Holland America Line New Years Cruise: Touring Old San Juan

Sailing into San Juan, past El Morro (Chris Giovanetti)
Sailing into San Juan, past El Morro (Chris Giovanetti)

ABOARD MS WESTERDAM – Gliding into port in San Juan, Puerto Rico is like entering another world. On one hand, there’s the old fort – officially known as Castillo San Felipe del Morro – constructed in honor of Spain’s Phillip II to guard the entrance to San Juan Bay in the 16th century – and on the other, large modern buildings testifying to modern-day San Juan.

I used to spend a lot of time here when I was a Pan Am stewardess, long ago, but I’m sure that a lot has changed since then. I’m hoping that San Juan has managed to keep its original sabor (flavor).

El Morro from the inside
El Morro from the inside

We’re going to be here from noon – 11 p.m., plenty of time to explore and soak in some of the local culture. A host of tours are offered, covering the city, a hike in El Junque rainforest, a visit to the Bacardi factory, kayaking, zip lining and more, but once again we’ve opted for exploring on our own.

Since the ship is docked right in town, grabbing a trolley or a taxi to see the sights is easy and just a few steps from the ship terminal.

First on our wish list is a visit to El Morro Fort, which we easily reached after commandeering two cabs to transport us back in time. The view of the fort in all of its majesty as we walk along long promenade leading to it is truly breathtaking.

Cemetery with a view
Cemetery with a view

If you let your imagination drift, it’s easy to conjure up visions of that long-gone era when invaders tried to take command of this deep harbor and prized city. Vestiges of the fort’s historic past can be found in a rusted cannon, sentry boxes, prison cells and chapel. A video presentation gives an overview of its history and rangers give talks in English and Spanish about its history on the hour.

After a lengthy our tour of the area, we decided to explore the streets of Old San Juan, where we had to be careful to dodge cars weaving along narrow cobblestone streets. Along the way were pleasant parks, fountains, sculptures and a host of bistros, cafés, restaurants, small hotels and colorful shops. The sabor was definitely still there and it enveloped us throughout our walk.

San Juan street musician
San Juan street musician

We ducked into Rosa de Triana where we sampled some of the local fare, and savored the old Spanish ambiance, then checked out the charming El Convento Hotel – a 17th- century convent – before heading back to the ship for an eagerly anticipated spa visit.

Ahhhhh Spa
Early on, I had booked a spa appointment on board the ship at the Greenhouse Spa. There’s something almost mystical about having a massage when on board a ship, and it’s something a lot of other people seem to have discovered. Rule No. 1 when boarding a ship: book your spa appointment right away because the slots fill up – especially on sea days.

Relaxation room at Greenhouse Spa
Relaxation room at Greenhouse Spa

Westerdam offers a huge roster of tempting treatments, with daily specials and, so making a selection was no easy feat. Choices range from revitalizing leg therapy, hot stone massage, oxygen lifting facials, body inch loss ionithermie and more. Added to that, are ongoing spa seminars covering everything from walking in comfort, burn fat faster, detox for health and weight loss. The list is endless!

Carpaccio at Canaletto
Carpaccio at Canaletto

I opted for a wonderful 50 minute deep-tissue massage and I turned myself over to the wonderfully soothing hands of Annie, who cured all of my aches and pains.

Tonight, dinner at the charming Italian restaurant, Canaletto will top off a nearly perfect day. Rumor has it they have a killer tiramisu!

Photos: Michelle da Silva Richmond (except where noted)

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