The northwest coast of Puerto Rico has been gaining the attention of locals and travelers alike, looking for an escape from the hustle and bustle of San Juan. On my research for the Dining Traveler Guide to Puerto Rico, I discovered Royal Isabela, a collection of luxurious villas nestled atop a hill with a grand view of the Atlantic.
Getting There: Royal Isabela is an hour and a half drive to San Juan with moderate traffic. Avoid driving there in the late afternoon from San Juan as there is a lot of commuter traffic. On my way to Royal Isabela, I was involved in a car accident. I was waiting at a traffic stop when a car rear-ended me. Thankfully everyone involved was not injured but the shock of the accident took over my mood. I called the hotel as I had a dinner reservation and wanted to let them know I was running late. When I arrived, I was asked by the front desk and the hotel manager how I was feeling and if I needed anything. That immediately put me at ease and made me feel at home right away.
The Villas: Royal Isabela is a set of “casitas”, beautifully appointed one-bedroom villas sitting atop a hill with a gorgeous view of the ocean. Although each casita has an individual plunge pool, there are two, large common area pools available to the guests. The villa decor remind me of my trip to Kenya with the dark woods, neutral colors, and canopied bed. Coincidentally, I find out later that the décor was actually inspired by one of the owner’s trip to South Africa. The villa had a large living room, sitting area, large bathroom with tub and double shower, and a bedroom. The one minus was the welcome note. Apparently the housekeeping got the welcome notes mixed up and mine was addressed to a different name.
The Food: There is a renaissance of traditional dishes on the island and Royal Isabela’s La Casa Restaurant has fully embraced it. The restaurant, headed by executive Chef José Carles (who also happens to be from my hometown of Guayama) offers a tasting menu of Puerto Rican classics. My favorites of the evening included a soup of “verduras”, traditional root vegetables such as taro, pumpkin, and cassava blended together. The scent immediately took me back to my childhood. The “serenata de bacalao”, a salad with fresh avocado and salted cod was another favorite. Chef Carles also served gnocchi made with yucca with a tomato and eggplant sauce. There’s a love for all things local at La Casa Restaurant with many of the ingredients of the ingredients are sourced from the garden on property and some of the fish caught by the chef himself.
The Property: As much as I love to explore a new destination, I could easily stay in the Royal Isabela grounds for several days without leaving the property! I haven’t done 18 holes of golf in a few years but I was inspired by their scenic golf course. It also helps that the owners, brothers Charlie and Stanley Pasarell and Edwin Perez are avid golfers. Not into golf? Guests can arrange for golf lessons and there’s also a driving range to practice your game. I wish I would have time to hit some balls!
Royal Isabela also has access to a secluded beach, which is a 20 minute walk from the property. I got quite the workout just getting to the beach but enjoyed the walk through the lush forest. If you have physical limitations, beach access may be an issue or you may want to head to a nearby beach such as Playa Jobos with easy access and parking.
The Service: Some of the challenges with luxury properties is there can be an air of pomposity with staff. This is not the case at Royal Isabela. I found the whole staff from the manager to the housekeeping staff very welcoming. I also had the opportunity to dine with one of the owners, Stanley Pasarell. One of the things that impressed me about Mr. Pasarell was his down-to-earth demeanor. He knew the name of all the staff members, to include the busboys and also where they were from and their interests. The following morning I also observed how him and his brother, Charlie greeted each of the guests at breakfast and asked them detailed questions about their stay.
The verdict: I may get in trouble saying this because I hate to pick favorites… but Royal Isabela is one of my new favorite lodging experiences in Puerto Rico. From the beautiful beaches to the cozy villas, it’s definitely a top luxury pick on the island.