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A Puerto Rican Culinary Experience at Saborea

Puerto Rico was one of the islands of the Caribbean I visited in the early 70s—quite a while ago. Since then, I’ve explored and made many interesting discoveries in San Juan. Most of my visits were from four days to a cruise stop. My prior trips had not prepared me for the excitement and talent of its annual Saborea Puerto Rico—A Culinary Experience.

Beach at the W, Saborea, Puerto Rico
Beach at the W

Puerto Rico has so much more to offer than I could begin to imagine. I’d certainly encourage those who enjoy culinary travel to put it on their calendar for next year, when Saborea will take place April 1-3, 2011, as it did this year, at Punta del Escambro, San Juan. Saborea Puerto Rico is the largest culinary event in the Caribbean. A portion of its earnings goes towards education for tourism industry employees.

This public event draws more than 7,000. As crowded as that sounds, it does not get in the way of tasting and sampling as much as you want, as well as talking to chefs and suppliers.

Michelle Winner and I were both invited to join other members of the press to cover this event. In addition to experiencing Saborea, we were fortunate to be whisked off to many other places that I’d recommend and plan to return to on my own.

As members of a group of 35 global gastronomy and travel journalists, we were exposed to a crammed, packed showcase of Puerto Rican cuisine and how it has evolved. From famous roast pork and various fish stews and rice dishes, we discovered brilliant samples of their global contemporary cuisine.

Michelle Winner and Maralyn Hill judging the first cook-off, Saborea, Puerto Rico
Michelle Winner and Maralyn Hill judging the first cook-off

Michelle and I were enthralled and delighted. How pleased we were to be asked to judge the first competition. But we were not alone and many of us were judges, along with Stephen Bassman of Frommer’s Travel Guides; travel guide writer Zain Deane of Vis.A.Vis Magazine; French travel impresario André Gayot; Laura Kalehoff, Senior Editor of Self Magazine; Jolene Thym of the Oakland Tribune; Tara Bench, Food and Entertaining Editor of Ladies Home Journal; Aldo Vogrig, Creative Director of Argentina’s Vinos y Sabores; Katie Kackenmeister, Associate Editor of Prevention Magazine; Robin Daniel Frommer of Grafenstein; and others.

There were 28 of the best local chefs, along with 12 colleagues from the United States and Europe (many from the Food Network and Bravo TV), demonstrating their interpretations of Puerto Rican and global cuisine. In addition, between 30 and 40 chefs and 60 exhibitors served tastes of everything imaginable until our hearts were content and our tummies were full.

Rum Beach Sorirre Kick Off, Saborea, Puerto Rico
Rum Beach Sorirre Kick Off

Saborea took place on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but guess what? The party started early. On Friday evening, there was the ”Rums of Puerto Rico Beach Soirée,” open to the public. So attendees tasted exquisite rums of the island, and also sampled the offerings at many outstanding food stations in between, set up to accompany the rum. One way to describe the experience was just plain fun.

Michelle riding the waves, Saborea, Puerto Rico
Michelle riding the waves

One portion of our group experienced a tour of the Bacardi Distillery. It sounded so good, I wished I had the time to squeeze it in. Instead, I opted to start the day at the surfing class at Pine Grove Beach. What an experience! I’m not the best swimmer, so I was happy to photograph Michelle catching the waves.

After this fun filled morning, we were off to a luncheon at the San Juan Water & Beach Club Hotel. In addition to being in a prime location, Puerto Rican chef Giovanna Huyke, host of the television show “Giovanna’s kitchen’, provided a cooking demonstration.

Next, we continued with a luncheon feast. It was prepared by Héctor Santiago, owner of Pura Vida in Atlanta, GA, and Ernesto Ruiz, Executive Chef of the San Juan Water & Beach Club Hotel, along with Luis “Apa” Ramos. The luncheon was aptly named “The Cuisine of Puerto Rico.” Naturally, this was all accompanied by Ahmed Naveira, Rums of Puerto Rico ambassador, who prepared creative cocktails with a variety of Puerto Rican rums.

We stayed at the new Sheraton Hotel in the Convention District. For meetings, it was ideal, and it is home to the Zen Spa, a welcome retreat.

Salsa Class at Latin Roots, Saborea, Puerto Rico
Salsa Class at Latin Roots

One night, we went to Latin Roots for dinner and salsa lessons. Located in “Old Town,” it draws many tourists.

At Budatai, we experienced an exceptional lunch on the verandah overlooking the water. One of Chef Robert Trevino’s creative offerings was seasoned chicken with flying fish roe. I would have to rate this in the top 15 to 20 restaurants of Puerto Rico.

Dining that evening at the InterContinental with Executive Chef Hector Campos was an experience in innovation. From Europe, he offered Mushroom Risotto and Codfish Bayaldi, a Wedding Appetizer from Japan, and a Cream of Eggplant Soup from the Middle East. Each dish was from a different InterContinental Hotel.

We toured Old San Juan with its Spanish influence and charm. Finding little hideaways was a benefit, since our group included a writer who visited Puerto Rico every month.

