Review: The Ritz Carlton San Juan

Despite living in Florida I very rarely visit the Caribbean. Fares from Tampa to San Juan are consistently low, often as low as $69 each way thanks to JetBlue flying between the two cities nonstop. So I finally pulled the trigger and booked a 24-hour trip to San Juan. A friend found equally good fares from the west coast, so booked a stay at the same time.

I really struggled in regards to where to stay. I try to stick to Hyatt, Starwood, and Priority Club as much as possible, though in this case no option was ideal. Hyatt doesn’t have a hotel in San Juan, so they weren’t an option. The InterContinental San Juan gets awful reviews in terms of their Royal Ambassador treatment, so I did what I could to avoid it.

That narrowed it down to the two Sheratons, one of which is at the convention center, and the other of which is in Old Town. I was tempted to go with the convention center location since it’s a new hotel and gets generally good reviews. The Old Town Sheraton also gets good reviews, though is a much older hotel.

So in the end as a result of indecisiveness I decided to book the Ritz Carlton, which seemed to offer the best of both worlds (though at a cost). It’s close to the airport, at the beach, and gets all around great reviews.

The rate for one night was $339. That’s by no means cheap, though by booking through a Virtuoso agent we received a $100 resort credit, full daily breakfast, and a room upgrade at no additional cost. Like I said it isn’t cheap, though when you’re splitting the costs two ways and get all those extra perks, it really is a pretty good value, in my opinion.

Anyway, I arrived in San Juan at around 1PM and we took a taxi to the Ritz Carlton. San Juan seems to have a bit of a taxi mafia as all the prices are fixed. In the case of the Ritz Carlton, a taxi cost $10 plus $1 per bag (there was a bit of a discrepancy as to whether a backpack or laptop bag counts as a bag for these purposes, since we were charged $12 on the way out and $14 on the way back). The ride took less than 10 minutes.


Ritz Carlton placard

As soon as we arrived at the hotel we were helped with our bags by the bellman and escorted to check-in which was located just inside of the lobby on the right.


Hotel exterior


Hotel entrance

There was a wait of about five minutes, though I was happy to see they had bottled water and juice set up on the side of the lobby, since it was hot as heck outside.


Lobby bar


Lobby


Water and juice

Our check-in agent was courteous and explained to us all the benefits we would be entitled to. He checked on the best room upgrade for a room with either a king bed or two double beds, and the best he could do was a king bed with a pool view on a low floor (which is a one category upgrade). The hotel was packed due to a wedding party taking up half of the hotel, so we were perfectly happy with that.

The elevators are key activated, and we took it up to the third floor, where our room was located pretty close to the elevators.


Hallway


Room entrance

The room itself wasn’t huge though was nicely decorated and arranged. It featured a very comfortable king bed, large seat, and desk with comfortable chair. There was also a well stocked minibar, though the only place I ever use minibars is at hotels where they’re free or at InterContinental hotels, where I get free beverages as a Royal Ambassador member.


Room


TV and desk


View from room


Minibar


Room

The bathroom featured a shower, double sinks, and a separate room with the toilet. All the toiletries were Ritz Carlton branded.


Bathroom


Toiletries


Shower

While it has been a few years since the hotel was renovated, I feel they did a spectacular job maintaining the rooms, since there were virtually no scratches/stains.

The only negative was that the room had no bottled water (with the exception of in the minibar), which I found strange given that they even had free bottled water at check-in.

The resort itself was really beautiful. It featured both a huge pool with plenty of seating, as well as a beach. Admittedly there are nicer beaches in the Caribbean than in San Juan, though this one seemed very nice by San Juan standards.


Pool


Pool


Resort exterior


Beach entrance

As you approach the beach there are employees there that help with setting up the lounge chairs based on where you want to sit, and that can help with any other requests. As an aviation geek I thought it was pretty awesome that there were great airplane views from the beach, as the runway is only about a mile away.


Beach

One of the reasons the hotel was so packed was because of a huge Indian wedding at the hotel, and they got married on the beach, which I thought was pretty cool.


Wedding

And these people really did know how to party morning, day, and night. The morning we left they seemed to have some impromptu rock concert on the driveway of the hotel.


Some concert

At around 4PM we were pretty hungry so decided to have a late lunch at obg, the beachfront restaurant. It was much more casual and we were wearing shorts and t-shirts, not to mention I really wanted to enjoy the beach views.


Menu


Pina colada

The prices were what you’d expect for a Ritz Carlton restaurant with a beach view. I had a pina colada, which was $14, and then had fish tacos, which were $19. Fortunately the $100 resort credit more than took care of lunch.


Fish tacos

All the employees I interacted with were friendly and eager to help. They were a bit more laid back than at the Ritz Carlton Hong Kong, for example, but I kind of expect that for a beach hotel in Puerto Rico.

