By Samantha Simon
Nov 13, 2018 @ 4:30 pm
Courtesy

In September 2017, Puerto Rico suffered devastating damage when category five Hurricane Maria barreled onto its shores. Rebuilding efforts have been nonstop in the 14 months since — and this past weekend, the grand reopening of a major resort marked a huge milestone in the island's recovery.

Just a 30-minute drive from the San Juan airport sits the 50-acre Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve. With a scenic private beach, five-acre botanical spa, and two luxe pools, the rebirth of the culturally-rich Dorado Beach signaled something much greater than just the restoration of a chic hotel. It represented a return to normalcy for Puerto Rico’s tourism industry — which employs approximately 63,500 people and makes up for seven percent of the island’s gross national product. This property is just one way the island is showing visitors it's ready to welcome them with open arms.

Courtesy

Among the first to experience the new resort were a group of celebrities who flocked to the Caribbean in a show of support. Uma Thurman, Neil Patrick Harris, Mariska Hargitay, Marcia Gay Harden, and Martha Stewart were among those taking part in activities celebrating the island’s heritage. InStyle was also there to chat with the stars about the hotel’s inspiring rebirth, which kicked off on Friday night with a poolside dinner hosted by world-renowned chef José Andrés at the Positivo Sand Bar, followed by a DJ set by Questlove.

On Saturday, guests had the chance to give back to the island in a more hands-on way. Volunteers headed to a farm site in Manatí together with World Central Kitchen, an organization that Andrés founded in 2010 to help chefs create smart solutions to end hunger and poverty. After that, it was on to a tree-planting ceremony at the resort. The event symbolized the island’s future growth, and for Academy Award-winning actress Marcia Gay Harden, it was one of the weekend’s most powerful activities. “I did plant a tree in honor of my mother today, and I thought that was a really beautiful moment,” she said that evening. “I felt quite grounded.”

Sean Zanni/PMC

RELATED: I Left Puerto Rico After Maria — a Year Later, Will It Feel Like Home?

Harden’s reason for making the trip to the Caribbean had quickly become “two-fold,” she explained. “I came for the obvious reason of Puerto Rico rebuilding and this resort rebuilding — having been torn down by the skin of their teeth — and replanting over 200,000 plants and trees. I came to celebrate their accomplishments. And now that I’m here, it feels like the most intimate gathering of friends and family. It feels like Friendsgiving with 500 people, so it’s become something exponentially much larger than the initial reason why I came.”

Gonzalo Marroquin /PMC

Mariska Hargitay and her husband, Younger star Peter Hermann, made the weekend a family affair. They brought along their three children for a fun-filled getaway that represented “renewal and healing, in every sort of way,” the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit actress said at dinner, shortly before Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr. took the stage to perform with the Puerto Rico Philharmonic Orchestra. “It feels like the cutting of the tape and the opening of Puerto Rico again. It’s really a celebration of the devastation being on the healing side.”

Gonzalo Marroquin /PMC

Hermann, for one, was still trying to wrap his head around the fact that enjoying such a lavish vacation was also helpful. “José Andrés said yesterday that we’re actually doing good by being here — and I have to say that we’re all so deeply grateful to be here — but doing good has just never been this luxurious,” said Hermann. “I think if we said to our kids — as they’re at the water park and on the basketball court and in the water on the beach — that they are also doing some good for Puerto Rico by being here, I think their little brains probably couldn’t handle that.”

Sean Zanni /PMC

RELATED: What Stars Like J.Lo Have Done to Help Puerto Rico's Hurricane Relief Efforts

“And neither can ours!” Hargitay chimed in. “You just sit in such a profound gratitude, and it’s sort of overwhelming to think that by being here, we’re doing something good,” she continued. “We have fallen so in love with this place — we were here a year ago for New Year's, and when we told our kids we were coming back, they were like, ‘I love that place!’ I think they’re always a good barometer. But this has become, for so many reasons, a real destination for us. We’re coming back in January, and what they’ve done here is nothing short of miraculous, in the investment here. And that’s really beautiful to be blessed to be a part of.”

Don Riddle

During a trip to Dorado Beach’s ultra-luxe five-acre Spa Botánico — which offers everything from a customized massage in an open-air treehouse to an aromatherapy facial that employs healing plant extracts — Hargitay did more than relax. She found inspiration. “I went to the spa today and it was so beautiful to talk to the women [who worked there] and ask them so many questions about their experience,” she said. “They were so hopeful and excited to have everyone back again. It feels like budding and blossoming and an incredible gift. It’s magic here, in a new way.”

Don Riddle

Martha Stewart is another longtime fan of the island’s magic. “I used to come here regularly,” she said before dinner on Saturday night. “When I was a stock broker, we brought clients here for, like, boondoggle weekends. My husband came, my daughter came. We had family weekends here — and I love Puerto Rico! So to see it reemerging after such a disaster is very encouraging to me. And it’s a nice place to come — this is a beautiful resort, and the spa is amazing.”

Sean Zanni /PMC

During her stay, Stewart also ventured outside the reserve to do a bit of exploring, and she came across one of the island’s biggest culinary treasures along the way. “Today we ate at the most delicious place — an amazing chicken rotisserie place called Chicken Fever,” she said. “It’s in a town called Morovis. And it’s so fabulous!”

While the meal was a highlight of her trip, Stewart noted that other parts of the island are still in the process of being restored, and she encouraged people to come experience them and help businesses thrive. “I think they should come and experience Puerto Rico,” she said. “It’s still a little rough around the edges," she said, of communities that are still rebuilding, and perhaps without a Ritz onsite to help. "But they need help, they need encouragement, they need investment, and they need visitors. They need tourism back again.”

Don Riddle

Harden echoes that sentiment. Her message to anyone considering booking a trip? “It’s a no brainer!” she said. "I think people are just afraid because they don’t understand that the island is rebuilding." But now that she's been back, her takeaway is pretty clear:  “It’s beautiful, it’s exquisite, it’s warm, and it’s lovely."

Courtesy

Of course, you can still support the island’s recovery without setting foot on the sand (here are a few ways you can help) but with such a premier destination now ready to welcome visitors back, Puerto Rico’s future is certainly looking bright. If you have a chance to get there and help out — why would you pass that up?