Our final Saborea evening was a gala dinner at Koco in the El San Juan. We were whisked off in a huge party bus. The dinner and evening were an outstanding and memorable part of our Saborea experience. Everything about it was special—a trademark the El San Juan has maintained for decades.

When Saborea was over, a few of us went on to experience Vieques. We boarded a Seaborne prop-plane for this eight-mile flight. Our destination was the newly opened “W” hotel, which had its own welcome terminal at the Vieques airport. While our small group enjoyed refreshments, our bags were loaded into a van and would be waiting for us when we checked into the hotel.

This “W” hotel brought a smile to our faces. The settees, chairs and couches were low, with more pillows to welcome us than we could have imagined. Its gilded mirrors and graphic prints were prevalent through the entire property. Our rooms were stunning. It’s amazing what attracts different people, but I loved the use of various sized doorknobs as hat, clothes and towel hangers—decorative and functional.

We ventured outside to the hotel’s inviting patio and looked over the cliff, where the most gorgeous beach invited and awaited us.

However, it was early in the day and we were off to Abe’s Snorkeling and Bio Bay tours. Michelle and I had both signed up for snorkeling. Abe gave everyone a class, and he was as thorough as a drill sergeant, with the same personality. The upside was that we learned a lot and covered all safety angles.

Anyone who knows me knows I dislike putting my head under water. The only other place I have successfully snorkeled was the Great Barrier Reef. But I believe in taking part in all that a press trip offers, so snorkeling was part of it.

Now, the next glitch was kayaking. I had never done that. Fortunately, Michelle and I partnered and we kayaked to the snorkeling area, keeping up with the group. Thus, I managed to get out and back in the kayak as well as snorkel, providing a memorable experience. I was more than happy to have Michelle along as my lifeline. As much confidence as I have, it’s not in the water unless I’m wearing a life vest.

After two hours of a workout in the water, we went back to the “W” to enjoy lunch with Chef Dagan Lynn at the Alan Ducasse restaurant, Mix On The Beach. After lunch, we had time to tour the Spa Chakra and enjoy the pool.

That evening, we were off again for another kayak experience. I have to say, I enjoyed this one tremendously, as we went to the Bio Luminescent Bay. It was amazing. We paddled toward Abe’s headlight, which was our goal.

When our paddles or any part of our bodies touched the water, they glowed. There are very few of these phenomena worldwide, and the one in Vieques is known to be one of the largest and brightest. The glow is a result of microscopic plankton fed on by tiny shrimp. This chemical built-in defense generates a glow that lasts only seconds. Any activity in the water causes this glow, which is beautiful and harmless to both participants and the organism. Some dove in and I made my way over the side for a short swim that seemed magical.

Naturally, after all this activity, we were hungry again and stopped at El Patio. This was one of those places you might have hesitated to try, but they obviously had customers. The owner, Sonia Romero, and her Argentinean chef, Carlos Alzogaray, prepared a feast. We enjoyed a lemon seafood ceviche, glazed beef, tender shrimp, and plenty to drink.

A portion of the group covering Saborea, Saborea, Puerto Rico
A portion of the group covering Saborea

We returned late to our beautiful rooms and I arose early to walk the beach before leaving. I would have loved to enjoy a few restful days at the “W” and would return in a heartbeat.

Next, we flew to Ceiba on the eastern end of Puerto Rico. Michelle was scheduled to go horseback riding, and I was scheduled to have an ATV adventure. Due to rain, the ATV was cancelled.

Instead, those of us not riding went to the Gran Meliá Hotel & Golf Resort, where we were scheduled later for lunch at Pasión por el Fogón. I explored this beautiful property, which had a good golf course, and investigated its spa. Then I ventured inside to check my e-mail in the office center. Daniel Frommer was there, and when we both finished e-mails, we toured the interior of the property with its veranda, patios, beach, and pools. I lucked out, as Daniel takes phenomenal photographs. From him, I picked up a lot of good points.

When the horseback riders returned, we shared a great closing luncheon. This consisted of exceptional appetizers, entrées, dessert, and drinks, which were enjoyed by all. This hotel was exceptional and I’d recommend it without hesitation.

Before flying home, we spent the night at the Sheraton in San Juan., as we all had early departures the next morning. What was special for me about this trip was discovering that Puerto Rico had so much more to offer than I had imagined. All the locals I met were friendly and everywhere we stayed was lovely. Sometimes, you have to go beyond known areas to discover the less known. It’s certainly worth it!

For more information:

Saborea (I believe it will be 2011 for next year’s event, but that website is not yet current. In the meantime, this site covers the extent of the activities).

Sheraton Puerto Rico, 200 Convention Boulevard, San Juan, Puerto Rico, US 787.993.3500

Latin Roots


InterContinental Hotel, Isla Verde, Puerto Rico, US 787.791.6100

El San Juan Hotel, 6063 Isla Verde Avenue, Carolina 00979, Puerto Rico, US 888.579.2632

W Retreat & Spa – Vieques Island, State Road 200, Vieques Island, Puerto Rico, US 787.741.4199

Gran Meliá Hotel & Golf Resort 877 476 3542


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