Friday, September 19, 2014

Old San Juan: The Gallery Inn

If you've seen me at all this week (or talked to me on the phone, or texted me, or seen any of my social media...) then chances are pretty good that you've heard about my trip. (What trip? OH I'M SO GLAD YOU ASKED!) You probably inquired just to be nice, and then nodded politely while I gushed profusely about how "we practically had the entire island to ourselves, it was soooooo great, trip of a lifetime, blah blah, braggity brag". And while I'm a teeny tiny bit sorry about all my raving, truly I can'tstopwon'tstop talking about our vacation because I really really want you to hear every detail so you will be convinced to go too (and recreate every single magical moment for yourself because seriously it was just THAT AWESOME). We joke around here that Dustin is an alcohol pusher...Step onto our property (not even in the house!) for longer than three minutes and he's going to offer you a drink. He may not physically force one on you, but he will offer repeatedly until he's 100% sure you are not thirsty, and possibly never will be (otherwise- you're getting a drink just in case). Well it turns out I'm a vacation pusher. When I find someplace I like, I will wax poetically forever, or at least until I'm confident you've grasped the amazingness of my recent experience, and have been convinced, even in part, that you're considering it for your next trip. 

Prepare to get pushed. 
Because we just got back from somewhere pret-ty incredible, and I want to tell you ALL ABOUT IT. (I promise to keep the caps-lock shouting to a minimum).

Bowdenisms- Guide to The Gallery Inn, San Juan Puerto Rico

(Yeah, you're gonna wanna go ahead and pin that...on your "places you had no clue could even be real, but now you must go to immediately" board. )

Click on "read more" for the full details...
(Preface...I was attempting to write a post about the entire San Juan portion of our trip, but I got about a million words in to just the hotel part and realized I needed to split it up. So today is all about our accommodations...which can only be described as lovely.)

When we planned our trip, we knew we wanted to spend the bulk of our time in Vieques, but we thought it would be a shame to travel all the way to Puerto Rico and not spend some time on the main island. There are a TON of beautiful spots within PR, I'm sure we could have kept ourselves busy for weeks (and by busy, I mean: completely relaxed) but since we only planned to have two days there, we decided to spend that time in Old San Juan.

I mentioned before that we were keeping the planning of this trip pretty low key....well, in an unprecedented Courtney move, I may have actually under-stated that. We were already several days into our vacation, and we still hadn't booked a hotel...or anything really...for our time in Puerto Rico. We had done a little bit of research before leaving, but had only determined two things:
  1. We wanted to stay in Old San Juan (vs. the main portion of the larger city)
  2. We wanted to go zip-lining
We had looked online a bit and it seemed like there were plenty of available options to do both, so we figured we'd worry about it once we got down there. (I obviously use the word "worry" loosely here.) So as the sun set on night three of our vacation, we set up our happy hour snack time, and perused the internet to make some decisions. And soon enough, we had ourselves a hotel room, and a zipline tour. Thanks low season!

As I described in the Vieques recap, we ended up deciding to take a flight back to San Juan to save some time. We actually booked that a few hours before we clearly we were riding this relaxed wave as far as it would take us. We landed in the early afternoon, and checked into our hotel:

The Gallery Inn

Ok. Now here's the thing. I'm going to try to explain The Gallery Inn to you, but there are just positively no words that can do it any kind of justice. It's simply magical. It is otherworldly. It is mind-blowingly bizarre, and historical, and awesome, and seriously, I could probably describe it better by just pointing silently to my wide-open jaw, and perma-goosebumps that the place gave me. It defies all explanation, but this is a blog post afterall, so I shall try.
We didn't know a thing about The Gallery Inn when we arrived- just that we found it on Expedia, it was convenient, affordable and had great reviews. (Oh- and it included breakfast. I'm a sucker for free breakfast). I knew it had a bit of a quirky, antique vibe, but I was certainly not prepared to be welcomed by a courtyard fully covered with plants, statues and parrots. (Seriously, fully covered. There is not one inch of the property that isn't adored with art, artifacts, or a real live bird). I wandered around taking thousands of pictures and repeating "whoaaaaaaaa" for a good 30 minutes, constantly asking Dustin, "Can you believe this place?!" (He could not.)
It was absolutely mind-boggling how many pieces of art there were, and as our stay continued, we learned that the owner was an artist. That made the hundreds of paintings of Old San Juan make more sense, and I figured she was also a collector of furniture, and lawn ornaments- honestly- it was like a  Spanish Colonial version of Hoarders with all of the statues, busts, and broken plaster faces laying around.

