LGBTQ+-owned and operated Dreamers Welcome works stylish, sustainable design and thoughtful amenities into cool holiday hideaways…
By Doug Wallace
We can barely see the hotel entrance for all the tropical foliage, but I spy an attendant with “Dream Team” in big letters on her T-shirt, so I know we’re in the right place.
Walking into the courtyards of the Dreamcatcher by DW in San Juan, Puerto Rico, is like entering a secret garden – greenery and filament lights everywhere, a couple of fountains bubbling away, stained glass, wrought-iron chairs angled around a glass table, a Buddha shrine. A few cool people are just chilling, which automatically makes me cool by association.
The DW stands for Dreamers Welcome, an LGBTQ+-owned hospitality group founded by life partners Stephan Watts and Roy Delgado. They have created not only San Juan’s only vegetarian hotel, but also a series of high-design holiday rental apartments set within the gated beach community of Ocean Park and neighbouring Santurce.
“We love the area – it’s a very metropolitan experience, close to the airport and a good starting point for exploring the island,” says Stephan, a German-born real estate entrepreneur. He adds that Ocean Park used to be a very gay neighbourhood, back when the island landed on the radar of hip New Yorkers in the 1960s. “It has a history of small guest houses run by mostly gay men and women, a safe haven for people coming to enjoy themselves without being afraid. The Caribbean is fairly religious for the most part, and that comes with certain problems with regard to openness. Ocean Park is the opposite – you feel welcome and safe, and not judged. And there are so many smaller businesses here run by gay people.”
San Juan has always felt comfortable to me in this respect. Puerto Rico continues to enjoy a high score at Equaldex.com – almost as high as Canada’s – and has a tourist board that actually spends money to market to the LGBTQ+ communities. In fact, the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association held its annual conference in San Juan this past October.
Stephan says that he and Roy, who is a Puerto Rican-born artist and interior designer, are catering mostly to “the metropolitan millennial – city people who appreciate the effort we put into the design language and the environment that we create. They want a certain level of comfort, but are ready to explore something new.”
Moving through the quiet courtyards to our room, we let the Dreamcatcher design slowly seep into our minds. A thread of nostalgia ties together a mix of repurposed retro furniture, statement macramé, stained glass, ironwork, unexpected colours, a few jazzy patterns – it’s an engaging, homespun mix, like the home of a bohemian buddy. “We’re mixing a lot of different elements, old with new, creating an environment that’s different from your standard hotel,” Stephan says. “Every unit is different – we add one special thing to each unit that makes it unique.”
In addition to the 19 rooms of the hotel, the 40 apartments across 11 properties range in looks – from ornate to minimal – and yet they’re all vintage-accented, slightly unconventional and artsy. Guests enjoy oversized soaking tubs, sunny little terraces, record players, small kitchenettes and inviting hammocks. Prices also vary, from US$200 for a curated loft apartment to US$1,500 for a four-bedroom villa in the rainforest one hour away from town, which sounds like a birthday weekend to me. (The pair also runs a five-room hotel and a three-bedroom bungalow in Wilmington, North Carolina.)
“I like small properties that have personality,” Stephan says. “Every building speaks to us differently. They’re mostly structures from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, and quite solid. But over the years, they’ve been neglected. We like coming in to restore them and give them a new life. To do that, we have to deal with what we are given – and that’s very much our design approach.”
The properties are mostly self-check-in like other homestay online marketplaces, yet guests have access to the Dreamcatcher amenities, as most are within walking distance of the hotel. I spend quality time scrolling through the list of off-property excursions led by local experts that showcase the city – bookable through a virtual concierge. There’s also a city guide to aid in my planning, with a list of gay-owned businesses, bars and restaurants. The work of local gay artisans enriches the decor, and as you would expect, the bulk of the staff is part of the LGBTQ+ community, which amps up my comfort factor.
San Juan never fails to impress
I like this town more every time I visit, though I’ve yet to run into either Ricky Martin or Wilson Cruz. The streets are safe at night, there’s a vibrant café culture and the street art is incredible – on an international scale. The cuisine is a smorgasbord of seafood and barbecue comfort, from the traditional-food cafés to the restaurants by celebrity chef Mario Pagán to the food trucks at outdoor emporium Lote 23. Everything is delicious and the prices are reasonable, which is more than I can say for Toronto. No wonder I always come home a kilogram heavier.
I usually manage to down at least one $5 mojito at El Cafetín – always on the sidewalk, because that’s where the real action is. And I’m in love with most of the bartenders at the shabby-chic series of bars within La Factoría. Closer to the Dreamcatcher, the animated Santurce neighbourhood has a busy cultural scene, overflowing with hot restaurants and designer shops.
While the streets of San Juan are always energizing day and night – not to mention exceedingly pretty – my toes are happier in the sand. This trip, I need to veg out a bit, which is very unlike me. Turns out, I’m really good at it.
Our little stretch of Ocean Park Beach is a hit with kite surfers for some windy reason. A cluster of them entertains us with their late-afternoon defiance of gravity. I’m amazed that they don’t collide with each other or with one of the personal watercraft buzzing around. The odd jogger provides a bit of eye candy. Perfect.
At the end of the day, I wish every city had a Dreamers Welcome, not just because it’s gay friendly, but because it’s really filling a gap in the market, an affordable step up from the homestay brokers – which I never trust – and way cooler than the many boutique hotels that try too hard. This is something different, and I like different.
“As a gay traveller, I want to go to places where I feel safe and appreciated, not just tolerated,” Stephan says. “We did this to mirror the way we like to travel ourselves. And we have very high expectations when we go somewhere and pay for something.” Me, too.
DOUG WALLACE is an international travel and lifestyle writer, photographer and custom-content authority, principal of Wallace Media and editor-publisher of TravelRight.Today. He can be found beside buffet tables, on massage tables and table-hopping around the world.