"Welcome Home". It's a greeting that surprises and delights us as we pass through the gates of Royal Isabela in Puerto Rico's northwest corner. This warm welcome sets the tone splendidly for our all too short Easter weekend visit.
Flying into San Juan's Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, Royal Isabela is a 73 mile (mostly easy) drive along modern highways and local surface roads. There are a few tricky spots but trust me when I tell you that you'll be rewarded in a multitude of ways for your efforts. Even closer is the Rafael Hernández Airport in Aguadilla, just 10 miles from the resort. Need convincing to leave the convenient beaches of the greater San Juan area behind? Read on.
At its heart and soul, Royal Isabela is a golf resort that tends to make big lists worldwide. Expect to find a mix of guests at the hotel: golfers and non-golfers, leisure travelers, families, celebrators and those seeking romance. It's also a spectacular honeymoon spot. And yet somehow everyone coexists peacefully and the staff handles all manner of guests with well-executed fluency.
Our home for the next two nights is the ultra-private Spanish-style casita #13. Every detail of these 1500 square foot "little houses" has been meticulously planned out: abundant custom-built storage, rich, dark wood furnishings and trimmings and the immense spa-like tiled bathroom. There is an entire room dedicated to showering with four separate shower heads and louvered doors that open up to a private deck for open air showering. While the resort doesn't have a spa, massages and spa services are available through the concierge in your private casita or on your private deck. Housekeeping transformed the sofa into a cozy bed for our son. I wanted to crawl into this bed myself, but that would mean giving up my rightful spot in the canopied King bed outfitted with luxurious Frette linens.
I could go on and on about the casitas and how I reveled in the exquisite details, but what really endeared me was that each casita has its very own heated, private plunge pool on its large private deck. The main pool is just lovely, surrounded by cushy loungers, shaded arbors and relaxing waterfalls. But it was my own little pool that kept calling me back to my casita. I slipped into the heated waters no less than a half-dozen times. First thing in the morning, last thing at night and at every opportunity in between. There is also a lap pool and though the resort was at capacity, the pools were never crowded.
That night we dined al fresco at the Restaurant at La Casa where the menu changes frequently depending on what's growing in Royal Isabela's own garden. The pumpkin coconut soup had an ambrosial quality about it - a creamy puree of pumpkin studded with flecks of sweet coconut for tropical flavor and texture. I choose the artfully composed Fettuccine Di Salsicce Italiani - Fettuccine with italian sausage, corn, spinach, red pepper flakes, tomato and basil in a creamy sauce; it was rich, flavorful and perfectly spicy. Across the table my husband feasted on an outrageously delicious grilled 20 ounce Certified Angus Delmonico steak and truffle oil french fries. The wood-fired pizza oven was a hit with our son and they were able to indulge his less-than-sophisticated palette with a pepperoni pizza that even a gourmet foodie would enjoy.
Continental breakfast is included in your stay and we enjoyed ours outdoors each morning with views of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance. If you're looking for something a little heartier, a full breakfast menu is available. The included breakfast featured breads and pastries, spreads, fruit, meats and cheeses, yogurt and toppings along with juices, coffee and tea.
While the resort doesn't have a traditional beach setup, you can book a beach tour that includes chairs, umbrellas, towels and transportation as my son and I did while my husband went scuba diving with local outfitter Aquatica Dive & Surf Shop. The kitchen prepared us a lovely picnic lunch and we were driven to nearby tide pools where we relaxed for a few hours with crashing waves and turquoise waters as a backdrop. We were surrounded by happy local families and a few furry friends relaxing in the shallow waters, playing with their children on the beach, eating, drinking and partying over the holiday weekend; family beach time is practically a religion in Puerto Rico and an enviable tradition.
And then there were the little details meant to leave a lasting impression: the crisp yet tender shortbread cookies that appeared on our bedside table while we were at dinner, the tiny flashlight attached to our room key that helped us navigate resort pathways, housekeeping that is impeccable and yet unobtrusive. Employees whiz around the sprawling grounds on golf carts but are never too busy to offer directions or a ride.
On Saturday evening, we were invited to a Manager's cocktail reception at the Bar at La Casa featuring drinks made with local DonQ Rum. We met members of the Royal Isabela management team and other guests over cocktails and great conversation. I love trading travel stories and there is no better place than this circular bar that overlooks the ocean where wild and manicured lawns and gardens coexist.
At the time of this writing, Royal Isabela is the #1 hotel in Puerto Rico on TripAdvisor and a Travelers' Choice® 2014 Winner. This is a testament to the stellar beauty of the grounds, the excellent service and the fine dining. Discerning guests who want exclusivity, privacy and the excellent hospitality that Puerto Rico is known are flocking here. You should too.
In a nutshell: I may have shed a few tears when we landed in cold, rainy Syracuse after a week on The Island of Enchantment. This was not the "welcome home" feeling I expected or the one I had become accustom to in Puerto Rico. There is so much more to this island than one can see and experience in a week. I loved the culture, language and people of Puerto Rico and my stay at Royal Isabela! They took excellent care of us there as they seem to do with everyone. Our arrival night dinner, the beach picnic, the elegant casita, the wild ocean at the bottom of the stairs, it was all perfect. Sitting at The Bar at La Casa overlooking the golf course and ocean in the distance was priceless. I have lovingly relived each special memory and moment while writing this piece.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer and her family were guests of Royal Isabela for two nights. While it has not influenced the opinions of this writer, Examiner.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.