But once we got used to being constantly watched- by one bronze face or another- we had a lovely stay, enjoying music from the classical guitarist on the patio during breakfast, wandering through the labyrinth of the inn- exploring each floor and hidden room and treasure trove of decor, and lazing in the sun by the rooftop pool. Eventually we saw the owner milling about, (well, we assumed it was the owner, as she was carrying one of the birds with a mix of adoration and authority), and she informed us that the birds (or some guests...I'm not was rather confusing...) had requested to go to the beach house for the evening, and asked if we'd like to join? She explained that The Gallery owned a property down on the shore ("just on the other side of the slum". Seriously- that's a direct quote- somehow said with no negative connotation whatsoever. It just was what it was) and they were going to go down and have a drink in 15 minutes or so, and we were welcome to come. Dustin was hesitant, but I was emphatic, that if a fabulously glamorous, 80+ year old (we guessed...) artist/hotel owner, with a flock of birds and several bottles of champagne invites you to her beach house? You say YES.

So we changed clothes quickly, and dutifully followed the two bartenders down the winding streets of "the shortcut" through La Perla, the aforementioned beach town/slum. (The other guests rode in the property's van, with- I swear- the owner in the far back "trunk" space with a birdcage on her lap....The car was full but she insisted on going with them, and wouldn't hear of anyone trading her or talking her out of it.) When we got down to the beach house, we were blown away (some more) by the incredibly unique beauty of the building. And the beach view didn't hurt.

We spend the next couple of hours hanging out a few other guests, a couple of staff members, Campeche (the parrot/social director) and Jan D'Esopo- the artist and owner. As we drank, and chatted, Jan told us more about her life. We finally learned the details of the property- how she had come to Puerto Rico sixty-some years ago and found the 300 year old building in near ruins. She spend decades fixing it up, and turning it into the The Gallery Inn. The art we saw everywhere? Hers, of course. And the sculptures? Also hers. She made every single one. And the tall, quiet, island man seen spraying down the courtyard cobblestones and graciously driving elderly guests to the beach house? That's her partner- she met him 30 years ago (when he was a teenager) saw potential beyond his experience of grounds-keeping, and trained him to be an artist. They've been working together ever since, and now are so intertwined in their art that they say they can't even tell which one of them has worked on a piece ("Did I start that one? Or did you...? I love it!") It turns out Jan and Stevie are well known throughout the island (and beyond) and are still commissioned for major works and government installations. (Stevie also stays in the beach house- either on occasion, or as a rule- and his son works at The Gallery Inn).

But she didn't talk much her least not in a self-impressed way. She was just interested in enjoying an evening on the porch, swapping stories with her guests. We all were intrigued by her though, and asked question after question of her. The more she talked, the more I wanted to listen. She told us about her divorce, her marriage(s), her husband's passing last year....She talked about her travels, and her kids (and grandkids)...She (and I) teared up as she described her plans to create a headstone for her husband in the nearby cemetery with a view of the ocean and the beach house- his favorite place.

At the end of the night, it was just Jan, Dustin and me (and the birds...always the birds), and I told her, half jokingly, that I wanted to her to tell me everything she knows. She laughed and told me she once felt the exact same way- years ago when she watched a tiny woman conduct a symphony orchestra. She remembered watching that woman, so engrossed in her task, so small in stature, but so powerful in what she was leading and creating....she remembered being fascinated and wondering what it was like to be her. Jan seemed humbled that I would express that view towards her. She told us how much it meant for her to be back at the beach house again...for a while it had been too hard for her to come back after her husband passed away...and how thankful she was to share it with us. I held her hands as she talked, and when it was time to go, offered to carry a bird up to the car. It was a couple hours at a beach house, within a couple days at an inn, part of a week at the beach...but it was an experience I can barely describe, and will never forget.

Jan has built something beautiful- with her hands, and her heart, and her life. And we were beyond blessed to witness that beauty and get to know its creator. 

Thank you, Jan, for welcoming us into your inn and your home. You are talented, and spunky, and inspiring, and lovely.


I hope you got at least a little glimpse into why this trip was so special to us. I swear not to drag this out forever (though reliving it does lessen the blow of having to leave it...) Can you stomach one more post of fun and sun? Take the weekend to think about it....I'll catch you on the flipside.

See part one our trip, to Vieques.


  1. I feel like this Inn was featured on a TV show??? It feels familiar. And I am loving every recap!! Gorgeous!

  2. So, did you enjoy your vacation?

    1. hardy har... (But really, that made me laugh out loud. I'm a sucker for sarcasm)

  3. I loved this........... clicked on it from tripadvisor. THANK YOU for sharing. I have been to Old San Juan, and stayed at El Convento, but we will stay here next time; thank you.