What is more elegant than a convent that has been restored to contemporary beauty? The Sofitel
Santa Clara Hotel's center courtyard was probably once a place for prostrating oneself on the stone floor in preparation for prayer or admission into the order, but it is now filled with palm trees, flowers, and resident toucans. Each evening, at dusk, the convent unearths its roots when Gregorian chanting can be heard. A quartet of staff members in hooded brown monk’s garb slowly pad along the outside of the courtyard, gently swinging incense vessels and lighting the candles on tables and wall alcoves.
The Sofitel Santa Clara Hotel sits in the center of the bustling old part of Cartagena, Colombia, founded in 1533 and walled to keep pirates and privateers out. It has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and deserves its standing. Just as the most beautiful and luxurious private homes in this ancient South American town hide their glory behind enormous doors placed smack at the edge of the little streets, the front of the hotel has no yard or landscaping to give hint to the beauty you’ll find as soon as you pass through the huge doors. A doorman, dressed in a beautiful cream-colored caped outfit, complete with a tall hat, hints that inside is a special place. The walls are stone, probably original, and the hotel keeps its chapel for meetings and private gatherings or weddings.
When we were there following the sixth annual Cartagena Music Festival, the chapel was used for smaller concerts and the morning music talks with Jonathan Levi, music critic of the Los Angeles Times
. The acoustics are as fine for Schumann piano concertos as they were for the original church chants, and the stone-walled chapel provides refreshingly cool, non-air-conditioned temperatures, while the air outside the hotel doors is a steady, year-round 88 degrees. The new section of the Santa Clara has all the amenities of a first-rate contemporary facility, including one of the best hotel pools
, and state-of-the-art fitness center. You can walk anywhere in this beautiful town from the hotel, yes, safely, and yes, at midnight, which we did coming home from some of the concerts.
Everyone stays outdoors because of the perfect weather, including babies in strollers, teenagers singing folk songs of the region, mimes, and women selling some of the 700 kinds of fruit that grow in this lush country. The narrow streets are decorated with colonial balconies dripping with bougainvillea. A few blocks away from the hotel you can walk atop the stone walls of the city and overlook the ocean on the other side. If you wish to hang out on the beach in a more rural setting, you can take a motorboat for a one-hour ride to the Rosario Islands National Park, which consists of the Santa Clara’s sister “hotel.” This hotel is actually a series of beach-front huts linked to an outdoor dining room, which serves among other delicacies, the freshest fish you can imagine, along with the traditional coconut rice, plantain chips, and the refreshing coconut lemonade, made with limes instead of lemons.
Upon landing at the park, you are greeted with a glass of mango juice, asked whether you prefer the silent beach or the one with music, and told that lunch will be brought to your preferred beach if you wish. Unlike many U.S. beaches, there is plenty of shade away from the water, and the outdoor beds and couches lie under the shade of the palm trees. Part of the cost of your trip to Rosario is a boat trip around the island, where you will see some of Colombia’s wealthiest second homes, each one built on its own tiny island with a boat in the garage for transport to their neighbors.
Another one-hour ride will take you to an old volcano now filled with clay where visitors can jump in and play, have an impromptu mud massage, and wash off in the lake next to the volcano. Cartagena is filled with museums
; The Inquisition Palace displays copies of the torture instruments used on so-called witches or sinners during the dark days of the church. Several elegant private historic homes are also open as museums. The city bustles with fine Colombian and international restaurants; while most are within walking distance, a more romantic way to get there is to hire horse and carriage rides, which are available on every street.
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