Beach Hopping: Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico: St. Regis Bahia Beach

written by COLLEEN ANN MCNALLY | photos courtesy of ST. REGIS BAHIA BEACH

WHEN I HEAR “ST. REGIS,” I think of the towering jewel on West Paces Ferry Road in the crown of Buckhead’s skyline, and, in particular, of one December dinner with my family. My sister was flying home from six months in France and from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, we headed to the hotel’s restaurant for a reunion and rare celebration. It was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of night.

I had drifted into this old memory on the ride to St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort from San Juan International Airport. As we passed through Rio Grande, much of what I saw outside the car window felt familiar (car dealerships, Walgreens and TJ Maxx), despite the fact it was my first time to Puerto Rico; however, as we approached the front gates of the resort, the scene before me could not have been more ­different from the St. Regis Atlanta’s fast-paced address.


“This,” the driver said as the gates parted, “is where people come to get away from it all.”


NATURAL AFFINITY

As the car entered through the gates and followed a long road of flora and fauna, I could see why. The resort borders the 5,000-acre Espíritu Santo River State Preserve, and in the distance loomed the 28,000-acre El Yunque National Rain Forest — the only tropical national forest on U.S. soil. More than 100 billion gallons of rain are estimated to fall on El Yunque each year, creating a lush forest with a variety of animals and plants, including more than 240 species of trees, 50 species of ferns and 20 varieties of wild orchids.

While zip lines attract adventure seekers, I had a different agenda in mind: pure pleasure. The first AAA Five Diamond resort in Puerto Rico, the St. Regis Bahia Beach was built into the romantic setting of a former coconut plantation along the sparkling Caribbean coast. Upon arrival, guests cross a koi pond and enter the beautifully appointed Plantation House to check in, an average routine that is anything but average here.

The plantation heritage is represented by an abundance of refreshing coconut water and Remède Spa incorporates both coconuts and sugarcane into its signature treatments. Of course, when many people hear “St. Regis,” they may think of its iconic butler service; however, refined relaxation isn’t the only standard savvy travelers should expect.

REGAL RITUALS

Inside the Plantation House, guests can enjoy the routine of a fine cocktail below the St. Regis Bar’s magnificent, colorful mural. For first-timers, the bartender may bring Puerto Rican-born artist Arnaldo Roche Rabell’s “The Long Awaited Voyage” into conversation while shaking, stirring and pouring.

Intended to be as much a visual experience as it is thought-provoking, the bar mural tradition began in 1932 at the first St. Regis in New York. Above its legendary bar, Maxfield Parrish’s beloved “Old King Cole” began its reign as arguably the hotel’s most famous guest.

This conversation starter is just the beginning. For instance, each evening, all are invited for a 6 p.m. champagne toast to the passing of another beautiful, tropical day into the night yet to unfold.

If that night includes the finest single malt whiskeys or rare scotches, sure, you can find those here. Just don’t be too quick to overlook the Bloody Mary, even in the evening hours. Today, this tomato-and-vodka cocktail is a common stalwart among brunch menus and flight attendant offerings, which tends to muddle its history. The St. Regis New York takes credit for popularizing the drink among America’s elite, although it was, and still is, called a “Red Snapper” when ordering under “Old King Cole.”

Like the murals, each St. Regis property throughout the world has its own spin on the classic cocktail. Atlanta’s “West Paces Mary” reinvents the old standard with added spices and a Southern twist of Tomolives; St. Regis Bahia Beach serves up the “Encanto Bloody Mary” by sourcing local ingredients, “Mojo Criollo” and Aji Chili sauce, with a garnish of crushed fried plantains.


SPICE UP YOUR LIFE

If spice and spins are your thing, follow your appetite to the second story of The Plantation House. At Fern, you can savor a curated selection of Jean-Georges’ acclaimed cuisine with a greatest hits menu of dishes from his international portfolio of restaurants, plus new introductions and ingredients sourced from Fern’s hydroponic garden.

Expect simply grilled preparations accompanied by bold condiments in a setting that is at once sophisticated, hip and yet, has a children’s menu. From my banquette seat, I took in the message of the graffiti-like artwork on the opposite wall — “Todo Bien” — as a young family of four dug into the avocado pizza, made with jalapeño, cilantro and lime. With each creative course, I felt farther away from convention. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, there are ample opportunities to explore the menu, but be sure to save an appetite for a visit to Beach Club, too.

Overlooking the oceanfront Robert Trent Jones, Jr. golf course and pool esplanade, Beach Club recently partnered with leading Puerto Rican chef, Jose Enrique Montes, to offer guests inspired regional fare without having to leave the comfort of the resort.

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in New York and working in kitchens across the Southeast, Montes missed the “island vibe,” the people and the waves. He returned home to open his first restaurant in 2007 with a focus on fresh, local and organic produce. In the decade since his splash, Montes has been nominated for the James Beard Foundation award in the “Best Chef: South” category each year since 2013, marking the first time in history a Puerto Rican chef has been recognized for 
the award.

A bite of his take on vegetable stew with toast and Parmesan offered a comfort that I didn’t realized I craved. When the plate of lamb loin, orange-pickled onions and chickpea purée arrived on the table, the colorful presentation was almost too pretty to eat. To Montes, the flavors are bright, tropical and diverse, and while his restaurant “Jose Enrique” has a strong foothold in the city and is completely urban, the “Beach Club” restaurant has a calming sense to it.

With welcoming rituals, no passport necessary and a chef that the American South is content to call their own, the St. Regis Bahia Beach doesn’t feel that far from Buckhead. But to taste Montes’ dishes with views of the Caribbean Sea and El Yunque on the horizon, that is something you can’t find anywhere else in the world — not even at another 
St. Regis.

stregisbahiabeach.com