The hotel also has a huge gym that’s actually located inside the spa. The downside of being located inside the spa is that it’s only open from 6AM till 9AM, so if you have weird hours like that be sure to keep that in mind. That being said, the quality and variety of the equipment was excellent.


Gym


Gym

In the evening we went to Old San Juan. Once again the taxi prices are fixed, and it was $20 for the roughly 15-minute ride to the Old Town. Old San Juan was stunning, and I can’t wait to return.

It was a Friday night so the atmosphere was great, with live music on the street, all kinds of street vendors, and plenty of people watching.


Street market


Concert

We had dinner at a restaurant we found along the way, which was delicious. I had sausage to start, and shrimp with yellow rice as the main course. For dessert was tres leches cake, which was among the best I’ve had.


Appetizer


Shrimp with yellow rice


Amazing tres leches cake

I was a bit surprised to return to the hotel and find that they hadn’t done turndown service on our room. I’m not sure if it was an oversight or they only do it upon request, but we at no point had the “do not disturb” sign out, so I’m not sure why.

Like I said breakfast was included since we booked through Virtuoso, so we had breakfast at around 8AM at Mares Restaurant. We had the full buffet, which would have cost $28 per person.


Mares Restaurant

The spread was top notch in terms of quality and variety. They had all kinds of pastries and breads, yogurt, hot dishes (scrambled eggs, quesadillas, etc.), fruit, cereal, etc. The service was really attentive as well.


Breakfast spread


Breakfast spread


Breakfast spread


Breakfast spread


Breakfast spread

The biggest props, though, have to go to the chef at the omelet station. I was looking at the various options, and he said “I see you eying my food. Let me know if you need the lowdown on anything, I ga’cha covered.”

At around 11AM the following morning it was back to the airport after an all too quick trip.

I can’t believe I haven’t visited San Juan before because it really is beautiful, and from what I’ve heard there are plenty of other things to explore on the island of Puerto Rico as well. Also, Puerto Rico feels nothing like the rest of the US, so it really is a nice change of pace.

The Ritz Carlton is a fantastic choice, especially when booking through Virtuoso or American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts, and I wouldn’t for a second hesitate to return if the value is right. That being said, I’d also consider staying at hotels on other parts of the island, which I’ve heard great things about as well.

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Comments

  1. @ Murphy — I’m hoping to in the future, though in this case with a 22 hour layover figured it wasn’t too practical.

  2. We’ve stayed at the InterContinental San Juan about 10 times, and we have always received excellent treatment as Royal Ambassadors. Admittedly, we always email or call ahead about the upgrade and usually get some run around at check-in. However, in the end we’ve pretty much always gotten the upgrades we wanted. You should give this hotel a try.

  3. @ Roland – From his post a few ago comparing UA and AA domestic F food, I’m pretty sure he flew AA from Miami.

  4. The impromptu rock concert you saw was one of the ceremonies they do in an Indian wedding, typically the morning after the wedding – which signifies sending the bride to her “own” home – meaning to her in-laws… I think it was that 🙂 … and if so, it was not a concert, it was just drums and music playing for that ceremony…

    It could also be dancing for fun after the wedding… who knows … 🙂

  5. I don’t mean to be snarky but what’s with the huge crowd at the pool? It looks like one of those resorts where people claim their pool spot with a towel at 4am.

  6. Lucky, I have always been curious – are there any customs or immigration checks at SJU for arriving flights from the US? Was your passport checked? Or do you just walk through like any other US destination?

  7. Good Morning,
    I am a Virtuoso Agent and Stars Agent (a preferred relationship with Ritz-Carlton), and send guests all the time to RC SJU.

    It really is the best option for a “quick-getaway”. That being said, there are plans to open a Ritz Carlton Reserve at the site of the former Hyatt Dorado Beach, due to open in December.

    Just a piece of advice to all readers: when staying at a luxury property such as Ritz and Four Seasons, it is always best to book via through an agent who will sure get you more for your buck 🙂

  8. San Juan is a great destination for a few days. We spent nearly a week and it was just too much I think. I do agree that Old Town is great, though for a great party and some culture try to go in the third week of January during Festival de Calle San Sebastian. It was crazy, but also fun and educational.

    Also taking a trip to El Yunque National Forest and one of the bio-luminescent bays should be on the top of your list.

    @Joe – No, Puerto Rico is a US territory so like Guam, American Samoa, and the US Virgin Islands no passports are required.

  9. I went to Puerto Rico about a year and a half ago, and was surprised by how much I loved it. You’re right that there are more beautiful beaches in the Caribbean, but I found the people to be very friendly, and the service was relatively attentive.

    Next time you go, I highly recommend kayaking on one of the bioluminescent bays. I went to the one in Fajardo, which was amazing. There is also one near Vieques, and on the other side of the island near Ponce. Definitely a must-do.

