What all New Jerseyans want from vacation is to be transported outside our tiresome loop of traffic congestion and potholes—into a world with a more tranquil pace and, perhaps, a more colorful backdrop.
Somehow Caribe Hilton does this within seconds of arrival, inviting guests to dive head-first into its alluring and historic beachfront property in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Like any good Northeasterner seeking a palm tree and a frozen drink, I checked in early. And from the moment I pulled up to Caribe’s open-air lobby—just a nimble 10-minute drive from the airport—I immediately left my shoes and suitcase at the front desk and made my way toward the pools while I waited for my room. (The best part, though, is I didn’t even need to wait for my passport renewal in the mail in order to travel.)
Traversing the common area, little design cues pay homage to Caribe Hilton’s storied past. The resort, originally constructed in 1949, was Hilton’s inaugural establishment beyond the United States mainland and quickly became a popular destination for celebrities and affluent travelers—including Elizabeth Taylor, Sammy Davis Jr., and David Rockefeller. However, even in 2023, it’s not uncommon to spot a celebrity or two at the hotel.
Today, the resort’s ambiance, which was once evocative of the 1950s, has now become more family-oriented after a recent multi-million dollar renovation following Hurricane Maria in 2019. A well-known landmark in the city, Caribe boasts 652 suites and rooms that span 17 acres across its waterfront property, teeming with tropical gardens, ponds, several pools, a secluded beach, and a resident peacock.
The most iconic fact, however, is that Caribe Hilton was the originator of the piña colada cocktail back in 1954 when Ramón Marrero worked several months concocting a blend of rum, cream of coconut, and pineapple juice, which was eventually introduced to resort-goers that summer.
Of course, I had to sit in the same place the beloved drink was conceptualized—Caribar (originally known as The Beachcomber)—and order my very own. And wow, the simple recipe, including rum, coconut cream, and pineapple, lived up to the drink’s legacy.
The bartender used Ron del Barrilito, a superior Puerto Rican rum, to demonstrate the drink’s construction and history—which made for quite possibly the best piña colada I’ve ever had. That said, no matter where you go on the property, including Bagua Bar—Caribe’s outdoor swim-up bar—even the piña coladas made with house rum trumped that of the dozen others I’ve had in Puerto Rico, including several top restaurants. Call me a tourist, but taste buds don’t lie. In my years of globetrotting, I’d be hard-pressed to remember an instance where my hotel was slinging better drinks than most of the local restaurants.
The food options at Caribe Hilton are as impressive as the size of the resort itself. Several full-service restaurants are available just steps from the common area, which was great for the nights I returned to the hotel after a long day in the sun.
Despite the fact that all beaches in San Juan are public, Caribe Hilton’s beach creates a sense of privacy as it extends across a self-contained cove, giving it a secluded and exclusive ambiance. What’s more, the cove breaks a lot of the waves, making for a leisurely swim just steps outside the hotel. It was exactly what I needed after a day of trekking through El Yunque, the country’s tropical rainforest.
Rooms at Caribe Hilton are minimalist and simple, adorned with bone-white hues and touches of seafoam, drawing inspiration from mid-century-modern design—again calling back to its history. Every room includes a balcony, providing guests with picturesque views of either the ocean or the lush tropical gardens on the property. Luckily, though, I snagged an ocean-front room, and the balcony vibes did not disappoint.
United flights go directly to San Juan from Newark, NJ (about three or four hours). The prices are comparatively reasonable to other destinations, making visits like mine extremely economical for Jersey travelers. Did I mention you don’t need your passport?
What to Do While Staying at Caribe Hilton
One of the biggest amenities of Caribe Hilton—aside from its fitness center, tennis courts, and spa—is its location. Situated amidst the captivating ambiance of the vibrant Condado Beach and the historical charm of Viejo San Juan (and less than an hour from the national park), adventure is never far.
Viejo San Juan
Like the airport, the historic Old San Juan is just a 10-minute drive from Caribe Hilton. Old San Juan is the oldest settlement in Puerto Rico, dating back to the early 16th century. The historic district is characterized by narrow cobblestone streets, pastel-colored buildings, and impressive fortresses, including the iconic Castillo San Felipe del Morro. The area is renowned for its cultural significance, featuring a range of museums, galleries, and live performances.
However, I’ll admit, I mostly ate my way through the city. While it’s best to do your research to find the best restaurants here, I found it extremely helpful to book a food tour to not only try out different cuisines but also get a handle on navigation (shoutout to Flavors of San Juan Tours). It’s also just a lot of fun to mash your own mofongo.
If you do nothing else outside of Caribe, make it a visit to El Yunque National Forest. Located just a 45-minute drive from the hotel, El Yunque Rainforest is a lush oasis nestled within the northeastern corner of Puerto Rico. It is one of the only tropical rainforests in the United States National Forest system. Boasting picturesque trails and cascading waterfalls, it’s the best place to encounter unique flora and fauna found nowhere else on the island.
If it’s your first time visiting, it’s best to book a reputable tour guide. I personally recommend Bespoke, their guides are knowledgeable and simply know how to have a good time. They’ll also typically stop at beaches like Luquillo, where you can take a dip in the ocean and have lunch before heading home (check out Edelweiss Bar & Grill for seafood if you stop here).
Day Trip to Culebra or Vieques
Admittedly, it can prove time-consuming to get to one of these islands via ferry (about an hour of travel time) if you’re only going for the day. However, if you’re willing to take the trip or fly in, you’ll see some of Puerto Rico’s best beaches, snorkeling spots, and of course, Bioluminescence. Before visiting either island, be sure to book a rental vehicle (preferably a UTV) before arriving.
However, if you’re keen on kayaking through a Bioluminescence bay and experiencing the water glow off your paddle after dark, there are plenty of other options in places like Fajardo. Most kayak tours are around two hours.
About the Author/s
Michael is the Editor-in-Chief of New Jersey Digest, COO of X Factor Media, and an avid writer. Growing up in Bergen County, he discovered his passion for words while in Friday detention. Michael loves kayaking, a fat glass of Nebbiolo, and over-editing.
What a beautifully accurate description of both El Caribe Hilton y Puerto Rico!
Do visit June 23-24 for la Noche de San Juan!
Thanks for the excellent review.
It so beautiful..Haven’t been home in 40 years,due to severe handicapped young man.. the Airlines won’t let him fly due to Electric wheelchair..Haven’t seem my Family since the age of 20. Mi Isla..
I loved it there!! The hotel was amazing! The staff was excellent, rooms, private beach, location, sooo amazing!! Definitely going back!! ❤️❤️❤️❤️