A Day at the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara, Cartagena

Following a fantastic fine dining experience at Sofitel DC’s iCi Urban Bistro, the one of the city’s best kept secrets for a low-profile yet high-quality power lunch and cocktails, I spent a day at Cartagena, Colombia’s Sofitel Legend Santa Clara.

The history surrounding Cartagena’s Sofitel is rich enough to stand as its own blog. The famed crypt beneath the bar, which provided Gabriel García Márquez the inspiration behind Of Love and Other Demons, is a major attraction in itself.

Currently, the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara is in the running for Conde Nast’s Reader’s Choice Award. It’s not hard to see why: the old world style courtyard, complete with lush tropical horticulture and preserved wells, is the perfect contrast to the new world pool, spa, hot tub, and lounging area. Guests receive the best of both worlds, with the charm and history of Santa Clara, and the luxury of the hotel’s lavish pool. Vote for them here (deadline is June 3rd): www.condenasttraveler.com/vote

Leopold, the charming attendant who lead me on a tour throughout the grounds, spared nothing in giving me a truly luxurious experience. The spa attendants greeted me with refreshing fruit-infused iced tea, a cool face towel, as well as a granadilla, a signature South American fruit. It takes a bit to get over the Harry Potter-esque look and texture of this seeded fruit, which is rather ungraceful to eat as you basically shove your face into it, but the taste was mild, sweet, and unique.

I also toured the grand hall, a premiere destination for weddings. The space can be transformed into all kinds of unexpected attraction with space for hundreds of guests, a stage for a band, and several other arrangements typical for romantic evenings.

I had the pleasure of enjoying lunch with both David Kianni, the hotel’s manager, as well as Isabelle Alexandre, the extremely talented and delightfully down-to-earth chef de cuisine. As exquisite fare was laid out before me, I enjoyed hearing the inspiration, elements, and story of each plate.

To start, I had the freshest ceviche I’ve ever tasted, the ceviche de camarones al estilo Peruano (Peruvian-style ceviche). Served in a martini glass, the shellfish paired perfectly with the lightly zingy marinade and truly encapsulated the spirit of Cartagena: non-pretentious and beautiful in its simplicity. David enjoyed the ceviche de corvine al leche de coco, a creamier take on the dish. This course was served with the restaurant’s most well-known beverage, a mint lemonade that could not have been more refreshing. The mint lemonade was joined by a shot of light rum.

I asked Isabelle for a recommendation to try the most characteristic fare of the city. Without hesitation, she directed me to langostinos al ajillo con arroz de coco y paremsano estilo risotto, grilled prawns with garlic and white wine sauce over risotto-style coconut rice. Coconut rice, arroz con coco, is a very traditional Colombian dish that is unlike anything America has in its usual cookbook. The name of it evokes the idea of a sweet rice, almost like tapioca, but in reality arroz con coco is quite different. Instead, it’s a savory, homogenized blend of stewed coconut and rice, giving it a dark, almost smoky color.

Chef Isabella explained that unlike other arroz con cocos, hers was created only after a very arduous process of fully stewing out any bitterness from the coconut, rendering the resultant impressively complex, with a depth of earthy and mellow notes. The perfectly cooked prawns complemented the risotto-style starch.

I spent the remainder of my day relaxing at the pool. The unsurpassed serenity of the luscious green space was the perfect send off as I headed to the airport to fly back home to DC. I even got a friendly salutation from Mateo, the hotel’s wild toucan. He certainly knows his place in the court: Mateo is sassy, stealing food right off guest’s plates as they dine al fresco, and nipping rather forcefully when ignored.

If visiting Cartagena, you should stay at the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara.  If not, it is well worth the visit. Don’t let the luxury chain name and immaculately-dressed staff scare you off: the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara perfectly encapsulates the leisurely feeling of no-fuss serenity in one of the world’s most breathtaking cities.

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