There is an energy that is palpable when you walk the streets of Cartagena. It is part historic charm, part Latin heat, part old world Spanish ambiance. You are struck by the echoing sound of horse hooves on cobblestone, the saturated pink and turquoise of historic building facades, the whiff of jasmine mixed with the pungent aroma of butifarras (small smoked meatballs), a Cartagena street food favorite. Salsa music moves through the air as gracefully as the swaying palm trees in its many plazas. The wall surrounding the city, once protecting it from invading pirates, now feels like it is there to hold in all that enchantment. But nothing can compare to the moment you walk through the tall, decorative wrought iron doors of the elegant Sofitel Santa Clara. At once, you are drawn in to a world of 17th century Cartagena with its mix of Colonial and Republican architecture, archways and balconies lining the interior courtyard as it must have done when first built as a convent by Clarisas nuns in 1621.
Transformed into a luxury hotel in 1995, with recent restoration work it is now the essence of 5-star elegance with the allure of history, local hospitality, impeccable service and French savoir-faire. The Hotel Santa Clara Cartagena became the fourth property under the distinguished Sofitel Legend branding in December 2012 following the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi (2009), Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam (2011) and the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan (2012). This elite collection of historical properties can now proudly add Cartagena’s legendary landmark in the heart of the walled city to its list of locations. The Sofitel Legend brand has finally arrived in South America, creating something close to magic.
The hotel, covering a square city block in the old quarter, is a coral stucco grand dame that has been brought into the 21st century with a gentle and creative hand, respecting the original convent structure. It has 123 guest rooms in the historical Colonial wing and the modernized Republican wing. The historic wing boasts 17 suites including the Junior Suite Legend and the pièce de résistance of the hotel, the 1539 sq. ft Fernando Botero Suite, named for the celebrated Colombian artist. His 1.5 ton bronze sculpture of a reclining woman is prominently placed among the greenery of the hotel’s courtyard and his paintings grace the walls of the master suite.
Designed by Botero’s daughter, the rooms are elegant with local influences, featuring neutral tones and natural materials. The suite includes a kitchen, large double height dining room, master bedroom with living room and bath and additional half bath. Personal butlers are available around the clock to attend to any requests including hand-cutting a preferred soap by a local artisanal cosmetics brand. The private balcony overlooks the hotel pool with views beyond to the ocean. The residence of choice for Placido Domingo, Sting, Bill Clinton and many other celebrities, it just does not get any better than this. All the suites provide a combination of colonial architecture with state of the art conveniences. The modern wing reflects architectural details of the Republican era with a twist of French and Colombian accents thrown in. Rooms are tastefully white with natural wood ceilings and floors, earth tones with hints of corals, mints and turquoise reflecting serenity, relaxation and elegance. Rooms start at $350 per night; the Botero Suite is $2500 per night.
“We wanted to bring back a bit of history in this wonderful place, with all its stories and respect of the past,” Richard Launay, General Manager of the Hotel Santa Clara Cartagena told Travel World News.
He was referring to the Gregorian chant music softly drifting throughout the courtyard at sunset, as candles were being lit by hooded monks (actually hotel staff) swinging incense. The music, the changing light, the sweet smell of spices in the air were transporting, all well orchestrated for the hotel’s guests. With the passion of an historian Mr. Launay explained “we need people to be touched emotionally and share in the magic of this place, to recount their experiences, the warmth of the people, the beauty of the architecture.”
Working for nearly two years on the ambitious restoration plan that led to the Legend branding, Mr. Launay explained the impact it has on the city. “Our entry to this important premium category imposes a new challenge for Colombia: strengthening the international recognition of Cartagena city as a luxury destination.”
Mr. Launay’s enchantment with the hotel is contagious. His delight in the noisy coquis (tiny frogs) living in the courtyard is matched by his affection for the hotel’s resident toucan, Mattieau, who seems to be the most popular nonpaying hotel guest in residence. Launay arrived in Cartagena from an assignment in Egypt, where he was General Manager of their Aswan property, now a Legend hotel.
One thousand roses, one thousand candles. That was the request from a romantic gentleman to Mr. Launay, a setting for a most extravagant marriage proposal. According to Mr. Launay, the entire hotel participated in the ruse to get the future fiancee to the hotel. As instructed, the petals of one thousand roses were strewn on the chapel floor and 1000 candles were lit. A dinner table was set up for two with musicians ready to play. “It was fantastique!” the general manager exclaimed, confiding that it was so emotional the staff was in tears by the time the future bride said “yes.” Needless to say, the wedding is planned for October at the hotel.
Two hundred wedding planners arrive at the Santa Clara annually to learn the details of planning a wedding at the property. The chapel is a fairytale setting with its original soaring ceiling, marble floor and enormous Spanish door that would open once a year to welcome young initiates, never to see the outside world again. History echoes through the chapel, the setting of fifty-five to sixty weddings a year, mostly Colombians but also Mexicans, Brazilians and Americans.
The “1621” restaurant opened its doors over a year ago to rave reviews. The former convent dining room, named for the year it was built, “1621” is under the watchful eye of Maitre’d Christophe and Parisian Chef, Isabel Alexandre. It offers Mediterranean cuisine with a French flare. Tiny peas and mint gazpacho, piquillo peppers risotto with sautéed artichokes, salmon tartare, Chateaubriand and wonderful French pastries are all on the menu. But first, a stop at the historic wine cellar, tasting Chilean wines, nibbling on prosciutto crudo and a variety of cheeses.
Casual dining can be found at the El Claustro brasserie and the El Coro Lounge Bar, offering Mojitos, Martinis and a wide variety of cigars. The hotel’s buffet breakfast, a colorful spread featuring every possible local fruit, homemade breads, cheeses, hot dishes and personalized orders, can be enjoyed in the outdoor courtyard, as friendly birds nibble leftovers from nearby tables.
Located on the far side of the hotel’s swimming pool complex is the So Spa, famous for its holistic emerald treatments and healing traditions from ancient cultures. Products from the famous French company, Sisley Paris, are used. There are eight fully equipped rooms, a fitness center, a Hammam, solarium, and dedicated tea area where tropical fruit teas are served in a tranquil setting.
“The nonstop Jet Blue flights have made all the difference,” General Manager Launay explained. At the moment, occupancy rate is 83 percent (March) with an average of 70 percent. Five years ago it was 50 percent. With no tropical storms, no hurricanes, a brief rainy season and an effective national branding campaign, the tourists are coming to Cartagena. Nonstop service from New York on Jet Blue began in November, and American Airlines is in talks to start nonstop service as well.
Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena: 800-763-4835; www.sofitel.com
For group or conference bookings call the hotel directly at : 57 (5) 650 4700