In its 1960’s heyday, Dorado Beach was a playground for Hollywood royalty and the international jet set. Can a top-to-bottom redesign help the resort reclaim its glamorous past?

By Alexandra Wolfe
May 06, 2013
Credit: Christopher Sturman

This past New Year’s, eight Learjets filled with industry titans, real estate tycoons, and high-flying socialites landed at Puerto Rico’s San Juan international airport. Their final destination? The famed Dorado Beach, where a $342 million renovation has transformed the palm-fringed oasis into a Ritz-Carlton Reserve. With a beachfront restaurant by chef José Andrés, a five-acre spa, and a private stretch of white sand, it is poised to become one of the most exclusive resorts in the Caribbean. Eager to see the place for myself, I hopped a flight south.

Dorado Beach’s story begins in 1905, when Dr. Alfred Livingston bought 1,700 acres along the northern coast and developed a coconut and citrus plantation. His daughter, Clara, inherited the land in 1923 and lived in Su Casa, a pink colonial-style hacienda with a clay tiled roof and grand double stairway. In 1955, Laurance S. Rockefeller, the venture capitalist and son of John D. Rockefeller Jr., acquired the property and three years later opened the ne plus ultra of Caribbean resorts. Hollywood stars, who once frequented Havana, headed here—and the area became as much a scene as St. Bart’s is today. John F. Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, and Ava Gardner were regulars; Amelia Earhart used to fly her plane in to see Clara (the landing strip remains); Joan Crawford is said to have had her room painted pink before she arrived.

In the mid 1980’s, the Puerto Rican government shifted focus away from tourism and the luxury hospitality market took a hit—and the resort eventually closed. Now, hungry for statehood (2012 marked the first time the majority of its citizens voted to join the United States) and seeking to bring back a time when visiting the island was a bragging right, Puerto Rico has instituted new tax laws, and dozens of direct flights have been launched (JetBlue; Southwest). In recent years, the country has also put billions into infrastructure and, to lure real estate investors, offered generous tax exemptions. A handful of upscale hotels—including the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, in Río Grande, and the W Retreat & Spa, in Vieques—have capitalized on the incentives. But no hotel has been as anticipated as Dorado Beach’s comeback. “We want to be a place where friends from the Hamptons and other summer communities gather during winter,” says Caribbean Property Group CEO Mark Lipschutz, who partnered with Ritz-Carlton and developer Friedel Stubbe six years ago to revive the property.

Amid the throngs of tourists at San Juan’s international airport, a uniformed Ritz-Carlton driver materializes before I reach baggage claim and ushers me to a black Mercedes SUV. It is a far cry from my last visit to the country, when a boyfriend and I took a teetering old taxi three hours down unpaved detours to the eastern tip of the island, only to have the view of the lush hills from our hotel window collapse in a mudslide.

As we make our way down a road lined with palms and ceiba trees, I glimpse a minimalist, white-stone entry pavilion—its clean lines and pitched wooden roof blending seamlessly with the surrounding jungle. With resorts of this stature, there is no need to do anything so common as check in. My private embajador (ambassador) whisks me in a golf cart to my oceanfront room, decorated in cream-colored fabrics and soothing sand-tinted walls, with floor- to-ceiling windows that look out onto a powdery beach.

The level of luxury at the Dorado Beach resort sets a new standard for Puerto Rico, from the delicate shell designs reflecting on the sand at the outdoor Positivo Sand Bar to the spacious suites and low-lying bungalows extending out to private plunge pools and terraces. Walking along the jungle-lined wooden paths, past a series of tranquil ponds, I discover a labyrinthine infinity pool, where a plush oversize daybed beckons me to linger for hours. The hotel’s legacy is present at every turn. Books about Rockefeller fill the mahogany-paneled library, and a short walk away, the restored Su Casa (which you can rent for $30,000 a night in high season) stands in all its pink-hued glory.

Over lunch in the golf club’s casual bar, the resort’s CEO, Eric Christensen, introduces me to the property’s longtime golf pro, Juan “Chi Chi” Rodríguez, who began his career working for Rockefeller and was later inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame & Museum. Tan and lithe, with trophy designs on his shirt and slick black hair peeping out of a Panama hat, Rodríguez reminisces about his early days. “When I first met Rockefeller, I scolded him for riding three to a golf cart,” he tells me. “I was sure I’d get fired.” But that didn’t happen. “Instead, Rockefeller apologized and said to my boss, ‘That young man is going to go places.’ ”

Plenty of A-listers have visited since the reopening six months ago, including the Kraft family, the owners of the New England Patriots; the Milstein real estate scions; and Puerto Rican pop star Ricky Martin. The property hadn’t seen so many heavyweights since Rockefeller’s inaugural party in 1958, dubbed the Fabulous 150.

An 80-year-old ficus tree marks the entrance to the spa, which is like a mini-resort in itself with a pineapple garden, soaking pools, a lily pond, and two tree-house treatment platforms. The experience begins with a walk through an herbal-scented Apothecary Portal, filled with lavender, marigold, and lemongrass. Guests are offered private consultations with healing experts called “Manos Santas” (healing hands), who create bespoke concoctions using natural oils and fresh herbs. Walking through the private massage pavilions and jungle gardens reminds me of the dense, wet rain forests of Koh Samui, in Thailand. The masseuse works on my back from underneath; in the room white curtains billow in the breeze, lulling me into a deep sleep.

Along with the resort’s postcard-perfect backdrop, what stands out at Dorado Beach is the service and, of course, the food. One night, five minutes before my dinner reservation at José Andrés’s Mi Casa restaurant, a driver surprises me with a knock on the door to offer a ride. With a nod to molecular gastronomy, the experimental menu plays with tastes and textures inspired by both Puerto Rico and the Iberian Peninsula. I order a Caesar salad “sushi roll” with avocado inside and quail eggs on top; a delicious squid-ink rossejat with shrimp; and the “coquitos frescos,” a small plate made of rum, lime, and coconut served inside a coconut shell.

For all the changes at Dorado, what remains untouched is the terrain itself, the same undulating coastline of beach buttressed by verdant cupey trees. It’s the very landscape that drew the area’s first guests 55 years ago and sets the stage for Dorado’s new golden era.