More on Colombia. Honestly, everyone spending time in the exciting capital, Bogotá – see last week’s GirlAhead – should then head to the coast, to the ancient walled city of Cartagena. Someone who lives there says this place is Marrakesh, for its vibes, blended with Seville, for history. But neither of those other destinations has the enchanting local people and the continual happenings.
I was met at the airport, only 10 minutes’ drive from the old walled city, by one of the industry’s most remarkable multi-skillers, a would-be marine biologist and, today, a skilled salsa teacher who happens to be chief butler of Sofitel Legend Santa Clara. This is, without doubt, Cartagena’s top luxury hotel: its average rate is more than twice its competitors. It has the unique advantage, too, of being in the old city, where everything happens. There may, for instance, be a wedding party forced, by the narrow roads, to walk from the cathedral, along Calles 35 and 38 and Carreras 7 and 8, to get to this extraordinary hotel.
Why does it deserve this adjective? When Richard Launay arrived as GM in 2000, he started what turned out to be a mammoth project. The hotel is strapped into the shell of a 17th-century convent, and one of its two open-roofed cloister courtyards, in all 576 square metres, was abundantly filled with non-indigenous plant species. It took at least four years before all those usurpers were gone. The work was done by hotel management and local garden maestro Pablo Maciá. Now the cloister is a sustainable picture-book of real greenery native to Colombia: royal palms, native orchids, Cartagena ferns, San Joaquin bunches, scented lipus, scented native wild orchids. This is in addition to ginger, heliotrope, belle de nuit, ylang-ylang, orange groves, emperor cane, centenary palm trees, jasmine and citronella, plus horsetail, begonias and ixora, and hummingbirds and other varieties of birds and tiny coqui frogs.
Those staying in the 160-room hotel often breakfast here, in the cloister garden, and at night it is a very special place. Dine here and your servers are wearing chic white-collared black shirts, part of Bogotá designer Lina Cantillo’s fashions for this hotel, which also include many daytime white uniforms with discreet embroidery copied from deathbed regalia worn by the nuns whose home this was, from the 17th century through to 1970.
Stay here because it is the only significant hotel right in the old part of town, but also for its unique qualities. The original stone-walled restaurant 1621, named for the convent’s foundation date, serves superb tableside-made ceviche and other memorable dishes. At breakfast, where you sit outside or in an adjacent air-conditioned room, you walk over a glass panel set into the stone floor that looks down into the ancient crypt. Enjoy a spa treatment, which definitely needs prior reservations, and the Sisley-trained therapist is a skilled masseur so you instantly feel oodles better. Take a swim in the pool and, as you do your laps, remember that this space was once a convent vegetable garden. Yes, there are so many touchpoints here, many of them put in by Richard Launay (his disciples include former deputy David Kianni, now GM of sibling hotel, Sofitel Victoria Regia Hotel 5 stars in Bogotá).
My suite, #511, had the best view down across the pool to the ocean. My time with the concierges was, without doubt, among the best ever. Edson Arzuza, appointed for his IT skills, helped with a Microsoft Word challenge in a mere 10 minutes. His leader, Rudy Cuadro, took a whole morning to show me the famous Rosario Islands. This is where partygoers rush on day-time packages. Fifty minutes there by speedboat allows them to land and frolic in the waters, in noisy coves or, my favourite, quiet lagoons, and head home via another 50-minute choppy ride. Oh, there are so many memorable touchpoints here.
This is a luxury hotel with an intriguing past and an exciting future. Among other things to look forward, a new GM arrives shortly. As Richard Launay takes off for a break, Nicolas Pesty arrives from Sofitel St James in London. He will continue to add excitement here.