Friday, October 18, 2019

Birthday Staycation

Happy Birthday from Antonio!
Having to share a birthday with my spouse isn't a bad thing... I guess it could be sort of like being born on Christmas, and having your birthday combined with the bigger holiday, but for us, it means that we get to celebrate double!  At least this year it did!  Being adults and all, we haven't made a very big deal of our special day in recent years, especially since we've been "Living the Dream".  Maybe it's because we have (sort of) returned to "normal life", that we wanted to do something extra special this year!  So, we decided to take a Staycation in Old San Juan!

We began our day at Casa Bacardi!
About a month before our birthday, I was musing to Bruce that we should do something special this year.  Somehow a plan formed... We would go to Viejo San Juan and try to recreate our first visit to Puerto Rico.  We had a 24 hour layover between BVI and Home, after the airline cancelled our flight home from a charter vacation.  We stayed in a small Howard Johnson hotel, right on an historic plaza in the heart of Old San Juan.  We had a magical dinner at a place called La Princessa that was built into the walls of the old city.  The hotel was like stepping back in time, with an old dumbwaiter-turned-elevator, and tall windows leading to a tiny balcony.  The restaurant was open air with garden seating.  We sat amongst tinkling fountains, the sound of coqui singing in the night.  We. Fell. In. LOVE!  Who knew that some day, we would actually LIVE HERE???

So, I set out to find that hotel again and make a reservation!  The quick search for the Howard Johnsons turned up nothing.  But thanks to Google Maps, I found the place, now named Hotel Plaza De Armas Old San Juan.  I think it has a much better name now!  So, with our accommodation reservation made, it was on to filling our days!  We found discounted tickets to the Mixology class at Casa Bacardi, and invited our friend Maureen!  So bright and early on our birthday morning, we picked her up at the San Juan marina, and braved the metro traffic, arriving about half an hour early for our class!

We sat in the breezy Bat Bar to wait.

Bacardi is very free with their rum, and we were treated to a welcome Sunrise, as we sat comfortably waiting.  It took me only two sips to ramp down from the Rush-Hour-Driving-In-San-Juan anxiety.  We enjoyed our drink and very soon, our buzzer went off, signalling the start of our tour!

I guess we weren't really surprised that our mixology class wasn't full.  It started at 10:30 am and includes three cocktails!  Who wants to start drinking at this early hour???  So we had a private tour and class!  The empty trolly took us over to the "Cathedral of Rum", where we enjoyed a short history lesson about the family who created Bacardi rum, and some insights to the different rums they offer.

Molasses storage tank!
The tours aren't very "hands on".  They are basically an overview of the history and the rum making process. They are very guarded about it all, so we were shown the plant from a rooftop!  It had a commanding view of the entire operation, from the molasses storage tanks, to the blending building, to the fermentation tanks and all the other pipes and tanks in between.
You can see El Morro across the harbour.
The blending facility

Tanks undergoing repairs
There are still signs of the damage wrought by Hurricane Maria more than two years ago, as the company is still trying to make repairs.

But we were here for our Mixology class, and in spite of the early hour, the secret we came here to learn, was the secret of making the perfect cocktail!

Move to the front of the class!
With no competition, we were ushered right to the front of the class!  Way to make us feel special, Casa Bacardi!  Each of us had our own little station with an arsenal of tools and ingredients.  First, each of the implements was explained to us, then we began making our first drink... a Mojito!

I've gotta say, that mint drinks are not my favourite as a general rule, but here they use Spearmint leaves, which have a nicer flavour, at least to me.

Muddling with the muddler. I like to say Muddle...
We muddled the lime, added the sugar, then we were shown how to release the flavours of the mint in a very different way.  We didn't use the muddler, but held the leaves in the palm of our left hand, then using our slightly cupped right hand, we "clapped" on the leaves.  The rush of air lightly musses the leaves without damaging them.  Then one leaf is used to "rim" the glass to give it a nice scent when you raise it to your lips.

Muddled and ready for the Club Soda
The leaves join the lime and sugar, then in goes the rum and Club Soda.  We used the cocktail spoon to mix it from the bottom of the glass with a twisting motion and voila!  The perfect Mojito!

