Checking In and Checking Out

The Best Spa in the Caribbean Is Less Than Four Hours from NYC

by Kate Donnelly
Inside Botánico Spa at Dorado Beach resort. All photos courtesy of Ritz Carlton Dorado Beach.

There’s nothing like a crisis to see what you’re made of, and if there’s one place laying proof to this, it’s Puerto Rico (it earned a place on Fathom's Top 15 Places to Travel in 2019). A visit to the spa at the newly resurrected Dorado Beach resort will have you looking at the island with new eyes (not to mention heart and mind).

PUERTO RICO — These days, things are looking up in Puerto Rico. It’s hard to fathom that only two years ago, Hurricanes Irma and Maria ripped though the island where three million reside. This is the season of rebirth. Case in point: I descended on the glam and newly resurrected Dorado Beach (part of the Ritz-Carlton Reserve), located twenty miles west of San Juan and an easy trip from the East Coast of the U.S.

Originally founded in the 1950s as the Rock Resort by philanthropist and conservationist Laurance Rockefeller, the property doubled as posh refuge for celebrity glam bots like Ava Garden and Joan Crawford. Decades later, Rockefeller decreed that there should be “no building taller than the palm trees,” and that's how it's stayed. The resort is made of beachfront rooms, many with impressive art collections and infinity pools, resting on white powdery beaches. A bevy of ethereal sculptures by local artists Rosa Ortiz & Carlos Mercado give the place a dream-like quality.

Spa Botánico is fittingly flanked by a multi-limb, 80-plus-year-old ficus tree (a sturdy survivor of the storms), and massive Spanish wooden doors. Upon entering the rustic, natural-lit temple, guests find a leafy ceiling of flowers and buckets of dried apothecary herbs and flowers (gardenias, eucalyptus, lavender, sage) plucked from the onsite gardens. The setting is a former pineapple plantation with winding paths leading to treatment villas. There’s a Zen garden and lily pond. And, in what looks like something ripped from the pages of Kipling’s Jungle Book, a vibrant, green-on-green botanical garden looks like it’s been encased for centuries. For a minute, I thought I was in the Far East.

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This is where you want to be. Arrive an hour before your treatment and settle into the hot and cold hydrotherapy pools. Warm up in the hot tub (five minutes) and transition to the cold plunge (for an invigorating 60 seconds) and repeat three times. Then venture to the Steam House and regulate your temperature (your skin will be glowing).

The treatment menu offers locally inspired treatments using cloves, coffee, lemongrass, sea salt, and nutmeg. You can’t go wrong. While traditionalists enlist for Ebb & Flow, a classic Swedish massage performed in fragrant private cabanas, there are also open-air experiences — two tree houses serve as venues for Eastern bodywork, including Thai massages and an oil-less treatment involving a rhythmic compression massage given while swinging on a hammock.

Puerto Rico is steeped in healing arts. My advice? Venture outside the well-worn rhythmic kneading and opt for the highly localized Mano Santas Apothecary Ritual, where a traditional healer (known as Mano Santas, "holy hand") formulates a custom blend of botanical oils and herbs based on what ails you and helps you set powerful affirmations. While there are many experienced hands at Dorado Beach, request Luis Antonio, a native of Puerto Rico, who learned his craft from his grandmother. In demand by resident owners, much of his body and spirit work is intuitive, and he often gifts pearls of wisdom as you’re rocked and wooed into a state of high bliss.

Afterwards, Antonio hands over a personal recipe: a warm hibiscus and cinnamon infusion loaded with vitamin C (known to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, increase circulation, and promote digestion). A charm bracelet is also offered. Modeled after pictographs found in La Piedra Escrita, a small town in the island’s center, Antonio tells me he redesigned the charms alongside local artisan Pilar Aquino. There are four designs: a terracotta red frog charm ("el coqui") represents a 3,000-year-old species that serves as a symbol of resilience; a yellow-hued Balance (taínos) charm for harmony with nature; a white sun petroglyph to emit strength, health, and longevity; and a spiral (Manos Santas) charm embracing change of life as it unfolds. It's small, thoughtful details like these that really separate the good from the great. 

Pool at Ritz Carlton Dorado Beach.

Many suites have private beachfront plunge pools and terraces.
Dorado Beach suite.
West beach ocean reserve.
Ritz Carlton Dorado Beach.
Beach side dinner for two.

The Hotel At a Glance

Style: Leafy-chic modern glam.

Standout Detail: Open-air reception, vibrant flora and fauna, and the smell of the tropics.

This Place Is Perfect For: Families who want to have fun; adults and solo travelers looking for solitude.

Rooms: 114 beachfront rooms and suites are dressed with soft, earthy furnishings and floor-to-ceiling windows. Ground-level rooms have private beachfront plunge pools and terraces. Bathrooms have indoor/ outdoor showers, deep soaking tubs, and bespoke toiletries from Spa Botánico. For the splurge, there’s a five-bedroom villa, aptly called Su Casa, once home to Clara Livingston (a female helicopter pilot) and kitted out with a swimming pool for families and friends.

A Note on the Art: Request a guided tour of the outdoor sculpture garden featuring an impressive collection of local artists – such as geometric cubes by Carlos Mercado and John Kenneth Melvin’s towering plywood sculpture, ManMtn.

Work It Out: A cutting-edge fitness center and movement studio provides the latest in cardio and weight equipment. The historic eleven-mile Rockefeller Trail is reserved for bikes, runners, pedestrians, and golf carts. There’s also a basketball court, five Har-Tru clay tennis courts (rackets are provided), and two 30-foot-long water slides (for kids and adults alike).

Put Some Swing Into It: Golf architect Robert Trent Jones, Sr. designed three courses.

Environment: An education and adventure program lets you discover nature’s finest: coral reefs, birds, and wetlands, as well as snorkeling, kayaking, hiking, and exploring an on-property archaeological site.

Food + Drink: You won’t go hungry with four on-site restaurants. A seafood-leaning menu is found at Positivo (don’t miss ceviche and fish tacos). Take the family to Encanto Bar & Grill for a Mediterranean-inspired lunch where, come dinner, it’s all about coastal cuisine (grilled lobster, a la plancha snapper). COA serves grilled seafood and meats and has a large wine cellar. For coffee, sandwiches, market provisions, and niche wines, drop by La Cocina Culinary, which also does cooking classes. Last but not least, a small omakase bar whips up a Japanese menu with noodles, sashimi, and maki rolls. Room service is 24/7 and the mini bar has truffle popcorn, which is best paired with champagne.

Pool Scene: There are two pools. The beachy-chic Positivo lets folks snack on omakase & ceviche in ocean-facing cabanas (preferably sipping rum cocktails or the resort’s private rosé label by Chateaux D’Eslcans). The family-friendly Encanto Beach Club Pool hosts a splash pool for kids.

Beach Scene: The lush West Beach has golden sand crescents protected by coral reefs and tide pools for swimming and snorkeling. East Beach is ideal for long strolls. There’s also an array of water sports like wind and kite surfing, sailing, and paddle boarding.


How to Get There: Delta, JetBlue and United all offer direct flights from New York City airports. Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, is 35 minutes away from the airport and transportation can either be arranged by Dorado Beach or guests can take a taxi.

Keep Exploring Puerto Rico

Fathom's Guide to Puerto Rico
Eat Your Way Through San Juan, Puerto Rico
Little Black Book: Beach Bumming in Rincon, Puerto Rico

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