6 Hours in Old San Juan
Royal Caribbean gave short shrift to San Juan, Puerto Rico last week despite the city’s need for all the help discretionary spending from nearly 5,000 passengers could provide. The Anthem of the Seas docked at 7:00 in the morning and required us back on board by 2:00 in the afternoon.
With Royal Caribbean's business plan evidently to make sure its passengers have every opportunity to remain intoxicated for the duration of the voyage, it was the rare out-of-step, teetotaling cruiser who is up by 7:00 am to walk the narrow, cobblestone streets of Old San Juan.
La Bombonera was first on our list for breakfast. In operation since 1902, its tradition is as rich as the pastries on display in the front window. The locals bellied up to the counter while us tourists took a booth. Fodor’s Travel says the place is “most famous for its mallorcas, a sweet pastry that's grilled and buttered, as well as delicious café con leche.” Our San Juan source told us to have that very thing and we were happy we did.
Many stores remain closed and under reconstruction following Hurricane Maria. However, the basic structures are intact, obviously constructed with tropical storms in mind. Shopkeepers told us business was picking up and they hoped the busy season, which begins in November, would restore business back to pre-Maria levels.
Puerto Rico’s governor lives in Old San Juan and his residence is just a couple blocks from the shopping and restaurant areas. We happened to see the governor’s wife and child walking down the street with very little security present.
While picking up some clothes for the tropics, I noticed a shop opening across the street with part of the signage being an enlarged copy of a New York Times Sunday travel section staple, “36 Hours in San Juan Puerto Rico.” We had stumbled on Olé, where Times writer Charles Isherwood, wrote back in 2013, “Buy a Hat.”
The proprietor, Guillermo Cristian Jeffs, was traveling while we were there, so the shop’s business was being handled by Mr. Jeffs’ two daughters, who aided me in my pursuit of the perfect Panama hat; that is to say, for my particular head, described by one of the daughters as “normal, large.”
There are numerous signs in Olé assuring shoppers that no merchandise in the store is made in China. In addition to the custom-made hats, there is a little bit of everything, which Mr. Jeffs collects in his travels and sells upon return. We bought coins from various countries, antique boxes, and, of course the hat, with a multi-colored ribbon of my choosing.
A considerable discount was offered for paying in cash and while doing so, a gentleman sporting a Panama hat walked in. “You bought that here,” said one of the daughters. “I did, four years ago,” he proudly replied. “ Best hat I’ve ever owned.” He asked if they could put a new strip of paper towel in the inside front of his hat. It was getting on towards noon and Old San Juan had turned quite steamy.
We complained to various shopkeepers about the ship’s short stop, having been told the night before that the Anthem had to make way for another ship. One proprietor told us the government wants the docking fees and thus forces ships in and out, leaving tourists no time to shop and dine in the evening as was the case in years past.
The Anthem’s dashing captain had a different explanation. As he made his rounds through the ship’s sushi restaurant on deck 5, he stopped to chat and told us the boat had to get moving in order to arrive at Labadee, Haiti by 9:00 the next morning, “so passengers can enjoy a full beach day.”
Labadee, located on the northern coast of Haiti, is leased by the cruise giant and is essentially an extension of the boat. Royal Carribean makes sure you don’t see the real Haiti. Port-au-Prince is on the other side of the mountainous island and we were informed by a bemused woman working the information desk that the island’s capital city was a four hour trip each way.
Adrenaline Beach is what cruisers want to experience, not first hand accounts of how native cultures are surviving, after enduring natural disasters. As one of our party texted before the trip, “I don’t want to see the sad streets of Old San Juan.”
The cruise behemouth knows what it’s customes want. Last week Yahoo reported the company earned $2.34 billion in quarterly revenue.
Royal Caribbean CEO Richard Fain said he was "frustrated by foreign exchange and fuel rates" that added costs to his business, but "we are tickled pink that our business continues to excel and overcome these headwinds.
It looked last week as if the thousands of gallons of tropical drinks had Anthem passengers tickled pink as well.