grown foods. Photo courtesy Hotel Mocking Bird Hill

Unlike many Caribbean resorts that import the majority of their food, Hotel Mocking Bird Hill cooks with locally grown and harvested ingredients whenever possible, thereby supporting local farmers and putting fresh, tasty, and usually organically-grown foods on guests’ plates. Chef Melvin Laidlaw and the hotel’s owners also seek out foods that originate from within 50 miles, occasionally widening that to 90 miles when necessary.

The Mille Fleurs adventure begins before your first dinner at the hotel when Chef Melvin sits down to tell you what’s on the menu (it changes daily, depending on what’s in season). He also explains the origins of all the foods and describes Jamaican specialties such as callaloo (a green, leafy vegetable—like spinach—that’s simmered with coconut milk, chopped onions and garlic).

Chef Melvin also asks about your dietary restrictions or preferences. If you’re gluten intolerant, you’re in luck. Cassava, a starchy root that grows in the tropics, is a Jamaican staple—and cassava flour is gluten free. It’s the primary ingredient in Jamaican coconut-milk-fried flatbread called “bammy”—which is heaven!

Dreamy Dining

Candlelit by night, Mille Fleurs restaurant creates romantic atmosphere on its terrace overlooking the Caribbean Sea and rainforest—with the Blue Mountains on the horizon. I loved sitting with a rum drink as the sun set, feeling the cool night breeze and watching the fireflies glow.

To give you a sample of the outrageously good food, my first night’s meal include an orange salad with green olives and local feta* accompanied by fresh-baked herb rolls and scones. For the main course, I chose spiny Caribbean lobster, served with herb butter. (Note: I visited Hotel Mocking Bird Hill in late March, the last days before the close of lobster-catching season. April 1 through June 30 is the lobster’s breeding/egg-laying time, and if you eat lobster between those dates, chances are they’re poached—and I don’t mean in the cooking-method sense!)

To top off the meal, I reveled in a sampler platter of Mango Cheesecake and Papaya and Jamaican Apple & Coconut Custard.

Vegetarian Paradise

I also have to mention that Chef Melvin pampers vegetarians and vegans with Jamaican flavor. On any given day, the menu might include Stir-Fried Callaloo with Garlic, Breadfruit and Peanuts; Spicy Okra and Tomato with Yogurt; Herb Pancakes Filled with Ratatouille and Feta; or Homemade Pasta with Spicy Pumpkin Sauce.

Mille Fleurs participates in Meatless Mondays, a global initiative that promotes reducing your carbon footprint. (The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates the meat industry generates one-fifth of the man-made greenhouse-gas emissions that are accelerating climate change worldwide.)

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

* I’m compelled to sing the praises of the artisan cheeses served at Mille Fleurs. They’re crafted at Jamaica’s Tamarind Hill Farm by Joanna Slimforte and they’re spectacular. I’ve never tasted such vibrant feta outside the Mediterranean, and the goat cheeses vie with Europe’s.

Originally posted on on May 21, 2010

Read more about my travels in Jamaica:

Chef Melvin Laidlaw hosts cooking classes at Hotel Mocking Bird Hill. During this one, we learned some classic Jamaican recipes: jerk chicken, fried plantain, grilled breadfruit, and red beans and rice cooked in coconut milk.