Small world: Southern accents in the tropics

OK, so there we were, waiting for an acquaintance in the lobby of the Hampton Inn at San Juan, Puerto Rico, when we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a party — complete with food, drink, and live music.

It was Thanksgiving week, and for the first time since our children were born, neither was to be at home for the holiday, off on travels of their own, so we last-minute opted for a week someplace warm and sunny.

It was the fourth anniversary of the Hampton hotel, we were told, as we grazed on their hors d'oeuvres. The owners and management were schmoozing the guests and, glory be!, a courtly Southern accent, right there amongst all the Spanish and Yankee voices. “Uhh, where are you from?” I queried the owner. “Jackson, Tennessee,” he replied. We were soon comparing mutual acquaintances back in the Mid-South.

Déjá vu.

Bruce Edenton the elder built a Holiday Inn on the Atlantic in San Juan many years ago. A few years back, he sold out to Ritz Carlton, which promptly tore it down and erected a lavish, lushly-landscaped $100 million-plus hotel on the site. Edenton managed to lock up a piece of land cater-cornered down the street and built the Hampton.

His son, also Bruce, and family moved to San Juan to oversee the hotel, itself beautifully appointed, lushly landscaped, with the highest occupancy of any property in the entire Hampton chain, and several company awards for outstanding service/management.

Bruce the younger is currently involved in another hotel being built as part of a major development on the island. “Real estate is hot here,” he says. “A house that would be $250,000 in the Memphis area goes for $500,000 here.” He tells of a developer who's putting together a major residential project: “He plans to build 500 homes; 300 were pre-sold at $500,000 before the first nail was ever driven, and there's a waiting list of several hundred people for the others.”

Aside from the always-summer weather, gorgeous beaches, flowers everywhere, and a Latin proclivity for having fun, Puerto Rico offers a tropics flavor without having to learn strange money, cope with another language (virtually everyone speaks English and Spanish), or not be able to satisfy a Big Mac attack (every U.S. company under the sun is located here).

“Puerto Ricans spend their money and everybody wants to get some of it,” laughs Oscar Ramón, a Sears exec for 30 years who now has a travel agency and other interests and graciously showed us some of his favorite spots — including a couple of magnificent Spanish forts in Old San Juan dating back to the 1500s, a lush tropical rainforest, and gorgeous beach/ocean vistas (the Wyndham El Conquistador resort on the east coast is absolutely breathtaking).

Not a lot of agriculture. Some rice (RiceTec has a winter nursery on the island); some cattle here and there; coffee (Alta Grande is considered one of the top three premium coffees in the world); bananas, plantains, various fruits; and of course, sugarcane for their famed rum.

But a great place to escape, for a while, the blahs of our Delta winter.

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