There’s something incredibly soothing about plunging one’s feet into rich sable-colored sand on a beach Joan Crawford once described as “the most magnificent I have ever seen.” At the posh Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, where the waves of the Atlantic lap the north shore of Puerto Rico, the mere act of walking to dinner becomes a sort of off-menu spa treatment.
Arriving guests are greeted by a series of contemporary art installations that glimmer like enormous jewels in the Caribbean sun. Then, past a marble reception area, the ocean signals to visitors that they are, in fact, in paradise.
Visitors to the area have been struck by the site’s beauty since the turn of the 20th century when New York doctor Alfred T. Livingston purchased 1,700 acres for a coconut and citrus plantation. In 1928, Livingston’s daughter, Clara—the world’s 200th licensed female pilot and 11th female helicopter pilot, who’d inherited the plantation at age 25—built Su Casa, a palatial beachfront estate. It was here, in 1937, that Livingston hosted her friend and fellow aviator Amelia Earhart, who made Dorado a stop on her ill-fated around-the-world flight.
Livingston lived at Su Casa until 1955 when she sold the entire plantation to Standard Oil heir Laurance Rockefeller, who envisioned a luxury resort in harmony with the natural surroundings. Three years later he opened Dorado Beach, a series of two-story structures facing the ocean (no roof was higher than any of the surrounding palm trees). Dorado Beach became a jet-set favorite, where film luminaries such as Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor, and Crawford—who insisted that prior to her arrival with husband Alfred Steele, her room be painted pink—would mingle with sports stars Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Joe Namath. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush also found respite from the glare of politics here.
In the 1990s, the property was acquired by Federico “Friedel” Stubbe, who teamed up with Caribbean Property Group CEO Mark Lipschutz to overhaul the resort. By building in the original footprint, the developers could avoid a large setback from the beach laid out in local building codes, thereby allowing for each of Dorado Beach’s 114 rooms and suites to be mere steps from the ocean. Now branded an ultra-luxury Ritz-Carlton Reserve—the brand’s second in the world and first in the Americas—it relaunched in 2012 with a nearly $350 million price tag and scads of fanfare, establishing itself in a corner of the Caribbean that had long since fallen into the long shadows cast by the likes of Anguilla, Mustique, and St. Barth.
Then came Hurricane Maria in 2017, devastating most of the island. The resort shut down for a year of repairs and renovations, reopening with a star-studded celebration attended by names including Mariska Hargitay and Peter Hermann, Martha Stewart, Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka, Talisa Soto and Benjamin Bratt, Al Roker, and Helena Christensen. Some 300,000 new plants and trees had been strategically replaced around the property, with bold, site-specific art installations dotting the landscape (thanks to the Arte Fits Foundation, started by Stubbe’s museologist wife, Carolina).
But it takes more than celebrity-steeped soirees to earn a resort both Five Diamonds from AAA and Five Stars from Forbes. Design studio Wilson Associates comprehensively updated the luxurious refuge while retaining its organic elegance. All the oceanfront accommodations feature well-designed floor plans emphasizing airy spaciousness. Fili d’Oro-clad beds face enormous floor-to-ceiling glass doors revealing the beach beyond. If guests prefer to be lulled to sleep by waves crashing against the shore and the nocturnal cries of the island’s native coqui frogs—named for the dual-purpose call made by the males at night, “CO” to establish turf and deter other males and “KEE” to attract females—they can leave the glass doors open, closing instead carved wooden portals on a parallel track, blurring the boundary between indoors and out.
Interiors feature extensive use of natural elements such as stone, plaster, and rich woods, with the patterns and symbols of the island’s indigenous Taino people represented in the textiles of rugs, throws, and cushions. And if the thought of connecting one’s devices to the high-speed Wi-Fi inspires agita, fear not, because a dedicated embajador—part butler, part concierge—is at guests’ beck and call. “They orchestrate the experiences we offer to each guest,” says general manager George Sotelo, “crafting them to ensure that each is personalized.”
Embajadors can arrange for a table at any of the resort’s restaurants. There’s Mediterranean fare at Encanto Beach Club and Grill, as well as Coa, an indoor/outdoor steak house with a view, named for a wood-harvesting tool used by the Taino people. Coa’s wine cellar, La Cava, has become so revered that oenophiles travel to savor the more than 650 prestigious labels curated by wine director Jonathan Moran.
An air of barefoot elegance is omnipresent at Dorado Beach, but nowhere more so than at Positivo Sand Bar, which, with its open-air layout and sand-covered floors, is a favorite hang at the resort. There, with shoes off and toes in the sand, guests while away the hours while enjoying chef Cesar Vega’s Asian-fusion cuisine (think soft-shell crab bao buns, pastrami banh mi and Peking-style duck confit). Positivo also recently welcomed chef Taira Tsuneyoshi to helm its intimate gem of an Omakase Bar.
The 11-mile Rockefeller Nature Trail is beloved by cyclists and strollers; the two renowned 18-hole Tournament Players Club golf courses beckon to aficionados of all levels; and families can frolic at The Watermill, an immersive water park (inspired by a traditional Puerto Rican sugar mill) with a pair of 30-foot slides as well as a lazy river with wave machine. Meanwhile, Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment invites guests to get hands-on with nature and local culture.
And for the ultimate Dorado Beach experience, Su Casa still stands on the Rockefeller Trail. The 8,000 square-foot-home—recently restored by SB Architects, with its gracious wraparound veranda and twin curved staircases—is guaranteed to make beautiful memories, whether as a spectacular accommodation for up to 12 or the venue for a special occasion.
What Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, does best of all is provide a self-contained oasis of eco-savvy luxury combined with a refreshing lack of formality and sense of privacy. This is especially fortunate for those guests who might enjoy frolicking in their private plunge pools. Go right ahead: The coast is clear. And don’t worry, those coqui frogs are more afraid of you than you are of them.
Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve
Dorado, Puerto Rico
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[Editor's Note: A different version of this article appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Celebrated Living (ink Global)]