Emerging & Exotic: Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena, Colombia
Colombia’s gotten a bad rap when it comes to tourism. But that’s changing, at least for this seaside resort, the longtime favorite vacation destination for the region’s rich and famous. Now this glamorous spot is moving to the top of savvy American travelers’ wish lists.
I admit that at first I was a bit wary when invited to visit Cartagena, even though I had heard that Colombia had become much safer recently. But what sealed the deal was learning that American tourists had been visiting this beautiful spot for years. A friend who stopped there on a cruise raved about it—and the emerald ring she brought home. (Turns out these dazzling green gemstones are popular Cartagena souvenirs that, incidentally, last a whole lot longer than bead-braided hair.) Also, I’m a big JetBlue fan and figured they knew what they were doing by offering a direct flight from JFK to Cartagena. So I swapped out my good watch for a Swatch (no tempting fate, I figured), convinced the hubby to accompany me—an insanely easy sell—and we were off.
The typically steamy Caribbean weather welcomes us on landing; the long, very slow-moving line to have our passports checked—with not much in the way of cool air—does not. (The tedious waits to get into and out of the country at the airport were the only inconveniences we encountered.) So, be prepared and pack extra patience.
A 20-minute ride brings us to the old colonial walled city, part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. As we pass through an opening in a nondescript wall, the magnificent Sofitel Santa Clara, part of Sofitel’s exclusive Legend collection, emerges like a secret lush oasis. Dating back to 1621, this museum-like structure, originally a convent, has been exquisitely restored to blend historic exteriors and public spaces with ultra-sleek, high-tech, contemporary accommodations; all have been enjoyed by such disparate dignitaries as Latin American heads of state, Shakira, Bill Clinton, and Bill Gates. Its centerpiece is a tropical courtyard through which, at sundown each evening, “monks” in traditional long hooded robes move silently, lighting candles to the accompaniment of Gregorian chants. The courtyard is also home to Matteo, the hotel’s friendly resident toucan, which nibbles on French toast from my husband’s plate every morning.
The next four days pass in a fascinating blur, fueled by the hotel’s delicioso signature Mojitos. We marvel at views from La Popa Monastery and the old Fortress, sunbathe on a private island beach, master a (very) few steps of Salsa, laze around the stunning hotel pool, and bliss out at its Zen-like So SPA. Come evening, there’s wine-tasting from Santa Clara’s excellent cellar, live music and more Mojitos at its El Coro lobby bar, a show of traditional Colombian dances, and a horse carriage ride through the cobblestoned streets. The old city offers up a particularly festive street scene, with flowered plazas, musicians, and dance exhibitions around every corner. Throughout, we feast on superb cuisine at the hotel’s elegant Restaurant 1621 and the more casual El Claustro restaurant, among others.
Our time here is magical. It passes without incident and I never feel unsafe. Of course, I exercise the same precautions here as I would in any city, like, say, New York. And at least we don’t have crystal souvenirs stolen from our car here, as we did in St. Martin, or for that matter an actual car taken in broad daylight from a fancy neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. But even that last experience doesn’t dissuade me from encouraging my new Colombian friends to visit The Big Apple. I similarly encourage my Westchester friends to experience Cartagena—you’ll be charmed. —Laurie Yarnell
Details: Rates for the winter season range from $305 to $4,000 per night, based on availability.
Getting There: JetBlue has a direct four-and-a-half-hour flight from JFK.
Contact: Sofitel Legend Santa Clara, Calle del Torno, Barrio San Diego, Cartagena, Colombia; (800) 763-4835; sofitel.com