To reach Ritz-Carlton’s newest and most opulent resort, you drive through a forest of coconut palms, swamp bloodwoods and flame of the woods flowering shrubs until the road ends at a wall of water. It’s a fountain of a sort, and behind its soft gurgle stretches Dorado Beach, a $342 million hotel built along three miles of toasty Caribbean sand. At the center of the resort, which opened Wednesday, guests will find a labyrinthine infinity pool with a “bubble bed” in its center, a four-bedroom villa that rents for $30,000 a night and a spa composed of 22 buildings that sprawl across five acres and includes treatment platforms built into treetops.
Can these kinds of over-the-top amenities make modern travelers — the status-conscious, ultra-wealthy kind — take a chance on Puerto Rico?
That is the hope. Resorts catering to 1 percenters pepper the Caribbean, so Ritz-Carlton, which is using Dorado Beach to introduce its new super-high-end Reserve chain to North America, knew it needed a lot of wow to get noticed. But Dorado Beach, despite its luxury and a history featuring Laurance S. Rockefeller, Amelia Earhart and Old Hollywood stars, must also overcome one dominant and indelible fact: It is in a corner of the Caribbean that for decades has been more associated with grit than glamor.
True, the “Island of Enchantment,” as Puerto Rican tourism officials market their home, has improved its reputation in recent years, helped by the Navy’s decision to end bombing exercises on Vieques and the arrival of a St. Regis resort east of San Juan in 2010. But among the moneyed guests that Dorado Beach hopes to attract — rooms start at $1,499 a night — Puerto Rico still ranks low on the must-visit list, according to travel agents who specialize in the Caribbean. “We still need to get rid of the ‘West Side Story’ image,” Friedel Stubbe, a Dorado Beach developer, told me bluntly. “It’s not nice to say, but it’s true.”
Ritz-Carlton has some image issues of its own. The chain without question still commands respect among affluent travelers, travel agents say. But some fans worry that Marriott International, which fully took over Ritz-Carlton in 1998, has watered down the brand by opening hotels that are more utilitarian than special, like one in Los Angeles where Ritz-Carlton and Marriott share an unattractive downtown complex. The Reserve brand, designed to be a chain of 20 resorts, is meant to plant Ritz-Carlton’s blue flag at the tippy top of the travel market, which is starting to boom again following four years of retrenchment. Dorado Beach joins a Reserve property in Krabi, Thailand, which opened in 2009. Herve Humler, Ritz-Carlton’s president and chief operations officer, says Reserve resorts are in the works for Oman, Morocco and Mexico.
To make Dorado Beach a success, Ritz-Carlton is leaning hard on the property’s past as a playground for the rich and famous. We’re not talking about the recent past, when a Hyatt-owned hotel on the property fell so badly into disrepair that in 2006 it was closed, boarded up and ultimately demolished. Rather, the era Ritz-Carlton is trying to conjure started in 1920s, when Dorado Beach was still a grapefruit and coconut plantation owned by a woman named Clara Livingston.
Read more: Brooks Barnes, NY Times