San Diego, Calle Quero 9-65, Cartagena Colombia
Tucked inside the old walls of colonial Cartagena, the five-room Casa Boutique Veranera harkens back to the days before automobiles, when horse-and-buggies ruled the streets, musicians played on every corner, and high society mingled over afternoon cocktails.
Today, this antiques-filled hotel is in the middle of the newly revitalized Colombian port city. A few steps outside the three-story hotel and you find yourself in lively squares, restaurants and bars.
Diana Chen, an American born in China, was just 27 years old when she purchased the ramshackle colonial house in the seaside San Diego neighborhood. She quickly mastered the Spanish language and set out restoring the home to its former splendor. In doing so, she was one of the first foreigners in recent decades to open a boutique hotel in Cartagena.
"I imagined it as a vacation home instead of a hotel, with welcoming staff and an intimacy that you can't find in larger places," says Chen. "I wanted my guests to live the life of a Cartagenero, the way it was lived 200 or 300 years ago."
But there are plenty of modern conveniences at Casa Boutique Veranera. Local cell phones are provided free of charge to guests (and are particularly handy for keeping in touch when a group of friends rent out the hotel). Preloaded iPods and docking stations are at every bedside. Luxury bedding and robes are standard in the rooms, all with ensuite bathroom. Wi-Fi is free throughout the hotel, and an iMac is available for use. Each room, named by color, also includes a plasma TV, air conditioning, ceiling fan, and quality toiletries.
A typical Cartagenero breakfast is served in the mornings (fried arepas con huevos or, for the less adventurous, scrambled eggs and fresh fruit). The Colombian staff offers afternoon cocktails-whiskey, rum, wine and local beer-that are best taken at the upstairs pool, where billowing white curtains offer privacy for swimmers.
Chen recommends and arranges activities for guests, but her main advice is to "walk, walk, walk" the old colonial streets for shopping, sight seeing, and people watching. For groups, large cocktail parties, or banquets, local musicians provide entertainment. Excursions include boat rides to the nearby Islas del Rosarios for snorkeling and sunbathing, and a towel and picnic service is available.
Sometimes the best show, however, is back at the hotel. Whenever Chen, who lives in California, arrives in town, the local antiques dealers line up their wares outside her home the very next morning. It's not unusual to see their large armoires and chairs on the street awaiting her inspection. She's hard pressed to say no, and guests reap the reward of her collecting. This is a stylish small hotel with a strong sense of place.
Web Address: Casa Veranera
Total Number of Rooms: five rooms, including one suite
Published rates: $175 to $285; entire house from $985
Review and photos by Lisa Wixon