Hotel check in/check up – our intrepid writer booked a room at a historic villa in Old San Juan and was delighted to settle into the 1800s painlessly and picturesquely.

San Juan is a major seaport for Caribbean cruises, but minutes away from that bustling facility is charming Old San Juan. Complete with cobblestones, sun-dappled plazas, galleries and cafes, it’s a world apart.

Tucked away down a quiet street is the Villa Herencia, which started out as a convent, hundreds of years ago. Today, it’s a little charmer with just eight guest rooms, Villa Herencia’s vibe is part romantic retreat, part Zorro stage set. I stayed there last fall and fell utterly in love with the place, delighted to lap up the divine, quirky atmosphere.

Where you stayed:
Villa Herencia, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

El Morro Fortress in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo by Zixi Zhou

El Morro Fortress in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo by Zixi Zhou

What brought you to this hotel?
They had me at “You’ll be transported back to the 19th century in this exquisitely restored former mansion.” After attending a large convention in San Juan, I decided to stay on for a few days to experience the real Puerto Rico. I love small hotels with big personalities, and the eclectic eight-room Villa Herencia totally fit the bill.

Location, location, location
It’s not every hotel that’s set on a street dating to the 1520s. Not only is tiny Caleta de las Monjas the oldest street in history-soaked Puerto Rico, but it’s also just one minute from Old San Juan’s walkable grid of photogenic cobblestoned streets. Even as someone who is directionally challenged, I could not get lost. Chic boutiques, T-shirt emporiums and glittering jewelry stores are cheek by jowl with supermarkets and hardware stores, so you know Old San Juan is not just a tourist “bubble.” And (bonus!) you are only 10 minutes by Uber from downtown San Juan and 20 minutes from the Airport.

Villa Herencia Lobby

Photo by Villa Herencia Lobby

Breakfast in bed?
Sorry no – the Villa doesn’t even have a resto. However there’s free, self-serve morning coffee and a ton of dining and sipping options within a 10 minute walk. Go chic at the adjacent El Convento Hotel or join the locals enjoying a breakfast sandwich (and trying to avert their eyes from the pretty, handcrafted chocolates) at Chocobar.

When did it open – and what is the vibe?
The Villa Herencia definitely has a 1700s vibe. No wonder: There has been a building on this site since the 1500s. The building eventually became a private mansion and, after major renovations, opened as a hotel in 2007. It is hard not to fall in love with the lovingly-decorated rooms, serene ambience and touches of whimsy: A bust of Mozart in the reception sports sunglasses, while large works by local artist Roberto Parilla provide a jolt of charm and colour. And the rooftop terrace features seating, loungers and clawfoot bathtubs if you fancy a dip.

How are the rooms?
Stunningly historic – and quirky, and charming. Each is different but has a dreamy mosquito-net draped bed (purely for looks, bugs are not an issue) and antique furniture. Most of the rooms don’t have windows, being on the ground floor in what is essentially an ancient town house row, but that didn’t bother me or my fellow guests who hailed from India, Sweden, the US and Austria.

Suite, 1 King Bed, Terrace (SunDeck)

Suite, 1 King Bed, Terrace (SunDeck). Courtesy of Villa Herencia

How did you find the staff?
They’re not hard to find! You’ll likely encounter only two: Fofé at reception, and Idaliz, who is the housekeeper, chambermaid and general den mother. Reception is open only from 9 am to 1 pm (sometimes 5 pm). Guests enter the hotel using a keypad, and if you need to check in after reception is closed your key will be in a cabinet in the entrance hall. Yes it sounds odd, but it works. If you need additional assistance you are advised to call the larger sister hotel, the Casa Blanca, also in Old San Juan.

Is it designed for everybody?
Because of the age of the building, some floors are uneven and there are stairs – even a step up to the bathroom. But to enjoy Old San Juan you want to have sturdy shoes and a penchant for hilly streets anyway. There’s no pool or elevator at the Villa (it’s only two storeys) and internet service can be a little dodgy. Guests are requested to be quiet after 7 pm, so that big in-room party might not be happening.

What you thought could be better
Guests with cars usually complain about parking – notoriously hard to find in Old San Juan’s narrow streets. Some people would find the rooms small, and expect a hotel to have a restaurant. But given what a pleasure and privilege it is to stay in this enchanting charmer, these are minor sacrifices.

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