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Utopía

 

Utopía (Calle Isabel 78), conveniently located in Plaza Las Delicias, has the most imaginative and interesting selection of gift items and handicrafts in Ponce. Prominently displayed are vegigantes, brightly painted carnival masks inspired by carnival rituals and crafted from papier-mâché. In Ponce, where many of these masks are made, they sell at bargain prices of between $20 and $500, depending on their size. Other items include cigars, pottery, clothing, and jewelry; gifts imported from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Mexico; and rums from throughout the Caribbean. Julio and Carmen Aguilar are the helpful and enthusiastic owners, who hail from Ecuador and Puerto Rico, respectively.

The big mall in town is Plaza del Caribe (Hwy. 2), located right off exit 104-B from the Luis A Ferrre Expressway 52. A smaller version of Plaza las Américas, there are still 140 stores, many of them similar to the San Juan mall, in more than 7,000 square feet of shopping space. If you are looking for it, you can find it here. Plus, there are lots of good places to eat, and a Cineplex movie theater as well.

 


SHOPPING

There are many shops in the renovated downtown area of Ponce that have local arts and crafts. The Atocha Pedestrian Mall runs along Calle Cristina just off the city’s central Plaza Las Delicias. It’s been one of Ponce’s main shopping areas for decades. There’s not a whole lot here, but it’s fun to walk around, and the shops and offerings are a throwback to a simpler time.

For artisans’ work, try El Palacio del Coquí Inc. (Calle Marina 9227), whose name means “palace of the tree frog.” This is the place to buy the colorful veijantese masks (viewed as collectors’ items) that are used at carnival time. Ask the owner to explain the significance of these masks.


Pito’s Seafood Café & Restaurant

Pito’s Seafood Café & Restaurant (Hwy. 2, Las Cucharas, Ponce) — This is the best of the string of seafood restaurants along the undeveloped waterfront west of the city center. The building has a handsome wooden structure on the water, with three different dining levels with open air views of the sea. There is a large and fine wine selection, with 25 bottles available by the glass, and a cigar menu available at a separate smoking bar. The spot offers the freshest seafood, in the finest of island and Spanish recipes. A really great spot to experience the best Puerto Rican seafood meal of your vacation. It’s a great place to try grilled Caribbean lobster, which is lighter than its Maine cousin. I’ve also tried the Ponce style conch salad and mahimahi in mango curry coconut sauce. The halibut filet sautéed with pesto and shrimp is as tasty as it sounds, but everything looks great. If it’s anything like mine have been, your meal will be as perfect as the view.

La Monserrate

La Monserrate (Rte. 2, km. 252, Sector Las Cucharas, Ponce) — This is one of a string of seaside restaurants specializing in Puerto Rican cuisine and seafood lined along the beautiful coastline about 4 miles (6.4km) west of the town center. This restaurant draws a loyal following, and has a large dining room overlooking the waterfront. Specialties, concocted from the catch of the day, might include octopus salad, several different kinds of asopao, a whole red snapper in Creole sauce, or a selection of steaks and grills. Nothing is innovative, but the cuisine is typical of the south of Puerto Rico, and it’s a family favorite. The fish dishes are better than the meat selections.

La Cava

La Cava (Ponce Hilton Hotel, 1150 Avenida Caribe, Ponce) — The restaurant underwent a modern makeover, but the food is still classic continental and its still one of this southern city’s best dining experiences. Start out with the duck terrine and lingonberries or the lobster empanadillas with spicy mango sauce, and move on to the crusted veal chop with Spanish sausage, provolone cheese and a rioja wine risotto, or a red snapper filet with capers and lime. The menu is filled with similar thrills. If you need a good meal in Ponce, you are guaranteed one here.

Café Tomas/Café Tompy

Café Tomas/Café Tompy (76 Calle Isabel, Ponce) — The more visible and busier section of this establishment functions as a simple cafe for neighbors and local merchants. At plastic tables often flooded with sunlight from the big windows, you can order coffee, sandwiches, or cold beer, perhaps while relaxing after a walking tour of the city. The family-run restaurant in back is more formal. Here, amid a decor reminiscent of a Spanish tasca (tapas bar), you can enjoy such simply prepared dishes as salted filet of beef, beefsteak with onions, four kinds of asopao, buttered eggs, octopus salads, and yucca croquettes.

Archipiélago

Archipiélago (76 Calle Cristina, Ponce) — The new place to be in Ponce is this sixth floor restaurant that offers sweeping views of the historic district and innovative criolla and continental fusion cuisine. The interior dining area is as smart and modern as the menu with subdued tones and an expansive glass window that brings the view from above Plaza las Delicias right into the room. There are two outdoor terraces that will make you feel lost in Europe as you look out at the cathedral and the Victorian firehouse.

If you are with a group, start out with the Archipielago platter, which has fried manchego cheese and tomato jam, fried local cheese with guava and prosciutto ham, fried plantains topped with stewed shredded meat, mushroom caps stuffed with pesto and fried calamaris. The lobster in Creole sauce and the chicken stuffed with sundried tomatoes, mushrooms and Italian cheese were both excellent. The rack of lamb, crusted with annatto and panko, also impresses. There are also simple vegetarian dishes, burgers and straight up Puerto Rican classics.

There is also a lounge area and bar, so this is a one of the city’s top nightspots as well. Occasional performances and special events are held here. It’s a great place for a drink if you’re not in the mood for a full meal.

Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center

Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center (Rte. 503, Tibes, at km. 2.2)(2 miles north of Ponce) — Bordered by the Río Portuguéz and excavated in 1975, this is the oldest cemetery in the Antilles. It contains some 186 skeletons, dating from A.D. 300, as well as pre-Taíno plazas from A.D. 700. The site also includes a re-created Taíno village, seven rectangular ball courts, and two dance grounds. The arrangement of stone points on the dance grounds, in line with the solstices and equinoxes, suggests a pre-Columbian Stonehenge. Here you’ll also find a museum, an exhibition hall that presents a documentary about Tibes, a cafeteria, and a souvenir shop.

Go east along Av. De las Americas until Av. De Hostos, which turns immediately into Calle Salud. Take a left at Calle Trioche and a right at Calle Mayor Cantera, which leads into the Carretera Tibes. Go right on Rte. 503, then bear left to stay on road.

Parque de Bombas

Parque de Bombas (Plaza Las Delicias, Ponce) — Constructed in 1882 as the centerpiece of a 12-day agricultural fair intended to promote the civic charms of Ponce, this building was designated a year later as the island’s first permanent headquarters for a volunteer firefighting brigade. It has an unusual appearance — it’s painted black, red, green, and yellow. A tourist-information kiosk is situated inside the building.

 

Museo Castillo Serrallés

Museo Castillo Serrallés (17 Calle El Vigía, Ponce) — This beautiful attraction is located in the southern city of Ponce, which is about an hour drive from San Juan. It was home to the Serrallés family, founders of the distillery which brought us the Don Q rum. One of the architectural gems of Puerto Rico, it is the best evidence of the wealth produced by the turn-of-the-20th-century sugar boom. You must join a tour in order to see the interior of the museum. The tour guide will explain to you the history of the house, which is both interesting and fascinating. Highlights include panoramic courtyards, a baronial dining room, a small cafe and souvenir shop, and a series of photographs showing the tons of earth that were brought in for the construction of the terraced gardens, a beautiful place to sit outside the castle that overlooks the city.