The Sofitel Santa Clara Hotel, originally the Santa Clara de Asis Convent, has been witness to centuries of Colombia’s history. Built as a convent, within the walled city of Cartagena de Indias, at the beginning of the 17th Century, its magnificent restoration and transformation into a 5 star hotel in 1997(after many interventions) preserved the integrity of its original colonial architecture. The serenity of the Sofitel Santa Clara ( the original chapel is still used for weddings and special events), reflects the religious role the convent played in the history of the city; its décor and ambiance blend harmoniously with Cartagena’s castles, cathedrals, colonial balconies, republican buildings and many squares. Its modern amenities, exceptional cuisine, attentive well-trained staff, and nurturing spa provide a sanctuary for the senses and discerning travelers.
The hotel’s one hundred and twenty one rooms (fifteen are Colonial Suites and one the Presidential Suite) are oversized with balconies, and tastefully decorated. My spacious well appointed room faces the outdoor swimming pool and the sea. I sit on the terrace listening to music playing for a private poolside party. There’s one butler on duty at all times to cater to the needs of VIP and Colonial Suite guests. All I have to do is dial operator, and let her know I need my butler. Kevin, my VIP butler, is most helpful in trying to locate my lost camera. The hotel plans to have a butler on call for all the rooms.
The evening of our arrival, Spirit Airlines and the Sofitel Santa Clara host a gala Celebration Banquet in the hotel’s El Reflectorio Restaurant, a preserved and restored colonial area with high vaulted ceilings. A long baronial table, formally set to seat 30 guests, is ablaze with hundreds of candles and massive antique urns filled with crimson floral arrangements. We are a group of journalists, visiting dignitaries, hotel and airline executives and Bogotá businessmen. The mood is festive; fine wines flow and each course is a masterpiece created and orchestrated by Executive Chef Simon Karl Buhler, and his well trained staff. We begin with a seafood trilogy: crab & avocado regional style, marinated salmon over herb blinis and sea bass ceviche with coconut milk. A “my way” green mango sorbet clears our palate for the Refectorio Special: osso buco de ternera, confit duck over olives, and surf and turf risotto served with ripe plantain ratatouille . . . for desert, Nuns Delicassy: “three milks” religieusa milla fueille. A waiter appears at my side more often than I can remember, reaching out to pour red wine from a crystal decanter into my wine goblet.
Thanks to jovial Chef Buhler (originally from Switzerland), Santa Clara’s cuisine is always innovative. Simon, “ King of Gastronomic Creations”, and the recipient of many coveted awards, is not afraid of challenges which he meets everyday in the five small kitchens that provide the theater and stage for his creative culinary productions. Passionate about his kitchen, his staff, his family and his bountiful life, Simon is also the “ Gastronomic Consulate” for Colombia, and a member of the Culinary Council of La Chaine des Rotisseurs, the oldest and the most important gastronomic association in the world. He tells me: “I tell my staff; I want that you cook like in your home when it’s Mother’s Day. I make simple honest dishes with a beautiful presentation; I don’t obligate our guests to eat strange foods. I prefer classic preparations for meats and fish, but play a little with the potatoes and vegetables. We need to go back to the farm to cook like our grandmothers. I have a staff of 40 locals in my kitchens; I’ve changed their attitude to enjoy cooking. For the Santa Clara, I want to bring the level of my cuisine up to that of an International Hotel. I am a perfectionist; I need a little more technology to balance my creativity. I feel this is the right place for me; they give me the freedom to experiment”. Chef Simon has been the host of three television cooking shows and in two weeks will debut on a new show that will be aired in cities around Colombia.
Benoit Delgrange, is handsome, French and charming. Since he took over as Santa Clara’s General Manager two years ago, he has worked hard to meet the needs and demands of the hotel’s International clientele, many who fly in on their private jet. His goal is to elevate the hotel to an even higher level of excellence. Plans are in the works to add more amenities and additional personal butlers, to relight and reconfigure the pool area, and to expand the spa menu. Hotel Manager Stephane Menou plays an active scrutinizing role in orchestrating weddings and special events, and in coordinating the everyday needs of his staff.
