October 24, 2014

Welcome to Happy Town

She wore a red dress and had a yellow hibiscus tucked behind one ear. She smiled at me and said, "Come. Dance." Then she held out a hand and I took it, following her into the cobblestone street, where Calle Fortaleza bumps into Plaza Colon and the towering statue of Christopher Columbus peers out over Old San Juan. A salsa band had set up along the sidewalk and was blaring the kind of music that, even if you number yourself among the dancing impaired, makes it difficult not to shake your hips and move your feet and connect with the rhythm.

Ah, she was lovely, my partner in the red dress. She danced like a dream, eyes closed, a smile as big as all creation. She might have been 80, might have been 100, with her white hair braided and piled atop her head. I lasted three songs before I had to take a breather. Then she was entreating someone else to join her in the street.

Less than two hours earlier, I had stepped off the plane at Luis Munoz International Airport, and already I was in the middle of a party. I'm still not sure what the occasion was, but the streets in Old San Juan were blocked to traffic, and everywhere there was food and music and dancing.

No small wonder that the World Value Survey, a United Nations-funded study, called the recently proclaimed Puerto Rico the home of the happiest people in the world. It based its conclusions on hundreds of thousands of interviews with people from more than 100 countries, territories and destinations, placing this Caribbean island in the

No. 1 spot, ahead of Mexico, Denmark and Ireland (the U.S. mainland was No. 12), with unhappy Indonesia (No. 112) coming in at the bottom.

You'll get no argument from me over the results of the happiness survey. Based solely on Puerto Rico's inclination to throw a party, the island ought to retire the happiness title for life. At last count, according to the Puerto Rican government, more than 500 festivals, holidays, saints' birthdays or other events were scheduled on the national calendar.

"If you're Puerto Rican, then there is always an occasion to cut loose and have a good time," said Wilfredo Touron, a San Juan architect whom I met just moments after I finished dancing with the lovely lady in red. Touron and his wife, Anna, had snagged a hard-to-get table at a sidewalk café, and invited me to join them.

"There's no such thing as a stranger in Old San Juan," said Anna, an attorney. "There's always an occasion for making a new friend."

Columbus dropped anchor here in 1493 on his second voyage across the Atlantic, bringing with him a Castillean nobleman by the name of Juan Ponce de Leon. By the time Ponce de Leon got around to "discovering" and naming Florida in 1512, he was already serving as the first governor of Puerto Rico and establishing a city at the tip of the easily defensible headland on the north shore of San Juan Bay.

Almost 500 years later, Old San Juan is still surrounded by towering 20-foot-thick walls of mortared shell, sand and limestone; and its streets are lined with blue bricks, fired in Spanish furnaces and used as ballast on galleons that sailed here and returned home loaded down with New World riches. Walking the streets of this cozy, well-kept city-within-a-city is like strolling through a living, breathing museum. Among the major sights: La Fortaleza, the governor's palace, built between 1533 and 1570 as a fortress to ward off attacks from fierce Carib Indians, and the oldest executive residence in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere; San Felipe del Morro, better known as El Morro, built in 1591 to defend the entrance of the harbor; and the nearby Fort San Cristobel, completed in 1772 to defend the landward side of the city, its walls soaring nearly 150 feet above the Caribbean.

The old co-exists well with the new in Old San Juan, especially in the section known as "SoFo," for "South of Fortaleza," which in the last decade or so has established itself as one of the culinary capitals of the Americas. Chief architect of the food revolution is chef Roberto Trevino, who ignited San Juan's Latin-Asian culinary ascendancy with the acclaimed Parrot Club and followed it with the even more acclaimed AguaViva and Dragonfly. Now comes the year-old Dragonfly Too, which took over what used to be a beauty salon and has the same dark mystique of its adjoining namesake.

"It's our little den of sin, a sushi bar with mystery and temptation," says manager Felix Echevarria of the long, narrow room with red lacquered walls and low lighting, where your waitress might just turn out to be an alluring female impersonator. It's over-the-top, but forgivable, since the menu features such stellar creations as a Caribbean roll with conch and hearts of palm, and a Criollo roll bursting with avocado and a tempura of mofongo, the mashed plantain concoction that is the unofficial Puerto Rican national dish.

Please be advised that the Dragon Punch, a potent blend of citrus rum, ginger beer and passionfruit juice, is a stealth cocktail best sipped slowly. And please be advised, too, that for all the casualness of daytimes in Old San Juan, nighttime is quite a different matter. People like to dress up here. When I showed up at Dragonfly Too wearing shorts (hey, they were nice shorts!), I was told that gentlemen were expected to wear long trousers. But I was presented with an option that had never before been offered me at a restaurant where I had shown up underdressed.

"You can wear this sarong," said the hostess, who plucked a bright blue one from a coat rack by the door. I wrapped it around my waist and took a table, my head held high. Yes, I was that hungry.

My digs in Old San Juan came with their own heady legacy. In 1646, a young widow who inherited a fortune after her husband was killed during a Dutch attack on the city decided to use her wealth to build a Carmelite convent in Old San Juan. With labor provided by Spanish soldiers garrisoned in the city, it was finished in 1651 with three-foot-thick walls of sun-baked clay, its doors crafted from mahogany and ironwood.

The building operated as a convent for 252 years before the Roman Catholic archbishop decided repairs would be too costly and moved all the nuns out. It subsequently served as a retail store, a dance hall and a flophouse before it was bought in 1959 by Robert Frederick Woolworth, of the dime-store fortune. Woolworth transformed it into a grand hotel, going on a buying odyssey through Spain and hauling back all sorts of antiques to decorate his prize-tapestries, giant four-poster beds, high-back chairs, big wood chests and massive beams for bracing the ceilings.

He named it El Convento, but it never quite lived up to expectations, and in 1995 the hotel was sold to a group of San Juan investors who closed it for a three-year renovation. The new Hotel El Convento is a splendid place indeed, a small luxury hotel with 58 rooms and a rooftop terrace with grand views of the old city. It was a perfect home base for exploring the streets of Old San Juan.

On my last morning there, I finally paid a visit to the Cathedral de San Juan, located just across the street from El Convento and built in the 1520s. I hadn't done much studying up on the place, so when I wandered around and came to an alcove with a marble tomb, I was surprised to learn it was the final resting place of Juan Ponce de Leon. A Latin inscription on the tomb translated as "In this sepulcher rest the bones of a man who was a lion by name and still more by his nature."

Yes, old Ponce was quite a guy. Still, something tells me that he was never man enough to sit down to dinner decked out in a sarong.

IF YOU GO

The Hotel El Convento is in the heart of Old San Juan at 100 Cristo St. Call (800) 468-2779 or visit www.elconvento.com. Dragonfly Too is at 364 Fortaleza St.; call (787) 977-3886.

For more information about lodging and attractions in Puerto Rico and Old San Juan, visit www.gotopuertorico.com

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