Rua do Carmo 1, Pelourinho, Salvador, Brazil
Vibrant Salvador is known for its colors and its Carnival, but not so much for its quiet, which is why a stay at the Pestana Convento do Carmo offers such respite. A sprawling 16th-century Carmelite convent perched atop a summit in Salvador’s colonial Pelourinho neighborhood, the Convento do Carmo is an oasis of cool, understated luxury in a city that is often scorching and sometimes chaotic.
Arriving at the majestic whitewashed convent that houses the Pestana Convento do Carmo is akin to being transported into another time or state of being. Pass through the commanding baroque doors (watched over by a miniature posse of military police) and immediately you’re greeted by the soft curves of arcades framing a cloister shaded by swaying palms and a giant mango tree. At the reception, the check–in ritual involves being seated in a plush chair and refreshing yourself with espresso, coconut water, or a glass of champagne.
Brazil’s first historic luxury hotel, the Convento opened in 2005 to much fanfare. The owners are Portugal’s Pestana group, who know a thing or two about transforming castles, fortresses, monasteries, and other historic treasures into luxury accommodations. In Salvador, the group has taken great care to mess as little as possible with the Convent’s original structure and trappings. As a result, a lovely monastic vibe permeates, which is very conducive to pursuits such as contemplation, meditation, and sprawling around one of the cloister’s many chaise longues with a good book and a chilled drink.
Plenty of chaises are to be found in the Convento’s second (and private) cloister whose centerpiece is an alluring green tiled pool. More ornamental than Olympic, it’s surrounded by lush palms, almond trees, and heliconia. The attentive staff keeps the drinks (including complimentary coconut water) flowing pool-side, but you can also adjourn to the posh bar under the arcades.
Under another series of arcades, the fetching Conventual restaurant serves traditional and quite robust Portuguese fare. Touted as the best—it’s also pretty much the only—Portuguese restaurant in town, the menu includes a few contemporary turns, such as carpaccio of bacalhau (cod) with watercress pesto and Bahian twists (cream of manioc with cinnamon scented olive oil). If you have a pronounced sweet tooth, you’ll easily succumb to the sugary allure of the rich desserts—heavy on egg yolks and almonds—that adhere to centuries’-old recipes culled from Portuguese convents.
While you’ll be hard-pressed to forego the restaurant, 24-hour room service exists if you’re loathe to leave the comfort of your cell; all 79 of the Convento’s rooms occupy former monk’s dwellings. Polished floor boards, cathedral ceilings, heavy wooden shutters and doors, and thick stone walls conjure the previous inhabitants’ ascetism. However, there’s no need to self–flagellate when you’re surrounded by creature comforts such as Egyptian sheets, glossy marble bathrooms, unobtrusive plasma TVs (with a basic smattering of cable channels), and a slyly camouflaged minibar stocked with the fundamentals.
The rooms’ décor is refined, but understated. Curtains, settees and chaise longues are upholstered in muted shades of silvery-blue, saffron, and plum. Floors are adorned with handmade Arraiolos rugs, whose geometric motifs date back to the Moors’ invasion of Portugal. Unlike many historic guesthouses in Brazil, the Convento’s decorators resisted the urge to furnish with the usual heavy, ornate (and sometimes oppressive) colonial pieces, opting instead for a mixture of tasteful modern pieces featuring simple dark wood and brocades. Pretty lampshades cleverly mask the fact that the source of the soft, romantic lighting is fluorescent.
While heavy on atmosphere, the ambiance itself is light—a blessing in the smaller rooms, which feel cozy as opposed to cramped. While décor and amenities are uniform in all rooms, upgrades to the two–story Loft Suites or spacious Junior Suites buy you plenty of room to move around in. In the case of the latter, the otherwise compact bathrooms blossom into miniature spas with Jacuzzi baths, showers, and plenty of surface space to toss fluffy white towels and bathrobes upon which you’ll find your name embroidered. For a separate fee, all guests can indulge in beauty and relaxation treatments at the on-site Occitane Spa, whose hedonistic offerings include an exclusive terapia de cacau inspired by Bahia’s traditional cocoa production.
For those with worldly tasks that can’t be put off, rooms feature handsome work tables equipped with modem cables that hook up to your laptop. There’s free Wi-Fi, if you’re inclined to surf the Net around the pool area, along with two desktops tucked away in a lovely lounge/library. Along with a few castaway books, these are available 24/7. During the week, the Convento often hosts business events, usually reserved for small groups of VIPs who can hold meetings in two intimate conference rooms.
Perhaps inspired by the Carmelites’ original vows of silence, an unofficial law of tranquility reigns throughout the Convento. Noise occasionally filters in through the windows that look inwards over the cloisters, or outwards over a patchwork of historical houses, in various states of repair and disrepair (a few views offer the odd patch of blue sea in the distance). However, sealed windows, the white noise of a/c, and thick red carpets that muffle footsteps along the convent’s hallowed halls ensure there’s quiet with which to contemplate the exquisite surroundings. Zank Hotel may be hipper and more intimate, but if you like your urban oases with plenty of atmosphere and lots of (church) bells and whistles, the Convento do Carmo is the answer to your prayers.
Web Address: Convento do Carmo
Total Number of rooms: 79
Published rates: bungalows range from R$1,440 – $320 to $530; presidential suite $940
Review and photos by Michael Sommers