I was grateful for another Christmas in Puerto Rico. I’m still feeling the holiday spirit! Remember Three Kings Parade at El Museo del Barrio is this week! For more info click here.
It’s still Christmas in many places in the world! How was yours? We celebrated my dear husband’s 84th birthday in Puerto Rico. We were so grateful to be able to mark his double blessings together, especially since he was recovering from carpal tunnel surgery. Christmas on this Caribbean island is said to be more a marathon than a sprint. Our five-day sprint was a joyful ride. We stayed at the Ritz Carlton in Isla Verde/San Juan. It was a blissful time full of lovely people, memorable moments, delicious food and festive surroundings.
Lovely People: Puerto Ricans know how to show love to Christmas babies! Before checking in, a fun-loving staff greeted us. Carrying tall flutes of champagne splashed with tamarind juice, a jolly chubby fellow called out to us: “Is that you Byron? We have been waiting for you all day! We are your birthday ambassadors!” More jolly fellows joined in to sing a Spanish birthday song—
Feliz cumpleaños a ti
feliz cumpleaños a ti
feliz cumpleaños querido/a Byron)
feliz cumpleaños a ti.
They also sang Jose Feliciano’s ‘Felice Navidad.’
In fact, we were greeted daily with serenades and salutations. This hotel staff went far above the call of duty to make our stay a memorable one. (I had heard from a Housekeeping staffer that Byron was the oldest hotel birthday guest that week!) Anyway, we had such fun that we never ventured off campus to see town sights.
Delicious: We ate all of our meals at the hotel that featured several world-class options. The buffet breakfast at the Mares Restaurant offered a casual abundance of Caribbean and Atlantic fare: Puerto Rico coffee, champagne with guava or papaya, fruits, cereals and breads. Jeremiah, a Trinidad-Boston-London brother, who worked the pans for points, cooked omelets to perfection. Our Christmas breakfast featured a plate decorated with a ‘Happy Birthday’ message.
Dinner Talks: I especially enjoyed conversations about Puerto Rican food and culture with Ocean Bar Grill staffers. We ate dinner there every night except for our last night. I am so thankful to everyone there, especially a lovely person named Ivy, who made the best cup of coffee in the world! She also shared her extensive knowledge about the island’s unique foods and traditions. Another knowledgeable and helpful staffer, Juan Carlos, designed an original birthday card that was signed by lovely co-workers. We were honored to meet chef Ernesto Alvarado, who turned out creative variations on traditional island food themes. I became addicted the yucca biscuits with coconut butter that was served with each meal. The pigeon peas with risotto were an amazing twist on the traditional arroz con gandules infused with sofrito and sazon. The menu there is delicious!
Magic moments: There was a light rain on a hot Christmas morning. Just as the sun returned, Santa Claus greeted us by the pool. Watching the black birds splash in the fountains and an iguana strut by reminded us it’s their planet too. We loved strolling along the seashore and listening to the sound of waves. Gardeners would be happy here too. Small signs identifying plant names were placed all around the lovely grounds.
On our last night we dined at the hotel’s BLT Steak Restaurant. Designed like a French bistro, this eatery operates in several other cities. This restaurant’s staff also presented special birthday greetings and dessert treats. I enjoyed the spiny lobster tail, asparagus and roasted Brussels sprouts cooked with pumpkin and pancetta. Byron’s coconut bread pudding with rum ice cream was amazing.
PR Memories: My most memorable Christmas was spent in Puerto Rica decades ago. So, it was a joy to return. Back in the 70s my girlfriend and I traveled from our San Juan hotel to visit NYC friends whose family lived in the interior mountainous region of Utuardo. Once there, we visited the ancient Taino ballpark. Later, the Diaz family adopted us.
Traditions: Our hosts took us to their church for misas de aguinado, Mass held at dawn, where folk songs called aguinaldos, Puerto Rican Christmas carols, were sung. We were invited to join the parranda, carolers that traveled from house to house. We sang songs and played guitars under the windows of sleeping neighbors until they woke up. From their open windows, happy strangers smiled at us and waved us inside their homes. Such wonderful hospitality was a dream. Once inside, they gave us sips of coquito,(special rum eggnog) and a snack, and on to the next house we went. This pattern continued until we visited every neighbor. I was so drunk that I strayed into the night jungle looking for crickets that I thought were calling me by my nickname: ”Cookie, Cookie!”
Roast Pork Party: I also experienced my first roast pig party in Puerto Rico. It’s an authentic local food tradition that featured music, dancing, eating, and storytelling with the whole community. Slaughtering, prepping and cooking the pig is the centerpiece of the week-long holiday ceremony. Organizing ingredients, materials, and setting up the cooking fire was quite a production. The family that cared for and fattened the pig and the pig’s ancestors was also part of some of the stories recounted. After the fat pig was slaughtered and cleaned by the men, a women’s team took over. I was invited to join them. We prepared and applied a marinade and dry rub. Stalks full of fresh garlic bulbs, bushes of fresh oregano, baskets of local aromatics and sour oranges were among some of the ingredients that I can recall. We made many small slits in the pigskin with sharp knives to insert hundreds of garlic cloves. We slathered and massaged the pig with marinade. Once done, the seasoned pig was set for the night. All the while there was multi-generational merriment including dancing, singing, drinking, eating, and more storytelling. By dawn, the pig was tied to a long rod by a two-man team. They cooked it by turning it over the hot coals all day.
Have you ever enjoyed Christmas in Puerto Rico?