The fantasy of packing up everything and moving to a tropical island is a common story that many of us can relate to. Leaving behind all the stress, the traffic, the bills, and especially the snow and the ice to lie down on a beach somewhere has a certain appeal. Some have definitely followed through with the fantasy: every time I head down to Puerto Rico, I find several second or third generation Puerto Ricans from the Bronx, Queens, Jersey, or wherever else, that had only been to the island once or twice before deciding to give up everything to settle there. I’ve also met quite a few white and black Americans who could barely speak Spanish, but nevertheless left their lives behind for Puerto Rican living. However, unlike most of those people, Steven Weingarten never had the dream of retiring to a tropical island.
Steven was a lawyer with a private civil law firm in Great Neck, Long Island, when he decided to explore Puerto Rico. He had been to the island at least twice before, staying with family at one of the Condado hotels, and traveling with a special summer camp program that brought kids from Connecticut all the way down to Bayamon, PR, as a camp counselor. Though he enjoys warmer weather, Steven isn’t all that fond of the beach, and the campers and counselors got themselves lost in the hilly, muddy terrain. Both were so long ago that Steven can’t even remember the name of the hotel or the program. So, what prompted Steven to just return to the island after decades had passed?
As he recalls, he was sitting in his law office “on a gloomy November afternoon in 1995…watching the large snowflakes float towards the cold concrete below. I feel the chill in my bones and the need to get warm soon.” He went to the local library to pick up some guidebooks, and eventually discovers that the island of Puerto Rico has a mountain chain in the central region that he’s never been to. Not being the biggest fan of “just lying on the beach for a week,” he decides that a little change of scenery for a tropical vacation would be the perfect escape from the chilly climate.
Steven looks into the system of Paradores in Puerto Rico, a special type of hotel established by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, a government agency created in the 1970’s. The Parador program was a special initiative based upon a similar system in Spain of luxury hotels, though in Puerto Rico they’re privately owned “country inns” that were converted from older buildings, like coffee plantations. Unfortunately, focus for some Paradores has been less on the “luxury.” Steven tried for three Paradores, but two were overbooked so he settled on Parador Casa Grande up in the mountains of Utuado. Those of you who’ve seen our photography of the modern Casa Grande Mountain Retreat may be conjuring images right now of the renovated hotel, but as Steven describes it the place was nowhere near the picturesque hideaway it is now.
The Parador Casa Grande was in such disrepair that Steven still remembers the details vividly, 20 years later. The pool was a “dark soupy green” color and had not a single piece of furniture in sight, so that Steven had to bring one of the rough, scratchy towels from his room to lie down next to the mucky water. The guest rooms weren’t much better, with wall-to-wall carpeting – a big, BIG no-no in the humid environment of Puerto Rico, especially high in the rainforest – and bedsheets Steven describes as having a “nubby, sandy feeling.” The bathrooms had poorly glued-on tiles, tiny industrial sinks with bare piping, and rusty tubs that still had stains in them. The parking lot’s asphalt was broken up and there was barely any room to park. The walkways were made of rotting wood (unlike the concrete used now) and the hacienda was dimly lit and all the furniture was dirty.
Steven begins chatting up the staff and gets the full story on the deplorable conditions. The disinterested owner was already using money from refinancing his mortgage on the hotel to invest elsewhere. He hadn’t paid taxes on the place for years and foreclosure was soon to follow. The staff’s checks had already begun bouncing. While going over everything with Steven, the front desk manager quips that he should buy Casa Grande, possibly as a joke but maybe also a bit of a desperate plea. Steven’s a little shocked, but he takes the suggestion to heart as he continues his trip in Puerto Rico, eventually arriving at a much nicer hotel on the west coast of the island. He, as he puts it, “cornered” the owner and asked him if buying a small hotel up in the mountains was a crazy idea. “I don’t think you’re crazy,” he answers, “but you’re in for a lot of work.”
20 years later, and Steven’s gone from “being a suburban Long Island lawyer, to a Puerto Rican hotelier,” as he so aptly puts it. For over two decades he’s put his heart and soul into repairing and renovating Casa Grande, and it shows. “It’s unrecognizable from what it was,” says Steven. New, painted rooms, with beds that I personally can attest to are very comfortable, refurbished bathrooms, a clean, freshwater pool – with ample furniture – that’s being renovated yet again to improve it even more, walkways made out of solid concrete of course, and a redone hacienda where guests can sit and eat for breakfast and dinner, as well as attend yoga classes. There are even some beautiful hiking trails on the property, and Steven also added hammocks for all the rooms.
Steven transitioned to his new life gradually, commuting to Puerto Rico from New York for four years before settling in. Though it could have potentially been a system shock for an outsider, he’s adapted quite well to his new home. Even if he’s not that keen on beaches, Steven loves warm weather and says he also loves the landscape and fauna of the Puerto Rican mountains. He also says that he loves the people, calling them “very warm and very friendly,” noting that there’s less “pretentiousness,” “materialism,” and “social climbing,” than in the cities. “It’s very appealing to me, there’s a lot to be said for this lifestyle. That’s why I’ve been here for 20 years, no one forced me to stay…I get to live and work to in paradise.” Seeing Casa Grande Mountain Retreat now, it definitely does seem like a paradise within a paradise.