Bruce is instructed in the proper way to use the spoon.  You twist it in the bottom of the glass until it becomes murky.
Now THIS Mojito was delicious!
Cheers! At 11am
No, not drunk yet, just having a great time!

Fastforward through instructions for the perfect Daiquiri... no, they don't have t be flavoured.  This one is rum, sugar, and lime juice!  But we got to learn the proper way to use the shaker, followed by the proper way to pour!

Followed by the Cuba Libre!  SALUD!
The remains...
So let's count.  One welcome drink, one Mojito, one Daiquiri, one Cuba Libre... and it's barely noon! Well don't get worried, I was driving, so I left the heavy drinking to Bruce and Maureen!  We actually ended up giving our Cuba Libres to HER!

Don't flush your fruit rinds!
We were redeposited at the Bat Bar to await the start of our next event, the Historical Tour! Imagine our surprise when we signed in and were gifted a second commemorative cocktail glass, and another doubloon that would yield a FIFTH cocktail for the morning!!!  Bruce and I sat patiently waiting without cashing in our coin, until the buzzers went off again.  Unfortunately, this was a Spanish tour, and we were asked to wait a while longer, with ANOTHER doubloon for the inconvenience!  SIX cocktails!  Bruce and I had no need of any more drinks, so we pocketed the four drinks coins for use at our next visit here!

Soon, we boarded the trolly once again, this time not alone, and headed back over to the tour site.

There is a video that tells the story of the Bacardi family, and then we walked through a display showing the original distillery equipment and storage barrels.  A small museum displays some very old bottles from the early days, as well as many other static displays.

Having been through the Caribbean and visited our share of rum distilleries, we have to admit that we're really just here for the RUM!  But the tour was a very nice presentation and the perfect way to start our Birthday Staycation!

We drifted through the displays, and then returned to the Bat Bar so that Maureen could take her two remaining drinks ~ To Go!  We were all starving, so we stopped at El Churro Bar in Rio Piedras, then  dropped Maureen off at her boat and headed for the cool comfort of our old hotel!

The quaint, old lobby.  That door on the right is the elevator!
Checkin was at 3pm and we arrived at about 3:30.  We were hot and beat, so I called to move our dinner reservation to 7pm to allow us time to rest and cool off before showering for dinner.

We checked in and were happy to see that the old dumbwaiter  was still in use.  An alarming jolt started us on our way to the third floor balcony room we had reserved!

The foyer.  Our room was 304
Basic but clean!
During our first visit here, we stayed on the second floor balcony room, but the third floor room was just as awesome!  Maybe even more so with a commanding view of the plaza and the streets of town.

I'm a little nervous on this balcony.  I swear it's moving!
Looking toward the South
We had a nice rest in the air conditioned room, showered and maybe took a little snooze, then we got ready for dinner and ventured out into the darkened streets of Old San Juan.  We were a little surprised at how deserted they were.  It was a Thursday, but we thought there should be more people than THIS!

The buildings all look very different at night.  The lights cast dramatic shadows on the ornate buildings.  It's all very surreal, and not to be missed!  We don't get out at night much.  Staying here overnight made this a special treat for us and we thoroughly enjoyed our stroll down the cool, cobbled stone streets of town.

They say "You can never go back", and that is very true.  While our hotel was very much the same as we remembered it, there were no festive vendor booths set up on the waterfront, and La Princessa is now Princessa Gastrobar.  They have enclosed the seating area where it was once an open garden.  There is still a garden theme, with lights and tree trunks scattered around, but there are no longer the sounds of water fountains and coquis to lull us into a sublime state.  But, we can be happy anywhere, and this is our NEW favorite restaurant in OSJ.  I ordered a veggie burger (I know, what was I thinking???) while Bruce ordered my first choice, a pork ribeye with some sort of creamy stuffed risotto!  (Warning: Food pics coming up)

I had been all prepared to order the same dish I had here on that long ago visit... Pastelon. Learning that it isn't on the menu anymore, I didn't really know what to do so I punted!  My burger was delicious, but Bruce's dish was out of this world!  I've got to find a recipe for the risotto!

