Calle Del Torno 39-29 Barrio San Diego, Cartagena, Colombia
In the early 1990s, architects pried open doors of a ruined 17th Century monastery in Colombia's port city of Cartagena. What they uncovered-confessional booths, gold leaf altars, hidden windows-became centerpieces of a luxury hotel built around the bones of 500-year old walls and courtyards where priests once softly tread. Today, the Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara boasts world-class lodgings and is the epicenter of a newly revived Cartagena.
Managed by the French chain Sofitel, the 121-room Santa Clara is a high-end luxury hotel with all the expected amenities, dramatic lobby (lit in reds and golds), famous guests, and the assignation of a personal butler and guide to each party. (Mine seemed disappointed that my most exciting request was to fetch ice.) But it's hardly just another upscale chain hotel. The building retains its place in Cartagena's storied literary and socio-political history; think Spanish settlers, gold traders, pirates, drug smugglers and, most recently, a tourists' resurgence in the years since UNESCO declared the city a world heritage site.
The feeling that one is experiencing life as it was 300 years ago, albeit with better sheets and towels. The inflow of dignitaries and royalty, plus the pampering and tranquility, make the Hotel Santa Clara Sofitel one of the coolest places to hang out in all of Latin America. And it's certainly Colombia's finest five-star hotel.
Nobel prize winning author Gabriel Garcia-Marquez lives next door, an act of sentiment as much as an appreciation for prime location. In the1990s, while working as a news writer, Garcia-Marquez reported that excavators had uncovered a young woman's crypt in the former monastery. Her hair, coppery red and 30 feet long, had continued to grow in the decades after her death. He wrote a novel about it, and it helped land him on the map as one of the world's greatest living writers. When he's in town, he hangs out in the hotel's El Coro Lounge Bar, directly across from his house, drinking mojitos with Cuban rum. The woman's crypt once rested just below his usual seat.
But the Santa Clara's allure is not all sentiment. The views from many of the hotel's rooms include the sun-leeched seawall that once rebuffed invaders, as well the ocean and the hotel's gargantuan pool. Rooms are either colonial suites in the former convent, replete with antiques, or in the modern, republican wing. My preference is a balconied view of the sea in the republican wing, where the views are unequaled.
If service is the true key to a hotel's success, the Santa Clara doesn't disappoint. In addition to the on-call butler and guide, the high attendant-to-guest ratio makes it impossible not to find someone helpful at every turn. Colombian employees, from the bellhops to management, are filled with obvious pride for the hotel. Almost everyone smiles generously, and it's infectious.
Amenities include luxury bedding, marbled bathrooms, and L'Occitane bath products. Rooms have a flat screen TV and wireless Internet (at a fee, disappointingly). Candied coconut rests on pillows. A business center offers full service, including free Internet. For conferences, the 300-seat former church is in frequent use for commercial endeavors.
Spa services are available at the recently refurbished LeSpa at Sofitel, an Asian-themed sanctuary with trickling waterfalls. Treatments include the usual fare-massage, facials and pedicures-and among the facilities are a gym, sauna, and hot pools.
For a respite from the music and heat of Cartagena, the hotel arranges trips to the seemingly untouched Islas del Rosarios. (My Colombian friends never miss these islands while in Cartagena, and use the transport service and private beach offered by Sofitel. One need not be a guest.) The Sofitel's San Pedro de Majagua Hotel on the islands offers 17 bungalows, a fish restaurant and a nearly deserted beach with excellent snorkeling. The boat ride is approximately 30 minutes.
Web Address: sofitel.com/santaclara
Total Number of Rooms: 122, including 19 suites
Published rates: $290 to $1,250
Review by Lisa Wixon, photos courtesy of Sofitel.
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