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A Holy Night's Stay at the Sofitel Cartagena Santa Clara

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  Site Where: Calle Del Torno 39-29, Cartagena, Colombia
March 9, 2009 at 4:52 PM | by | ()

Last month, Amanda Pressner gave Jaunted a report on her jaunt down to Colombia. This week, she is giving HotelChatter reviews of the hotels she checked into during her trip. Any questions or suggestions about the Colombia Hotel Scene? Let us know. Enjoy.

There’s something a touch naughty about shacking up for the night in a 400-year-old former convent that once housed an order Clarisian nuns. You wonder, as you prepare to spend a weekend living in sin in a room transformed from the women's spartan sleeping quarters into a sexy, 500-thread count love den—what would the sisters say if they could see you now?

Fortunately, while staying at the Sofitel Cartagena Santa Clara may qualify as a religious experience (it’s widely considered the most luxurious hotel in the old city) there’s no need to act discrete or be on your best behavior.

What was once a nunnery in the 1600s, and then a charity hospital in the mid 19th century was painstakingly restored in 1994 and eventually turned into a five-star 121-room property that’s has hosted everyone from the King of Spain, Bill Gates and Mel Gibson to Jasser Arafat, Fidel Castro and Mick Jagger.

We can bet that no matter what kind of bad behavior you’ve got cooked up for your stay, you’ve already been trumped by one of these guys—so have at it.

Check in
Upon passing through the enormous wooden doorway at the entrance, our bags were immediately whisked away by porters and we were directed to the check-in desk manned by at least four impeccably dressed women. Thanks to the abundance of staff, we waited less than 5 minutes to get our keys (electronic—a much appreciated modern touch, since I always worry about losing the ancient brass versions provided in some historic hotels).

The only issue came when we needed to exchange our US dollars for Colombian pesos. Neither the front desk or nor concierge would do the transaction, and instead, directed my boyfriend to head outside the hotel to find a money changer or a bank. When he trudged back 10 minutes later, sweaty and still clutching the cash he’d set out with, the hotel eventually changed the money…but we couldn’t understand why such an upscale hotel wouldn’t do that in the first place.

Room Reaction
There are two varieties of rooms in the Santa Clara—the Colonial and Republican areas—and both have been given a facelift within the past year. Our 5th floor pad was on the Republican side, which meant we had incredible, sun-drenched views of the ocean and pool area through French doors, which lead out onto a small balcony (the 17 colonial rooms overlook a lush, botanical courtyard). Our top floor location meant that we slept under vaulted, dark lacquered beam ceilings, a detail that made us feel as if we were tucked away from the world in some secret dormer room.

I couldn’t get over gargantuan size of the bed, which was even larger than a California King, until I looked a bit closer and realized that it was two doubles pushed together. Still, once under the sheets, you couldn’t detect the split whatsoever, and the bedding itself (part of the Sofitel “MY BED” collection) absolutely inspired sleep. We also liked that while the hotel is centuries old, the décor was warm and modern. Nearly every light in the room could be activated by a bedside switch, and our iHome alarm clock (which doubles as a sound dock for your ‘Pod) was intuitive to figure out.

Bathroom and Amenities
The second I peek inside a bathroom and see a rainshower, I generally know that I’m going to have a high-end bathing experience—and I was relieved to see that ours did. The open stall shower had no door, just a wall that successfully kept the water from the splashing out, and a guard to prevent us from accidentally scalding ourselves.

The L’Occitane products made us smell like a spa—all herbal and grassy clean—and the towels were fluffy and abundant. The toilet area was sealed off behind a second heavy door, which is always a plus if you’re on a romantic getaway.

One major BR drawback: the ultra-low lighting made our makeup application tough to near impossible. Even the 3x magnifying mirror came with a 5 watt bulb, rendering it basically useless. We took our mascara and foundation in to the main room, which had loads of natural light (at least, during the day).

Internet Connect
The only issue we had inside was the free wireless internet. Since the bases were located on the ground floor, we had only one bar of signal inside our room. That meant we could barely access email, and an important message ended up getting lost in the ether. This could have easily been fixed by requesting a cable from the business center, but we tend prefer that our wireless come without wires.

On the plus side—the signal strength is blazing downstairs by the pool and in the courtyard, so if you’re feeling social (and don’t mind being that guest who’s crunching emails poolside) you’ll be totally hooked up.

Since the beaches in Cartagena are merely meh, there’s lots of action at this pool, which is located within a second courtyard. If you don’t grab your lounge chair by 10:30am (that’s when the included buffet breakfast ends), you may miss your chance to get some sun before it swings overhead and disappears behind the western side of the hotel.

For some reason, no one really seems to use the perfectly heated 15-person hot tub that’s located up a flight of stairs near the spa. That may be because its not obvious there actually is a hot tub—it's sort of hidden, so if you and your room-buddy go hunting, you may well be the only people using it. Just don't get too frisky--some of the rooms have a perfect view of the action below.

The Spa
Two years ago, the hotel debuted LeSpa, a 8-room facility designed to be on par with the treatments, service and quality of its European counterparts. Considering that Colombia doesn’t really have a spa culture of its own (the hotel is trying to create that market by offering some pretty sweet packages deals for guests and wealthy locals with second homes in Cartagena) LeSpa does nice job of covering the basics—as a guest, you’ll get access to the Turkish hammam (steam room), a relaxation area and tea bar, and a tiny but state-of-the art gym.

One the last morning of our visit, we tried a bamboo massage, which blends traditional Swedish massage with lymphatic drainage. Unfortunately, the concept was cooler than the execution—our therapist put in the effort, to be sure, but its tough to hit the right angles when you’re using a slicked-up piece of bamboo to rolling-pin your way over muscles and tissues. Stick with a traditional deep tissue massage or one of the facials.

What we liked
Consistently attentive service by a bi-lingual staff. The location also rocked—the Santa Clara flanks the Plaza San Diego, where you can find some of the cities best restaurants, and it’s a super short walk to the city center (El Centro).

What we didn’t like
Funky wireless on the top floor, poor lighting in the bathrooms, weird money-changing policies.

Bottom line
Considering that the vast majority of “high end” hotels in Colombia (and elsewhere in South America) still fall beneath the Howard Johnson or even Motel Six quality and service, the Santa Clara is pretty much in the stratosphere of luxury lodging.

The excellent restoration of the convent served to preserve the austere beauty of the original building while making it an extremely comfortable and relaxing place to lay your head. Check for deals before you book—you might be able to squeeze in a spa treatment or extra night for free.

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