If the only things you read about Puerto Rico these days are gleaned from headlines about McKinsey consultants, a fleeing population and presidential tweets, it would be easy to think that not much has changed on the island since hurricanes Irma and Maria hit in September 2017. It’s true that there is still work to be done to rebuild the island—some residents are still without adequate power, and many people who work in the service and hospitality industries did leave the island while tourism was down following the storms.
But focusing only on the headlines is a disservice to the people who have stayed—and in some cases returned—to the island to invest in its renaissance. At the recently renovated St. Regis Bahia Beach, that includes its new general manager José Torres, a native Puerto Rican who managed properties in Panama and Costa Rica for Marriott before returning to the island late last year to take over the 139-room hotel, and its owner, John Paulson. In 2013, the hedge funder’s Paulson & Co. acquired a majority stake in the group that owns the St. Regis Bahia Beach and the Bahia Beach Resort and Club, a 483-acre master-planned community that includes the hotel, villas, condos and an 18-hole golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. Paulson’s interest in the island extends beyond investment too—he said in 2018 he’s considering moving to Puerto Rico after his children graduate from high school because of the tax advantages of living there.
Paulson and Marriott, which operates the St. Regis, shut down the resort for more than a year following the storms for a top-down, $60 million renovation by San Francisco-based Hirsch Bedner Associates and Puerto Rican designer Nono Maldonado. It reopened for the holidays in mid-December 2018 and had its official reopening party in early February, when I had the chance to check out the revamped resort.
The pre-renovation St. Regis was known for its plantation-style design and dark woods, and this upgrade takes it in the opposite direction: From common area and room decor to the staff’s uniforms, the palette is heavy on whites, creams and light blues. The result is soothing if a bit bland, but it lets the resort’s artwork and landscaping shine: Puerto Rican artist Arnaldo Roche Rabell’s mural above the bar, The Long Awaited Voyage, is a highlight, as are the entire property’s lush plants, trees and shrubs. The staff told me the pre-hurricane plants were mostly green, but when many were destroyed in the storms, landscapers planted more than 70,000 new plants in vibrant pinks, oranges and reds. Although it took time for all the new plants to fill in, it was hard to tell the difference between years-old trees and newer plants by February of this year.
The lush landscaping offers another benefit, which is a feeling of intimacy that is consistent in every part of the resort. It’s a massive property, but the rooms and suites are in small buildings separated by tree-lined wooden boardwalks. Each one feel exceptionally private.
The spa is similarly spread out: Treatments happen in standalone cabana-like buildings where the only view outside your room is the rainforest. Even the pool, which is popular with families and big groups visiting the property, has plenty of quiet areas for couples or honeymooners to sit in peace. And should you crave even more privacy, guests also have access to the Bahia Beach Resort and Club’s beach club, which has a quiet infinity pool with food and beverage service and an adults-only area and is a short walk or golf cart ride down the beach from the St. Regis.
Aside from the beautiful setting, what the St. Regis does well is offer amenities and activities that cater to any type of traveler. Golfers will find the immaculately maintained 18-hole links (particularly the ocean-hugging back nine) to be challenging, but players like me who only get out a few times a year will still enjoy them. Families have their pick of outdoor activities including a lagoon with obstacle courses and kayaks for exploring the property. Adventure-seekers are only 20 minutes from El Yunque National Forest, a 28,000-acre tropical rainforest with hiking trails and swimming holes. On property, there are two restaurants (Seagrapes, a casual poolside spot and Paros, a high-end Greek restaurant), in addition to the property’s signature St. Regis Bar (don’t miss the daily Champagne sabering at sunset).
Puerto Rico lost many of its hospitality workers when hotels closed for months at a time post-hurricanes. Industry veterans moved to mainland resort communities to find work, and rebuilding the team is something the executive team at the St. Regis told me had been difficult. The service in February was at times spotty and at times robotic, but overall the staff was pleasant and eager to please.
Since returning from my trip, I’ve told everyone who’s asked—everyone asks—how impressed I was by the island’s recovery. Puerto Rico depends on tourism, and there are so many exciting things happening there right now: From hotel reopenings like the St. Regis, to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s recent Hamilton residency, to Puerto Rican chefs Gabriel Hernandez and Jose Enrique’s recent James Beard Award nominations. It’s an easy flight from many U.S. cities—no passport needed. Now more than ever, you should be visiting Puerto Rico.