The darkened indoor garden seating.
My veggie burger made with black beans, broccoli and mushroom. Really good!
Bruce's pork ribeye. Do pigs really have ribeyes???
We enjoyed our meal and the very attentive service.  Prices were decent and the food was exceptional.  We left there feeling very drowsy and super full... With no fridge in our hotel room, we had to do our best to finish it all!  We couldn't even consider having a dessert... our official Birthday Cake will have to wait!

Cool and gentle breezes buoyed us back to our hotel after an evening stroll down the beautifully lit Paseo de la Princessa, and onto the first segment of the Paseo del Morro, which we would be enjoying more fully come morning.  But for tonight, it was the perfect ending to the anniversary of our birth DAY.

That's our balcony top left.
Obligatory selfie from the balcony!
As tired as we were from all of the excitement of our day, we were both up early as usual the following morning.  I was excited to get out and take that walk along Paseo del Morro before it got too hot!

But first, we must find coffee!  We were showered, dressed and out the door with our camelback packs full of water at just before 6am.  Luckily, a little kiosko selling coffee and simple sandwiches was just opening up on the Plaza.

Delighting in the delicious, rich coffee, we watched the pigeons scramble for bread scraps as the sun began to light the sky around our plaza. Soaking up the rich history of this place, we fortified ourselves to continue on our joyous birthday staycation!  After all the drinking and eating we did yesterday, it was time to get some exercise while we explored our island home!

The lady in the kiosko threw down some day-old bread and the pigeons went after it wildly!
Our hotel is very close to Calle Fortaleza where the umbrellas are displayed!
A favorite stop of mine, the flag painted on the felled tree symbolises the resilience of the Puerto Rican people!
Paseo del Morro is a very nice walkway that stretches more than a mile around the outside of the walls of the old city.  It originally was a dead end, but if you end up at the fort during their open hours, you can exit the Paseo and go on into the fort to continue your exploration.  We arrived at the end before 9am, so the gate was still closed.  But we enjoyed the ever-changing morning light on our return walk as well, and we needed the exercise!

The walk is just beautiful in the early morning before the hot, Caribbean sun begins to reach the shadows cast by these old structures.  The breath of a breeze was all we needed as the beauty of our surroundings buoyed our step. I wish we lived closer so that we could do this more often!!! Walk with me and see what we saw!

Little flowers growing in the wall.
It's a long way down!
We reached the end of the paved walkway and found the door into the fort still closed.  It wouldn't open until 9am and it wasn't even 7:30!  But there is a continued unpaved walk that loops around beneath the wall as far as the old cemetery.  So we continued our exploration in the shade of the sea grapes that cover the shores.

The moon!

We rested for a while on the doorstep of the fort, drinking from our camelback packs.  After catching our breath, we retraced our steps back along the path to the gate of the old city.

We had a little fun along the way!
Let me show you how it's done...

Maybe another type of Sweet Pea?
Here he comes to get some scratches!
Staying ANYWHERE overnight is a new thing for us.  In the time we lived on the boat, we never spent one night off the boat together, because of our cat, Jezabelle (and in the beginning, Jetsam too).  Now that she is no longer with us, we are just beginning to realize the freedom we have, but we miss her horribly.  So horribly in fact, that while walking on the Paseo del Morro, I was wracked with grief as I saw the number of abandoned cats living along this walkway.

Cats sit among the rocks like a game of "Where's Waldo"!
There are thousands of pets living in the city, some abandoned when their families left the island after hurricane Maria and never returned.  It is heartbreaking to see them.  Some of the cats have been feral all their lives.  They are scruffy and ragged, and while they lounge nonchalantly as walkers pass, if you try to approach them, they disappear into the rocks to hide.
She's so sweet, and she reminds me so much of Jezabelle!
He's so fat and friendly.  He MUST be somebody's baby!
But, there are so many cats that are fat and sleek, obviously they've been somebody's pet.  And they walk towards an outstretched hand, flopping onto their side to enjoy the feel of the human touch as if it is a lifeline.  Many of them have similar colouring to Jezebelle and Jetsam.  Thankfully, the tears blended with the sweat that ran down my face, disguising the fact that I was having a horrible missing-my-baby-angel moment.

