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 122-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, even one tagged with the "Legend" designation from Sofitel. The building retains its place in Cartagena's storied literary and socio-political history; think Spanish settlers, gold traders, pirates, drug smugglers, and one of Latin America's best-known authors. Most recently, a tourists' resurgence in the years since UNESCO declared the city a world heritage site has made this hotel the jewel within the tourism jewel city for Colombia.
The feeling is 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 despite plenty of recent competition, it's still regarded as Colombia's finest five-star hotel.
Nobel prize winning author Gabriel Garcia-Marquez lived next door in his late years, an act of sentiment as much as an appreciation for prime location. In the 1950s, 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 was in town sometimes hung out in the hotel's El Coro Lounge Bar, drinking mojitos with Cuban rum. The woman's crypt once rested just below his usual seat.
It's hard to justify staying put in your hotel when dining in Cartagena as there are great restaurants withing walking distance no matter where you're staying, but one of the top choices in the city for dinner is surely Restaurant 1621 located here in the Sofitel. Whether you're dining as a romantic couple or have a table of 12, you can expect superlative service and delightful dishes presented with flair. Breakfast and lunch are at El Claustro, which spills out into one of the courtyards for dining in a more historic atmosphere by a fountain.
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 main pool. Rooms are either colonial suites in the former convent, replete with antiques and original paintings, or in the modern, republican wing. My preference is a balconied view of the sea in the republican wing, where the views are unequaled. Some rooms face the interior, which is still pleasant and can be quieter.
The suites all have a different look and feel, but the celebrities' choice is the Botero suite, the focal point being a large painting by famed Colombian Fernando Botero. All of the suites are stocked with high-end furniture, stereo systems, and large flat-screen TVs.
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 SO Spa, a large sanctuary with trickling waterfalls, interesting lighting, and a Turkish bath. Eight treatment rooms dispense a range of massages, facials, scrubs, and pedicures using Sisley products. All guests can use the well-equipped gym, sauna, and hot pools.
For a respite from the music and heat of Cartagena, the hotel arranges trips to the mostly 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.
While Cartagena has more luxury hotels than many cities five times its size in South America, the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara offers the sense of place and history of many local boutique hotels, but with more facilities and smooth service from a large, well-trained staff.
Review by Lisa Wixon, updates and last four photos Timothy Scott. First photo by Sofitel.