Ever since Michael Douglas’s character in Romancing the Stone uttered the word “Cartagena,” the Colombian port city (and, of course, the mythic Joan Wilder) has fascinated me. Sadly, it took me 30 some odd years to visit. What a waste of three decades.
Cartagena (notoriously mispronounced by Douglas: the “n” in Cartagena is hard) is one of a small handful of Caribbean cities with the perfect mix of chic urbanity and well-preserved colonial charm. Upscale shops, restaurants, museums, and other points of interest are seamlessly integrated into the ancient hollows that line the narrow streets of the old city, where cascading bougainvillaea, ubiquitous fruit vendors, and pastel walls conflate in a sensation of color. Large plazas provide navigation through this verdant oasis, all of which is surrounded by the largest and most well-preserved fortification in the Caribbean, perfect for an early morning jog or a romantic sunset stroll.
Beyond? The Caribbean itself, with plenty of local and remote getaways.
Well known as one of the safest and least off-putting cities in South America, Cartagena is a best-kept secret among the luxe set who enjoy authenticity and proximity. There is no shortage of lovely hotels and small inns to choose from, but if it’s extreme comfort and ultimate luxury you seek, the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara should be at the top of your very short list. Boasting the largest pool in the city, a collection of the area’s best restaurants, and an incomparable spa, Santa Clara is at the heart of the city while literally only steps from the shore.
It is also steeped in history. The large but easily navigated building was originally constructed in 1621 as a convent, home to the Sisters of the Order of St. Claire. After a number of reincarnations, the complex was restored to heavenly splendor and now serves as a jewel in the Sofitel’s exclusive Legend portfolio.
First thing’s first: getting settled into one of the 124 perfectly appointed rooms. Each Superior and Luxury room includes a pool and/or sea view and features Lanvin products, an LCD TV, a Bose SoundDock, a sinfully comfortable Sofitel MyBed, Nespresso and free (and reliable!) WiFi.
For more space and an unforgettable splurge, the Presidential Suite Fernando Botero offers nearly 1,600 square feet of opulence and original paintings by Botero. Designed by Botero’s daughter, the interior designer Lina Botero, along with Gustavo Pinto and Sergio Castañeda, the space is vast and sophisticated with a unique Colombian touch.
If the Fernando Botero is booked, the Iconic Junior Suite Legend will more than do. Both offer exceptional living spaces, unique art and furniture, and butler service (ask them to double up on the Hermès bath products — you’ll want to take a bottle or two home with you to show off in your guest room shower).
Head to the pool and grab one of several private cabanas.
In about half a second, Santa Clara staff will be at your side with a menu of specialty drinks and healthy eats. There’s no reason not to order a mojito.
Once you’ve settled in, ask for a tour, especially if you’re in town looking for a location for a special event. Known for its historic charm, romantic sunsets, and tropical environments, Cartagena is the perfect setting for weddings, and Santa Clara’s seven function rooms that range from intimate to banquet size are complemented by a collection of open-air courtyards and exquisite restaurants and bars. There is absolutely no shortage of space, even if the length of your guest list makes your father sweat.
Sample the best craft cocktail menu in the city at the hotel’s bar, El Caro. Plan to do this around 6 p.m. so that at 6:30, you can witness a spectacular ritual: two “monks” solemnly dousing the interior of the courtyard and bar with captivating incense. Unreal.
It should come as no surprise that one of the best dinner reservations in town is 1621, located within the hotel. To dine and drink here is to commit to an experience, one that unfolds luxuriously by the executive chef, Alexandre Isabel, and the resident sommelier. If it happens to be on the menu, go with the Provençal sea bass with braised fennel and beure blanc sauce.
Depending on your energy level, check out one of the many bars within walking distance, or sink into your MyBed. Do this only after contacting the concierge and requesting arrangements for a day trip to the Rosario Islands. Yep, skip the local sand and head about an hour out to sea for private, pristine beaches with beach-chair food and beverage service and on-beach massages.
Rather do the massage — or one of the dozens of other services — a little closer to home? So Spa is a relaxation and beauty area developed through a one-of-a-kind wellness concept, developed by the Sofitel brand for its hotels worldwide. Combining the traditions of ancient cultures with French cosmetology techniques and refinements, So Spa is your onsite escape from reality. Guests can enjoy personalized services in various environments, including a duo cabin, two VIP suites, five luxury treatment cabins, manicure and pedicure stations, relaxation areas, Turkish baths, solarium, and So Fit (a full-scale gym).
Locales like Cartagena are few and far between, but, lucky for us, they pop onto the scene every now and again. So, while you’re waiting for Havana to come back online, prep yourself in the ways of Spanish America with an upscale Colombian adventure.