On the eastern side of Puerto Rico sits a bright and shiny jewel of a family resort: El Conquistador, a Waldorf Astoria Resort and Spa. Just a 45-minute drive from the airport in San Juan, El Conquistador truly feels a world apart. The ride out to the resort passes through suburbs that slowly melt away into smaller towns, filled with bodegas and roadside restaurants serving up typical Puerto Rican fare. The minute my teenage son and I arrived for our recent visit, we knew we were in for a special vacation.
The property is simply spectacular, from the rolling hills of the championship Arthur Hills golf course that greet you upon arrival to that first glimpse of the sea from the open-air entry. There are coconut palms and bright red royal poinciana trees in full bloom as far as the eye can see. El Conquistador sits on the side of a cliff overlooking the spot where the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea meet, and creates the feel of flying above the clouds.
Navigating the El Conquistador — or El Con, as guests affectionately call it — is a breeze. A funicular helps guests traverse the steep setting. The lobby is lined with shops and a couple of convenient small markets, plus restaurants, a large game room and family-style lounge area. As you pass the ornate birdcages, say hello to an especially friendly cockatoo named Snowflake, who will greet you with a sweet-sounding “Hola!” in return.
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A step out the back doors of the lobby reveals just how magical this resort is, with views of the dazzling pool areas, the spa and its nearby zen garden, the marina and the onsite Coqui Water Park further below. Look straight out to the water and you’ll catch a glimpse of the El Conquistador ferry transporting resort guests out to the resort’s very own private isle, Palomino Island. It’s safe to say that this is exactly what paradise is supposed to look like.
One of the best things about the El Conquistador Resort is the wealth of accommodations for families of every size. The resort has five individual villages spread over the grounds: the oceanfront Las Olas and La Vista; oceanview La Marina; clifftop Las Brisas; and Las Casitas, a cluster of villas as opposed to standard rooms.
Our room in the Las Brisas wing was big, bright and airy, with a vast bathroom and walk-in closet. Given the amount of space, the setup is great for families. The highlight, however, was the magnificent view. Our balcony overlooked the resort and the ocean, and offered a stunning panorama in every direction, with the soothing sounds of coqui frogs in the background each evening.
Connecting rooms are available for larger groups, but families looking for maximum space should Las Casitas. Located in a secluded area of the El Con, it is truly a resort within a resort and caters to guests looking for both elegance and autonomy. The one- to three-bedroom villas come with a friendly butler who’ll be there to spoil your family during a stay. Guests enjoy all the amenities at the main El Conquistador resort, plus exclusive pool areas and restaurants at Las Casitas.
El Conquistador is a foodie’s paradise. With more than 20 restaurants, bars and cafes, from casual to 5-star, it’s hard to run out of great places to eat. We were there for four days and barely made a dent in the list. We had several delicious breakfasts with made-to-order omelettes at Las Brisas Restaurant, melt-in-your-mouth filet mignon at Chops Steakhouse, and beachside salads and tropical drinks on Palomino Island. Then there was the delicious piragua, or Puerto Rican snow cone, from the cart at the Coqui Water Park; delectable burgers and milkshakes at Virgin Burger (aptly named for the views of the Virgin Islands that come with the meal); seafood masterpieces at Stingrays Cafe; and more.
The resort often runs meal packages that let children under 12 dine free and include breakfast for the whole family. An alternative is to book one of the new all-inclusive packages that include three meals a day plus drinks. From packed lunches to special treats that can be delivered to the room as a surprise for the kids, El Conquistador is a master at the small touches that make dining memorable.
El Conquistador offers activities for every age and stage, and the resort really knows how to turn up the fun. From a rousing game of FootGolf (a sport that combines soccer and golf) to the quality kids’ club and the slides at Coqui Water Park, children and teens will never lack for things to do. The Scout About program is a great activity for kids and adults to share — participants use a map to canvass the resort for tamarind trees, iguanas, conch shells and even a miniature horse (hint: there is a reason for Palomino Island’s name). Once they have found everything and everyone, they head for the concierge desk to claim a Hall of Fame bracelet. What a great way to explore the resort!
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Taking the ferry to Palomino Island and experiencing the variety of water activities is half the fun at El Conquistador. As tropical islands go, Palomino is a great one — with almost 100 acres, there is lots of room to wander and spread out along the gorgeous white sand beach or in the shade of the sea grape trees. Guests can swim, snorkel, or play miniature golf, volleyball or soccer. Across the beach is a cabana with floats, paddleboards, jet skis and kayaks for rent. We spent much of our time on Palomino Island hiking to the top, painting coconuts and building a raft (no, we weren’t stranded, but it was a fun activity with the kids and it was amazing to see how resourceful they could be in working together as a team).
Despite the nearly bottomless variety of things to do on-property, there’s plenty to explore just beyond the doorstep. We spent one sunny afternoon snorkeling in Lobos National Park from one of the boats that depart from the resort’s marina. The crew couldn’t have been better, even getting in the water to help first-timers and families with kids get used to their watery surroundings, and pointing out the brightly colored fish.
One evening, we went on a bucket list adventure just out the back gate of the resort: Right next to the El Conquistador sits one of only five bioluminescent bays in the world (three of them are located in Puerto Rico). We simply couldn’t miss the opportunity to see it. Climbing into a two-person kayak in complete darkness, with only a guide wearing a single headlamp to lead you through mangrove channels, may seem like a crazy prospect with kids, but it’s completely worth it. We gathered together in the bay and were given tarps to drape over our kayaks to better see the tiny plankton glimmering in the water. Above us were a million stars. There really are no words to describe this phenomenon — it’s something you have to experience for yourself.
Before we left San Juan, we also spent time visiting El Morro, the iconic 16th-century fort that is so much a part of the landscape of Puerto Rico. We walked the streets of Old San Juan and ate one last lunch of mofongo, a plantain dish that is one of Puerto Rico’s biggest culinary delights.
It was hard to leave the beauty of San Juan and El Conquistador Resort behind — it’s one of those rare places where families instantly feel relaxed, connected and invigorated all at once. So we won’t say goodbye, just farewell for now. We will definitely be back!
Editor’s Note: Adrienne received a media package to review El Conquistador for families. As always, our opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Adrienne Jarrell.
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