Hurricane Maria did a job on El San Juan Hotel, the storied property in Puerto Rico where Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, and Liza Minnelli once crooned. Water seeped into the lobby and guestrooms, and high winds ripped off awnings and tossed around a stainless-steel sculpture like an inflatable beach ball.
The 60-year-old grande dame could have reopened quickly after the September 2017 storm, but instead the staff took time to meticulously restore the hotel’s historic features. They removed and dried the hand-carved cherry mahogany panels on walls and columns. They repainted the gold ceiling. And they cleaned each of the 7,000 pieces of crystal on the 4,500-pound chandelier that bedazzled the lobby. The repairs cost north of $60 million.
“It was a risk the owners took, but they wanted the hotel and the lobby to be here for the next generation,” said Martin Smith, the property’s managing director. "They said, ’Don’t rush.’ "
On Dec. 14, more than a year after the hurricane, El San Juan Hotel opened its double doors, ushering in guests and the soft Caribbean breeze. Trumpeter Charlie Sepulveda will perform, and the chandelier will likely chime in — a paean to the return of Puerto Rico.
"It’s not just a comeback," Brad Dean, chief executive officer of Discover Puerto Rico, the island’s marketing organization, said of recovery efforts. "It’s a comeback as better than before."
One of the most devastating storms in U.S. history, Maria dealt the island a catastrophic blow with almost 3,000 fatalities, according to an approximation by Puerto Rican government officials. The U.S. territory was already wobbly from a recession and Hurricane Irma two weeks before when the Category 4 hurricane made landfall near the southeast tip of the island.
Winds reached 155 mph. More than 30 inches of rain fell, turning burbling streams into savage waterways. Widespread outages of electricity and communication services plunged the island into darkness and silence. Only in August did the power company announce that it had fully restored service to the island. That month, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló submitted a $139 billion recovery plan to Congress.
Much work remains, especially in residential areas, but Puerto Rico has made great strides in all categories of travel. For instance, daily air service has increased from 20 flights two weeks after the hurricane to 110 to 130 flights on 28 airlines.
For cruise ships, the San Juan port opened less than three weeks after the storm; the southern terminal in Ponce started receiving vessels last December. This season, two dozen ships will use the island as their home port, four more than last year. Tourism officials are expecting 1.7 million passengers for the 2018-19 season, which would surpass the previous bar of 1.5 million in 2015-16.
On land, 135 hotels — about 75 percent of the lodging stock — are accepting reservations. By mid-2019, room availability will rise from 11,000 to more than 15,000. Short-term rentals of the Airbnb kind have increased from 7,700 to 8,700.
Travelers can choose among 4,000 restaurants (including 1,885 in San Juan), 190 attractions, 16 casinos, and 13 golf courses. And the nearly 250 beaches along the 272-mile coastline are back to model form, with pearly white sand and baby blue water.
"New Orleans took eight years to recover," said Dean, referring to the period after Hurricane Katrina. "Puerto Rico can’t wait eight years."
Clearly, you won’t have to delay a vacation to Puerto Rico until 2025, but visitors with specific hotel preferences might have to hang tight a bit longer.
Several properties are in the final stages of renovations, including Candelero Beach Resort, St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, Melia Coco Beach, Condado Plaza Hilton, Caribe Hilton San Juan, Ritz-Carlton San Juan, and El Conquistador. A few are new to the scene, such as O:LV Fifty Five Boutique Hotel, Aloft Hotels (in San Juan and Ponce), and Four Seasons Cayo Largo.
Plenty of evidence of Maria remains. Bob Gevinski, an islander who worked in the hotel industry, said visitors flying into San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport can still spot the Federal Emergency Management Agency-issued blue tarps on rooftops. At El Yunque National Forest, 45 minutes east of San Juan, park officials warn of traffic delays and temporary closures while crews repair the trails. Also there, biologists are trying to save the last of the endangered Puerto Rican parrots after more than half the population of birds disappeared when Maria destroyed their habitat and food sources.
The isle of Vieques, off the east coast, runs on four generators, and routine maintenance checks can cause outages. Its largest property, the 156-room W Hotel, remains shuttered, and there’s a question of when, or even whether, it will reopen. (One theory: Management is waiting for the utility company to repair the underwater cable from the mainland.)
“You will notice things,” Gevinski said, “but it’s not going to prevent you from doing anything.”
The hurricane was awful, but not wholly. And some positive developments did materialize in the aftermath. For instance, the bioluminescent bay in Vieques.
“The bay went dark after Maria,” Gevinski said, “but it has never been brighter than right now.” The Vieques Trust is studying the bay to figure out why.
The post-Maria climate also generated a flurry of new enterprises and expansions and has sparked an entrepreneurial spirit. One example: ferry service to Vieques. Previously, the boat from Fajardo, on the mainland, took 90 minutes. In October, a high-speed catamaran started transporting passengers from the new departure point in Ceiba, trimming an hour off the journey. When the terminal on Mosquito Pier on Vieques opens, the trip will take 15 minutes. For now, a one-way ticket costs the same as the pre-hurricane price of $2.
"The communities are taking the experience of the hurricane and making the most of it," said Annie Mayol, president of the Foundation for Puerto Rico. "They are taking charge of their own destinies."
Mayol’s nonprofit organization collaborates with four municipalities on projects with a tourism streak. (It will expand to 10 next year.) One involves the zip line at ToroVerde adventure park in Orocovis, toward the center of the island — which, before Dubai nosed in, claimed the title of longest in the world.
The attraction reopened in March, with added restaurants and lodging, offering visitors a place to quiet their beating hearts after soaring through the jungle at 60 mph. On the Sausage Route, dining spots injected Puerto Rican culture into the trail of pork, introducing live music and artists showcasing and selling their work. On Dec. 1, a farmer in Orocovis started inviting diva campers to glamp on his property, Finca Oro Rojo; when not lounging in their chic tents, guests can set off on nature walks, practice yoga, and learn about plantain production.
The Humacao Nature Reserve in Punta Santiago, on the east coast an hour from San Juan, welcomed back birders, hikers, kayakers, and other outdoor enthusiasts in March. The foundation is helping repair the common areas, such as the gazebos, and plans to build an exhibit room in Punta Santiago that will focus on the Monkey Island project in Cayo Santiago, a half-mile off the coast.