Visiting Ponce's Majestic Castillo Serrallés
Ask many a Puerto Rican what their favorite rum is, and they won't hesitate to answer Don Q. It might not have the global brand name of Bacardi, but Don Q is no slouch when it comes to quality and flavor. It's also, unlike Bacardi, a purely homegrown product and it all starts with the Serrallés family. A visit to Castillo Serrallés in the charming city of Ponce is a trip through the life and times of Puerto Rico's most well-known rum barons.
Built in the 1930s, the Serrallés mansion sits atop Vigía Mountain with commanding views of the city. It was designed in a Spanish revival style, incorporating Moorish and Spanish architectural elements including stucco walls, clay tile roofs, and terra cotta ornamentation. Today, the "castle" stands as an iconic Ponce cultural attraction, a stop on the Ponce Tourist Trolley and a must-visit destination for anyone visiting the city.
Castillo Serrallés is open Tuesday to Sunday from 9:30 to 6:30, with the last tour given at 5:30. For more information, visit their website.
Inside Castillo Serrallés
A tour of the castle gives you a wonderful and authentic glimpse at Puerto Rican high society during the island's sugar boom, when the rum barons lived in lavish style. The Serrallés family were originally in the sugar cane business before they switched to rum.
The furniture at Castillo Serrallés is from the "High Period." The Serrallés family lived here from the 1930s to 1979, and a group of private citizens now manage and maintain it as a cultural treasure. Ths mansion is meticulously maintained, and all original. Begin your tour of the house with a short film, and then check out the rooms on the ground floor: you'll visit the interior patio (a typical feature of Spanish homes), the richly appointed dining room, and my favorite room, the library and music room. Note the owl-eye windows here, along with the old fashioned intercom and silver tone radio.
From here, head upstairs to visit Doña Rosa's bedroom, which has all its original furnishings. The other three rooms at the Castillo feature temporary exhibitions. Walk out onto the terrace to catch panoramic views of the city and a look at the castle's lovely gardens.
Among the noteworthy features of the house are a depiction of the Serrallés family tree, an intact and functioning Otis elevator dating from 1924 (a true luxury at the time), and an exhibit dedicated to the history of the sugar industry on the island. Before you leave, don't miss the small but well appointed "Tienda Don Juan Eugenio" gift shop, where you can buy local coffee, music, arts and crafts, and of course, Don Q Rum (I didn't see any Bacardi rum on display).
The Gardens of Castillo Serrallés
If the castle projects a life of comfort and opulence, the gardens at Castillo Serrallés offer an enviable, serene and picturesque sanctuary. Cascading down the hill, the beautiful landscaping, bright flora and majestic pool would look more at home in France than Puerto Rico.
Enjoy a quiet walk here, and don't miss the nursery, which has a variety of orchids, roses, bromeliads, and other plants, and the butterfly garden.
The Vigía Cross at Castillo Serrallés
Once you leave the mansion, cross the street and walk up the hill to the Cruceta del Vigía, or Vigía Cross. You can't miss the towering structure, and a trip to its observation tower is worth it for the views alone.
The history of the Cross is equally interesting. This newer, larger cross is a respectful nod to the original cross that stood here. This was the site of an important landmark in the 1800s when Ponce was under constant threat of attack from corsairs. A watchman was stationed here, and he manned a cross-tree (or cruceta) with a series of flags hanging from it. These flags signaled which ships were approaching Ponce Harbor and their point of origins. Merchants would monitor the cruceta to signal the arrival of their ships, and all would heed the signs of approaching enemies through this simple but effective system.
Near the new, modern tower you'll find a replica of the original cross, complete with flags.
The Japanese Gardens at Castillo Serrallés
The last place to visit at Castillo Serrallés is perhaps a bit incongruous with the rest of the sites here, but no less beautiful. Steps from the Cruceta del Vigía is a small but lovely Japanese Garden, a peaceful oasis to mark the end of the tour. Last time I was there, the garden had an amazing collection of bonsai trees on display. I hope they're still there.