Friday, August 10, 2012

Must Have Vacation: The Gallery Inn, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

When a traveler sets their sights on Old San Juan, authenticity is their aim, and it doesn’t get more authentic than The Gallery Inn.  This boutique hotel is an art gallery, a garden and a community, and a hotel;  a rare escape from a world that is too industrialized, too impersonal, too Mickey Mouse and, for many, too modern.
The community of Old San Juan was founded over 500 years ago, sparked by the discovery of Christopher Columbus and championed by the hard work of locals and foreigners alike.  Old San Juan is like no other city in the jurisdiction of the United States.  It is native, it is Spanish, it is the result of cultural influences from the Caribbean, Europe and Africa, all of which coincide in a small stretch of land bordered by the sea on all sides.  The food, the architecture and the tradition are alive in a fashion that turns first time visitors into life-long adherents to this very special sacrament.
The Gallery Inn is a collection of buildings that have been faithfully restored and turned into a luxury-class hotel.  The hotel begins just steps from the ancient wall of Old San Juan, overlooking the Caribbean Sea to the North and the glimmering city to the South.  It is the heart, soul and art gallery of artist and hotelier Jan D’Esopo, a sculptor and painter who displays his work in every corner and common room of the hotel.  D’Esopo purchased the first section of the gallery over 50 years ago, when this tough old town was a destination for trouble, not tourism, but with a lot of hard work and even more passion, Jan and the city around her turned their neighborhood into a cultural retreat where anyone is welcome to explore.
A central, terraced veranda welcomes guests to relax, dine or swim in the salt water pool at its base.  A wall of orchids lines its eastern border, tropical birds sing along its center, and a new age garden stands at its peak where fresh produce is cultivated for the meals du jour.  Jan D’Esopo and her husband Manuco join guests each evening while classical guitarist Felix Rodriguez serenades the crowd.  If you close your eyes and breathe deeply, it’s hard to tell if you’re sitting in the new world or the old– or perhaps the perfect center.
Climb to the peak of The Gallery Inn, and a guest can see Old San Juan in all of its glory.  Situated at the top of a hilly landscape, the hotel’s rooftop deck provides panoramic views of the city and the sea in all directions.  The waves of the Caribbean break to the north, cruise ships hum in the south and a constellation of lights illuminate the mountains of Puerto Rico in the distance.  It is quiet, peaceful and deafening all at once, the perfect contrast to explore over a glass of red wine.
While the hotel’s grounds, location and amenities deserve acclaim, the rooms under its roof are equally fantastic.  We were invited to the San Sebastian Suite during our stay, the pearl of this 23,000 square foot boutique hotel.  This suite contains a large, classically-designed sitting room, a separate dining area and a magnificent bedroom with ceilings over 20 feet high.  Tapestries hang from the walls, rooms are separated by grand arches, and Jan D’Esopo’s art lines the perimeter. 
The open veranda of The Gallery Inn holds the wall of orchids above, as well as a vegetable garden with herbs, lettuces, tomatoes and more that find their way into the hotel’s menu.  The gallery features five aeroponic tower gardens and an aquaponic lettuce system filtered and fed by an aquarium of tilapia below.  This futuristic vegetable garden emphasizes the hotel’s focus on sustainable living, providing food for guests and an education for those curious about how the world of tomorrow will feed itself. 
Beyond the food and the art, The Gallery Inn is home to a native element that guests can experience firsthand.  Five exotic birds live in the gallery year-round, one of which even has a titled job at the hotel.  Campeche, a Moluccan Cockatoo has his own business cards and an unparalleled level of access to the hotel grounds.  He welcomes guests with an “hola” and the perfect pronunciation of his name, then a few tricks and a request for a ride on your hand.  During dinner in the veranda, Campeche is often seen drinking a cup of red wine held in his beak from his perch.
If one truly wants to experience the culture, the beauty and the cuisine of a city like none other in the reach of the United States, Old San Juan is as authentic as it gets.  The Gallery Inn just happens to be its hospitable pearl, a hotel that is as much a destination as the historic city around it.  Jan D’Esopo, her husband Manuco, her Cockatoo Campeche and her staff have built an authentic retreat like none other, a hotel that makes Old San Juan the end of the journey, not a terminal to somewhere else.


Mitchell is Moving said...

Don't know when I'll ever get to San Juan again. I haven't been there since the '80s. But, I would definitely want to stay here! Talk about paradise!

Tivo Mom said...

That looks beautiful. I must have walked right by it when we went to the culinary festival in Old El San Juan. So cool...