Carmen Otero, Director of Sales and Marketing since the Santa Clara opened, has a strong knowledge of tourism; she began her hospitality career working with Cartagena’s Tourist office for five years. Carmen played a vital role in fine tuning the hotel’s elegant ambiance and decor, amenities and impeccable service; she helped the old city emerge into a cultural Mecca for both residents and visitors. Understanding the needs of the old city, and the future of the new Cartagena, she uses her expertise to create confidence and develop liaisons between hotels, restaurants, airlines and cruise ships. She tells me: “I do my job with passion to bring Cartagena into the real time. Since the pre opening, I have helped create the image of a hotel that is a big part of my life: spear heading the first concert in the chapel, the first art exposition, and organizing annual fiestas and events for the old town”.
Carmen arranges for me to meet the hotel’s spa director and have a spa ritual the afternoon of my arrival . . . always an appreciated and much needed treat after a flight. Santa Clara’s beautiful Zen like Le Spa is truly a sanctuary for the senses. Designed and built as a wellness destination within the hotel’s embrace, the spa’s eight treatment rooms are relaxing in their simplicity and serenity. Its hammam is a wonderful retreat, before or after a treatment. Spa Director Ana Yague describes the spa as a “ burbuja”, a bubble of pleasure and well being. “I think we are really lucky to give happiness and tenderness to our guests, many are having a hard time outside”. I surrender to the joys of having my body exfoliated, massaged and revitalized by the hands of one of the spa’s therapy experts.
Spirit Airlines hosts a press breakfast at the Santa Clara. It is a moment of great accomplishment for an airline that is expanding their routing to dominate the Caribbean market at a time when the high cost of fuel is causing other airlines to postpone service to new destinations.
The group sets out on a morning walking tour; I prefer to wander on my own, but join the group for lunch at El Santisimo Restaurant. In the afternoon the bus takes us sightseeing along the coast and through the Boca Grande Residential neighborhood. We stop at the Caribe Emerald Factory. Alfredo is happy to see me again and he arranges to take me on a July visit to his emerald mines, a six hour drive from Bogotá.
Breakfast every morning at the Santa Clara is a delicious surprise. In addition to an appetizing buffet, Chef Simon experiments with new dishes all the time and loves to surprise guests with special personalized concoctions, like my “ Eggs a la Babbie”: two eggs scrambled with sliced scallions, diced tomatoes and Colombian white cheese on top of a white corn arapa.
We are transported to the Marina Santa Cruz where we board a launch for the 45 minute boat ride to Malagua, the largest of the twenty seven Rosario Islands. We pass through the bay and into open waters; the spray from the wake is refreshing. The cost of our day outing includes: the launch there and back, lounge chairs on the beach, crystal clear waters to swim in, a delicious lunch of fresh grilled fish, coconut rice and plantains . . . and even the opportunity to have a $10 massage.
San Pedro de Malagua Hotel, managed with the support of the Sofitel Santa Clara, offers rooms for overnight or extended stays. After lunch, and a doze in a hammock, a small boat takes us to a tiny private island to snorkel and dive. I swim along the coral reef; the colors and shapes of the rainbow striped fish are amazing. The ride back to the mainland is exhilarating as we buck the waves.
Sunday, the group leaves; I stay on for two more nights. Chef Simon takes me to meet two film makers who are producing his new television show; Francisco, my friend from Proexport takes me to Starbucks, a popular local hangout.
My last night in town, I cross San Diego Square to meet Juan Del Mar for dinner at his Juan del Mar Restaurant. Juan is a professional bull fighter, actor and singer in addition to owning three restaurants. The square is vibrant and pulsating: a dark haired beauty strums a guitar and sings for tips, barefoot dancers twirl and gyrate; vendors are selling jewelry; a sad horse attached to a sightseeing carriage stands waiting for a fare. The night is balmy; I have settled into Cartagena’s laid back lifestyle; I am dressed in white, and I feel like a goddess.
The Santa Clara Cartagena of the 21st Century has indeed mastered the art of gracious hospitality and impeccable service. Thank you Sofitel Santa Clara for welcoming into your embrace and making me feel like a guest in my own restored convent.
For: Reservations and more info: www.sofitel.com