In colonial times, Cartagena served as the most important gateway to South America, as well as a storehouse for gold and precious stones on their way to Spain. Today, the city bursts with renewed vibrancy. Several universities attract youthful energy, and cultural institutions host noteworthy events such as a contemporary art biennale. Many of the grand 17th-century mansions have been restored and converted into atmospheric museums, restaurants, bars and hotels.
The most appealing of the colonial conversions is the 30-room Casa San Agustin, comprising three whitewashed buildings on a diminutive plaza. A wrought-iron gate leads to a lobby lounge with terra-cotta tile floors, wall sconces and a wrought-iron chandelier hanging from a 25-foot wood-beamed ceiling. Beyond lies the main courtyard, with a palm-shaded L-shaped pool. An adjacent bar with white daybeds and neutrally upholstered ottomans feels too formal for relaxing in a bathing suit, but two roof terraces provide both sunny and shady spaces in which to recline, along with views of the city’s ornate bell towers. A labyrinth of halls and indoor/outdoor lounges laces the rest of the hotel. My favorite retreat was the tranquil air-conditioned library, with its whitewashed walls and partially exposed frescoes.
Our stylish Junior Suite came with a wood-beamed ceiling and limestone floors. A white love seat sat atop a sisal rug, and orchids adorned the wicker coffee table and mahogany writing desk. White Moroccan-style nightstands flanked an iron-framed bed, and double-glazed glass doors leading to the balcony further ensured a good night’s sleep. Colorful Spanish-style tiles clad the walls of the bath.
The staff at the Casa San Agustin are reliably warm, obliging and English-speaking. My sole reservations concern the lackluster restaurant, Alma. Fortunately, numerous commendable restaurants are just a short walk away, and Alma’s deficiencies are no reason to avoid an otherwise delightful hotel.
Nestled against a range of green Andean foothills at an altitude of 8,660 feet, Bogotá remains pleasantly cool throughout the year. The northeastern section of the city contains most things of interest to visitors, starting with pedestrian-friendly La Candelaria, the colonial quarter, which is home to ornate churches as well as the famous Museo del Oro. (This contains the world’s largest collection of pre-Hispanic gold artifacts, including the “Muisca Raft,” depicting the El Dorado ceremony on Lake Guatavita.)
My recommended base is the 58-room Charleston Casa Medina, housed in an attractive 1946 stone building that incorporates elements salvaged from two colonial convents. Behind the Casa Medina’s red-brick and stone façade lies a parquet-floored entrance hall flanked by a cozy reception and business lounges, each with a fireplace. Throughout the hotel, the public areas are comfortable and traditional, with beamed ceilings, Oriental rugs, fresh flower arrangements and framed oil portraits and photos of Bogotá. Dining options consist of a tiny trattoria and an international indoor/outdoor restaurant. We also received an invitation to visit Bárbaro Medina, a clubby members-only bar accessed by knocking on a locked exterior door. Service proved consistently helpful and professional.
We had reserved a Junior Suite, and I was pleasantly surprised by its comfort and size. The separate living room came with vaulted wood-beamed ceilings, a leather sofa and a woodburning fireplace. The marble bath offered a sizable pebble-floored shower stall, while the bedroom had ample space for a king bed, wingback chair and ottoman. Though the technology was modern, the room evoked a more graceful era of travel, with several pieces of furniture designed like leather-strapped steamer trunks. Each night after dinner, we would retire to the living room with our books and have a bellman light the fire, a wonderfully relaxing and civilized way to end the day.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The district is known for its steep, winding streets and spectacular views, as well as a bohemian quarter, home to artists, studios and galleries.
First-time visitors to Rio usually want to stay on the beach, but if this is not a priority, a stylish alternative is provided by the Hotel Santa Teresa. The 41-room property is set on a hillside overlooking the historic center of the city and is housed within a century-old mansion. A hundred years ago, Santa Teresa was the most desirable place to live in Rio. Today, the district is known for its steep, winding streets and spectacular views, as well as a bohemian quarter, home to artists, studios and galleries.
The eponymous hotel is surrounded by a garden where frangipani and morning glory flourish in magnificent profusion. A large part of the mansion has been hollowed out to create an imposing two-story lobby, with exposed brickwork, modern furniture and refined artwork. As might be expected in an old building, the accommodations tend to vary in layout and size. Our Deluxe Room was attractively furnished in a style that mixed both traditional and contemporary elements — for example, framed drawings of 19th-century Rio provided a counterpoint to abstract sculptures and tables hewn from massive blocks of tropical wood — but for two people, it was a little cramped. On a future occasion, we would definitely opt for a more spacious suite.
Amenities include a long, narrow swimming pool, ideal for early-morning laps. Steep stone steps lead down from the pool terrace to the lively Bar dos Descasados. This is a place for light meals, as well as cachaça (sugarcane spirit) cocktails. The adjacent Térèze Restaurant serves “World Cuisine” against a backdrop of Guanabara Bay. There, I thoroughly enjoyed my lobster with asparagus and hearts of palm in a light curry sauce. However, thanks to concrete floors and tall glass walls, the noise level can be deafening. My Brazilian fellow diners didn’t seem to mind.
Santa Catarina, Brazil
Florianópolis, the capital of the state of Santa Catarina, is situated two hours by plane (750 miles) south of Rio de Janeiro. A 45-minute transfer from the airport brings you to Governador Celso Ramos, a collection of small fishing and mussel-farming settlements. There, the resort of Ponta dos Ganchos is secluded on a private wooded peninsula and comprises 25 bungalows and villas of varying sizes and degrees of opulence. Transportation around the resort is by golf cart, many of the roads being extremely steep.
We had reserved a split-level bungalow, which offered a comfortable bedroom with a balcony overlooking a quiet bay, plus a downstairs living room with a wine fridge and a second balcony (with hammock). In most respects, it provided an ideal place in which to relax. Indeed, the only significant drawback was the smallish bath, which lacked a tub. Subsequently, I discovered that Ponta dos Ganchos offers a number of considerably more luxurious villas, some with plunge pools, Jacuzzis, even private gymnasiums. The most lavish of all is Villa #25.
The restaurant overlooks a crescent of golden sand and an expanse of tranquil water. There, we enjoyed arroz de polvo (octopus with rice), followed by a fine selection of grilled seafood. Throughout our stay at Ponta dos Ganchos, the cuisine was excellent, though I found the multicourse tasting menu at breakfast to be rather pretentious. Dinners are also served on a small island linked to the resort by a causeway. This sounded appealing, but it soon became apparent that the experience was intended for the young and romantically inclined. Amenities at the resort include an indoor pool and a gymnasium, plus spa pavilions overlooking the sea. Overall, however, this is primarily a place in which to do nothing much except read and gaze at the ocean.