There is an organization on the island that helps these cats.  They take them to be vaccinated and sterilised, then they return them to their colonies to live out there lives as semi-wild.  You will know when a cat is a part of this group by the clipped eartip!  Any cat on the island with a clipped ear has been sterilised, and thus is no longer contributing to the overpopulation of unwanted animals here.

Save-A-Gato stations
Volunteers work daily to provide clean litter boxes, food and water for these cats.  I have to admit that you know it's too early in the morning for the boxes to have been cleaned... as this walkway has that distinctive smell.  Unfortunate, but I guess it's better than having them go everywhere!
There are LOTS of Save-A-Gato stations!
Maybe a little altercation brewing.   I had to break it up! Play nice fellas!

If you've got a soft spot for cats, please consider making a donation to help the wonderful volunteers at Save-A-Gato keep up with the demand.  I guess we'll add this to our Birthday Celebration expense! 

Eventually I pulled myself together, dried my tears and we re-entered the city of Viejo San Juan by way of this old gateway.  The physical exertion we've expended this far had us looking for refreshment.  So instead of returning to the hotel, we set out to see new streets, exploring this city so that we would be more familiar with her secrets next time guests come to visit!

We found that not all of the streets of OSJ are streets!  There are walkways that lead through courtyards between the residential and business buildings that are quite charming!  What a pleasure it is to turn off the GPS and just get lost in our exploration of this beautiful city.  But eventually we stepped back out onto familiar streets, where we knew we could find that aforementioned refreshment!

Some art we haven't seen before!
A familiar place... where coffee can be found!
How strange to be here when it is deserted! 
We found a nice, air conditioned coffee shop where we bought iced lattes!  Mmm cool deliciousness!
They're even growing coffee bushes out front!
At this point, we had already walked over four miles. We were beginning to get really tired, but the lattes revived us enough to make one more effort before returning to our hotel to shower and check out.

We've been to OSJ many times now, but have yet to go inside any of the forts.  Today, we strolled right up to El Morro, and slapped down Bruce's lifetime National Parks pass for free entry to this national treasure! Yes... Puerto Rico IS part of the United States!
Soaking up the cool air around this fountain on our way...

Gotta finish that drink before we enter... C'mon!  Slurp it up!

Strolling through the rooms on display, we tried to imagine the lives of the people who lived inside these fortifications.  It was actually nice and cool at this time of morning, but I'm sure it was a hot and difficult life.  The buildings were designed to maximize the breezes of this costal promontory though, and it's amazing to learn about the ingenuity of the people of that time.
Looking up through the skylight from inside...
Then we go up onto the rooftop and can see the skylights from here!  
These walls were thick to begin with, then they were thickened for further fortification.  I think we're good now!
The Chapel Bell from the roof!
You KNOW how much I love lighthouses, don't you?  Well... had I known that we would be able to get THIS CLOSE to this beautiful light... we never would have waited this long to come here!  Having the place practically to ourselves made it even more awesome!  We walked all around this structure, just wishing we could get inside and go all the way up.  Guess we'll have to appreciate what we HAVE!

While we wandered, cooling clouds formed above us making for dramatic views!

We could have explored this site for hours, and then moved on to the next fort up the road... but the clouds that we normally see from our home down south that never actually signify rain for US...were rapidly preparing to douse us here on the northeast side of the island!  Knowing that we can come back and explore these forts at leisure, made our decision to leave an easy one! We made a mad dash for our hotel, arriving just before the rain began to fall!

Well I guess that's a sign that it's time to go home!
What a wonderful Birthday Staycation we had!  Learning about our island and becoming more familiar with Old San Juan feels really good.  Every time we venture out, we recognize more and more places as they become truly "ours".  The new experiences mix with the old ones to make this island our home.  I think that so often, we get engrossed in our day-to-day lives, and forget to go out and learn more about our home, whether it is a quick trip to a neighbouring Texas town, or an overnight trip to the other side of your Caribbean island... You've got to get out and explore to truly appreciate your life, wherever you live.

I think we've got the right idea, and are already making plans and looking forward to our next Staycation, regardless of the reason!  But what about the Birthday cake?  We were so busy we never stopped to have our TREAT!  Well, on our way out of town, we rectified that oversight with a delicious, gourmet popsicle from Los Palateros San Juan!  YUM! Happy Birthday to Dos Libras in Puerto Rico!

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