My Winter Escape
As winter comes and as the snow piles up gracefully over the mountains all around the Northern Hemisphere, winter sports and winter wonderland adventures are favored for the end of the holiday season, and even the first weeks of the new year.
While you are sliding over powder, cross-country skiing over frozen winter wonderlands, having hot chocolate with cinnamon in front of a fireplace, or even wearing fur jackets and layers of cashmere, I personally dream of going back to the Caribbean. You see, this time of year, the Alissian winds that blow from the African coast make the islands and coastal cities take a turn from the scorching heat and humidity of the summer with trade winds to help decrease the heat, make warm days incredibly pleasant and evenings exceptionally enjoyable.
A colonial city by the name of Cartagena in Colombia was where I spent my early winter vacations with my family. Now, many years later, I go back to relive those days that served as a natural getaway for us. This location is, due to the Internet frenzy, what some ‘black and white’ editors now call “Boutique”, “Foodie”, “VIP”, “Members Only” and the ever-popular “Experience”.
So, if you are in for changing up the winter wonderland to a warm tropical holiday, here are my favorites from my most recent trip to the Caribbean, and my beloved Cartagena.
My suggestion for lodging is in the historic center, or what they call the Walled City. The original city still stands inside the fortress walls which were built in the late 16th century. This area is known for its original structures dating back to that period and showcasing several European influences from the subsequent 400 years. If you are into repurposing and reuse, then you will love the use of these historic homes and buildings as hotels and restaurants. You will also be very happy with the incredible assortment of the new wave boutique spaces. The blend of 16th and 17th-century buildings that have been remodeled for new use with ultra-modern interiors and finishes are made with indigenous materials and make for a unique environment with modern personalized service. The resulting spaces are intimate, unique, urban and command your respect, simply due to their age and existence. Hotel Tcherassi is one of my favorites, and is a must-visit even if you are not staying at the hotel. Owned by one of the well-known fashion designers from my hometown, Silvia Tcherassi, designs her spaces with tactile finesse and sophistication in her warm, stark white interior colonial homes with accents of color. The one-on-one treatment is a luxury on its own.
Now, if you prefer big tower hotels with casinos but still want the warm gray volcanic sandy beaches, then I urge you to venture from the ‘walled city’ to the ‘new city’, which resembles an all-white Miami waterfront. Climb to the 40th floor to the newest addition to the ‘new city’ skyline, the Hotel Estelar Cartagena de Indias, which is located in the Boca Grande area with a pool perched on the edge of the 12th floor and their breezy, swanky outdoor rooftop bar, 51 Sky Bar. Views on every floor to fill your dreams!
Only a few of us know (passed on by the locals) that the best time to walk the historic center is as early as the dawn peeks over the horizon. I recommend that you go for a walk ‘counter-clockwise’ along the top of the historic stone and grout fortress wall of the multi-colored walled city, and make stops down the cannon ramps along the way to see beautiful hotels, lush plazas, or take a picture with the city in the background. That is the best way to see the walled city, and quite peacefully. Why counterclockwise? The winds blow in from the bay and the ocean, and if you walk clockwise, you are walking with the winds. Also, Cartagena’s sun can be hot, even in December so be sure to take fresh coconut water with you on your breezy, tasty stroll back a few hundred years. Your tour will give you the opportunity to see the multicolored colonial facades on buildings that range from the small cottages formerly owned by servants to the multifloored mansions filled with green tropical big leafed vertical gardens dripping from balconies and hallways accompanied to the sound of interior water fountains and caged parrots and birds. A beautiful Caribbean symphony!
Make sure to stop for breakfast at one of the many local restaurants and enjoy a cup of Colombian coffee for breakfast. Your meal will be filled of homegrown Caribbean fruit - Watermelon, Papaya, Mango or Guanabana (Soursop) served in the Colombian-style: chopped into cubes with a tiny fork. The fruit from the Caribbean is unlike anything you have tasted. If your walk goes into the afternoon, I suggest a quick stop for a fruit popsicle at La Paletteria– cooling and just yummy!
The many museums displaying details and artifacts from the colonial life, as well as the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition, are a must if you are a first-timer. When leaving the walled city, you must visit is the 16th-century fortress on the hill, called “Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas” which is the biggest and most notorious fortress of the Caribbean. Once you are back to the walled city make sure to visit the very unique new shopping mall by the name of La Serrezuela, located on the site of the old bullfighting ring and designed to recall that original purpose. The remodel blended modern storefronts with open spaces and reconstructed the old ring as a performance space on the roof which now is used for events. As you step outside, visit the 17th-century colonial structure called “Las Bovedas”, or the “old dungeons”, which were actually prison vaults. This structure contains 47 arches and 23 domes which were transformed by a group of locals into a row of local shops, filled with souvenirs and all sorts of goodies.
I love the local lunches in the old town and I was thrilled that the place that was our family ‘go-to’ when I was a child was still open with its third-generation owners creating magic from the same cookbook. “La Casa de Socorro” serves on a first-come-first-serve basis with local warmth and attitude, they serve the best local seafood casserole and plantains accompanied by perfect coconut rice. I could live on the sea bass, deep-fried plantains and a cold tamarind juice. Oh, and the prices? Very reasonable, dinner for four with a menu of food was about $42 U.S. – plus you will have had the experience of dining with the locals!
Mornings are warmest in Cartagena, and it actually starts to cool midafternoon. It's perfect to spend the afternoon on a catamaran and enjoy the contrast of the sparkling white new city and the colorful old city in the distance followed by a cruise into the extended sunset. Out of the many options, the best crews and hospitality had to be “Bona Vida”, a tour line that departs from the deck in front of the convention center two hours before sunset, sails you out to the new bay “Boca Grande” and sweeps back to a memorable sunset over the historic downtown. As this is the ocean, I recommend that you take Dramamine with you!
Make sure you get out and walk on your way to dinner. You will get a sense of the locale and if you are in the mood for a cocktail before dinner, then “Alquimico (Expermentos Sensoriales) is the place.
For dinner, I recommend some spectacular local modern style at the fabulous MARIA, in which the chef pairs a variety of tropical flavors with a nouvelle cuisine taste. Foodies be aware, you might want to eat the entire menu. The cuisine matches the environment, the service, the mixology and the curated music. A fish tartare with papaya and coconut will start your journey as an appetizer while you sip a cocktail made with local fresh juices. The octopus with shearling potatoes, black olives and a sauce made of grape tomatoes presented in a semi-broth will make the main dish. And to finish, grilled fresh pineapple sprinkled with a glaze of spicy tamarind and topped with a scoop of coconut ice cream will make you ask for seconds!
Music and dance are part of the national heritage, so dancing is a must when in Cartagena, and you will do so until the next morning if you are hanging with the locals. In reality, locals show their passion and love for life, and will literally dance anywhere. So be ready to welcome this joy and let yourself move. La Movida is the place to go and is very popular, but if you want real local style music, then Café Havana is the place. Be ready for amazing rum drinks and lots of salsa dancing!
The Morning After
After such a busy day, head to the Beach Clubs across the bay in “Isla Baru” or stay a night at “Isla Del Sol” hotel. You will get all the goods of white sands and the multicolor Caribbean!
Oscar De las salas