the glowing stones
Whenever I walk in Old San Juan, my eyes are invariably drawn to the cobblestones the Spaniards used to pave the narrow lanes. These little oblong blocks shift mysteriously in tone throughout the day, from iridescent blue-black to gray and even to sky blue. Sometimes you'll come across one that has been decorated with a Puerto Rican flag sticker, a drawn-on marijuana leaf, a cross, or a set of lovers' initials carved in a heart. One morning I was squatting, examining some stones, when a middle-aged couple walked by.
"You like them?" asked the man, a dandy in white shorts and shirt and a straw fedora.
"They absorb the color of the night sky," said his companion, who was wearing an African-print gown. "If there's no moon the stones will wake up black. If it's a clear night the stones will open their eyes blue. By the end of the day they always fade to gray."
Before I knew it, the couple had disappeared. A quick stop at the tourist office cleared things up. Made in England using iron ore, the cobblestones were brought to the New World as ballast in ships and dumped at the harbor to make room for more valuable cargo. The iron gives the stones their color, which shifts depending on the heat, sun, and humidity. That night, in a dark bar in the old city, I discovered that I wasn't the only one captivated by them. The back wall was decorated with photographs of the stones. In the low light, the photographs glowed softly.
rum's the word
The promise of free rum is what draws most people to the Bacardi Rum Distillery (787/788-1500) across the bay in Cataño, but getting there is more than half the fun.
Hidden between the cruise ships in Old San Juan is a small ferry terminal where, for a buck, I bought a round-trip ticket to Cataño and climbed to the top deck. What followed was my second-most-pleasant afternoon in San Juan (the best was when I fell asleep after lunch in the shade of a palm tree, waves breaking a few yards away). I sat in the sun and watched the city and harbor drift by -- Isla de Cabras, Fort Cañuelo, the shark-infested waters off El Morro.
In Cataño, I caught a colectivo (a small bus) to the Bacardi plant. On a huge plot of perfectly manicured grass is a collection of Modernist buildings and a kitschy re-creation of a sugarcane plantation. (Funny, the guide didn't mention that slaves originally made all this possible, other than noting that the laborers "worked in exchange for food and housing.") The tour is a view of rum production as performed in a refrigerated, sterile plant. There's even a pop quiz on how to prepare tropical drinks -- and guess what, Bacardi's in all of them. But the rum flowed freely in cocktails and in the special spiked limonada, with no last call in sight. I caught a colectivo back to the ferry before things got out of hand.
where to eat
Some of the best food in San Juan is found at restaurants that fuse the flavors of Puerto Rico -- an Afro-Caribbean blend of the freshest seafood, fruits, beans, and spices -- with European styles. But there are also plenty of fine restaurants that have no hint of the islands.
Parrot Club 363 Calle La Fortaleza, Old San Juan; 787/725-7370; dinner for two $75. Navigate through the bar -- where Hollywood stars drink martinis with local glitterati, and everyone is tan, well dressed, and practiced in the air kiss -- and take a seat on the back terrace. Here, under the night sky -- where the stars twinkle above, not on the barstools -- chef Roberto Trevino serves an astonishing array of Euribbean foods from a menu written in Spanglish: tamarindo-glazed baby back ribs, risotto con chicharrones del país, Nuestra Famosa blackened tuna.
Il Perugino 105 Calle Cristo, Old San Juan; 787/722-5481; dinner for two $140. Chef and owner Franco Seccarelli has given a Roman ambiance to the colonial building, with murals, plush fabrics, and gilded statues. All the better to show off his traditional Italian dishes: carpaccio classico, pennette all'arrabbiata, scaloppine alla pizzaiola. Quiet and discreet, this is the ideal place for lovers seeking an escape, and for others in the mood for tiramisù.
Urdin 1105 Avda. Magdalena, Condado; 787/724-0420; dinner for two $70. Stylish, young Julian Gil meets you at the door of his distinctly modern restaurant. The menu is sophisticated but not fussy, in keeping with the restaurant's minimalist approach. A pleasant staff serves squid with garlic and cilantro, seafood paella, and enormous steaks. Wear Prada, and arrive late.
El Picoteo Hotel El Convento, 100 Calle Cristo, Old San Juan; 787/643-1597; dinner for two $40. Anywhere else, the setting -- a terrace overlooking a courtyard, flamenco music in the background, a clear view of the sky above -- would overshadow the food. But the tapas are as delightful as the still-life of acid-colored tropical fruits on the bar's pomegranate wall. Start with the shockingly refreshing green salad with hearts of palm and a crisp mustard dressing, and follow it with the bacalao (salted codfish), a difficult dish done well here.
La Casita Blanca 351 Calle Tapia, Santurce; 787/726-5501; dinner for two $25. In a working-class neighborhood with traditional wooden Caribbean houses, the charming and slightly run-down Casita Blanca makes some of the city's best comida criolla. Sit in the courtyard, decorated by an eccentric with a passion for the country life (at some tables, green fronds sprout from coconut shells, and along the wall, roosters in one cage crow at white doves in another). Shrimp a la criolla is sweet with tomatoes and garlic. Spice it up with pique, the hot peppers soaking in vinegar found in bottles on every table. After your last sip of limonada, the friendly waiter will no doubt convince you that a dish of rice pudding is in order, topped off with a chichaito (anise and rum).
La Bombonera 259 Calle San Francisco, Old San Juan; 787/722-0658; lunch for two $20. The old-fashioned soda-shop atmosphere is as much a draw as the food, a straightforward mix of sandwiches, shakes from an old Hamilton Beach blender, and Puerto Rican specialties such as seafood stew. Don't expect sterling (or even prompt) service, but do enjoy the café con leche and pumpkin pudding at the end of your meal.
Kiosko 4 Estaciones Plaza de Armas, Old San Juan; lunch for two $8. A snack stand smack in the middle of a lively plaza where, in the early evening, lovers kiss on the edge of a fountain, kids play, and old men sneak slugs from their vest-pocket pints. The food is basic -- coffee, sodas, sweets, sandwiches -- but the people-watching is spectacular, and it's open 24 hours.