  10. Who was this “friend” you had a quickie weekend with in the lone bed? Hope he was hot!

  11. Ben- Why a quick 24 hour trip? Seems like it would be very tiring. Also, what airline did you take and from where?

  12. What’s the point of 30 trips a year for 1 day in a place? You must be rich, spoiled, or both.

  13. @Lucky:

    1. What specific room was the $339 rate for?

    2. Was Virtuoso the reason you inquired about upgrades or did you have some other status that came into play?

    3. Who would you recommend Virtuoso to over other booking methods and under what circumstances?

    4. What was the taste and quality of the lunch at the Ritz?

    5. Which restaurant had the shrimp with yellow rice?

    OK, I think I’ll leave it at that. 😀

  14. @Joe. As noted above, there is no immigration check. However, on leaving, all luggage is x-rayed for agricultural products. The airlines won’t let you check-in without a sticker on your bags showing they were scanned. This applies even if you are inbound from an international destination and only transitting SJU. It’s not a huge deal, but, at Christmas time (when we are typically passing through), the lines get long.

  15. Lucky, did you consider the St. Regis? It is apparently not too far from SJU, but probably not practical for an overnight.

  16. @ Gene — Thanks, might give the IC a try next time. Have heard nothing but awful things about it for RA treatment, so happy to hear it’s not the case for everyone. What kind of an upgrade do you usually get, out of curiosity?

    @ Roland — No, I booked American. I was just saying that JetBlue keeps the prices down in the market.

    @ John — I had no clue there was one. Anyone know?

    @ Acker — Hah, the pool was very crowded, and I suspect it had a lot to do with the wedding, as everyone in the pool seemed to know each other.

    @ Joe — Nope, nothing at all, just like any other domestic airport.

  17. @ Oscar — Hah, I’d say Cancun. San Juan didn’t feel American at all.

    @ Joe S — As shady as the site looks, I’ll have to give it a try sometime!

    @ Dax — The $339 rate was for a garden view room. I was offered the upgrade due to Virtuoso, since that’s one of the benefits. I’ll have a post coming up shortly explaining Virtuoso and AmEx FHR in greater detail, though generally if you’re staying at a Virtuoso hotel there’s no reason not to book through them, since you get lots of extra benefits.

    While the food was “simple” at the Ritz, it was actually really good. And I’m an idiot because I completely forgot to mark down the name of the restaurant we had dinner at.

    @ Ryan — Interesting. At no points were my bags scanned upon arrival or upon departure, except at the TSA checkpoint. Maybe they stopped doing that?

    @ Ryan — Would definitely want to try the St. Regis sometime in the future, though it was considerably more expensive and is also a bit further. But for a longer trip to San Juan I’d love to find a way to stay there.

  18. Im surprised at the positive review….I found the gym to be unacceptable (it is the size of one hotel room with a pointless empty yoga room next door), and the pool is unheated. THe trees also block all the sun from the pool, and as you indicated the beach is substandard, even if “OK” for SJ. Agree with commenter that Vieques is awesome.

  19. I stayed at the IC SJU about two years ago. The property is decent. Check-in went fine. However, when we got to the room, half of the bedding was wet and had a lysol smell. My guess is the maid dropped something on it? A call to the front desk fixed the problem.

    The location is ideal. Valet parking if I remember correctly is $50/day. The fax-machine in the business center was steep at $1/page that you need to buy a pre-paid biz center card to use.

    The pool bars are great. The drinks were more than you’d pay at your local bar, but definitely not $14 for a pina colada! We didn’t eat at the property as we had a rental and there are lots of great places to eat locally.

    We would most likely return to this property. If I remember correctly, it was somewhere around $149-199/nt on HotWire

  20. @John and @Lucky – Yes, the cock fighting arena is still there. Or at least it was in January. Can’t imagine it would have moved since.

  21. PR being a US Territory puts it at an interesting spot. There is no immigration check, but there is a customs check. Checked bags get extra screening (similar to Hawaii’s agricultural check). The other interesting thing is that for Duty Free purposes, you are considered outside of the United States proper and do have an allowance.

    Lucky – u didn’t order a diet coke with a lime? How unusual to see that pina colada.

    The Hilton El San Juan (former Waldorf Astoria) is a nice hotel near the airport that I like. With certain corporate discounts, the rates are very reasonable (~100/night). Add in miles, free breakfast for golds (i’m sure you can get it for free), and it’s a pretty good deal. The lobby turns into a night club – very crazy.

  22. @ JetsettingEric — Hey, I also like pina coladas, especially when a beach is involved. 😀

  23. Looks like you were treated well. I tried to walk in to extend my stay, and book a room, but security walked up to me and said LEAVE. When I caked if I could see a manager, he said, No! I have to say it was the first time I’ve ever been treated like that when I was trying to book a room. Weird! And, to date, no one has gotten back to me after writing several letters.

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