Inconvenient Caribbean Cool: A Review of the Conrad Cartagena
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To The Point
Cartagena’s newest luxury hotel is a beachside beauty that might be too far outside the city for first-timers. Pros: gorgeous public areas, good for big events, friendly staff. Cons: far from the city, a few opening kinks to work out, small beach area.
I spent the first four days of a recent trip to Colombia absorbing culture and sun in the colonial Caribbean city of Cartagena. I booked a room at the InterContinental Cartagena for the first two nights because it was on Bocagrande Beach, not too far from the historical town center. For the second two nights, I decided to stay outside the city at the newest hotel in the area, the Conrad Cartagena, which opened on Dec. 4 and is the first Conrad in Colombia and the second in South America.
I settled on the Conrad Cartagena for two of the four nights of my visit for a few reasons. First, I knew that Hilton had just opened the Conrad in December, so I was interested in checking out the new hotel. Then, just before I was starting my hotel search, I got an email from Hilton Honors offering me up to $75 per night in resort credit at various Conrad properties around the world for stays through Jan. 31, including the new one in Cartagena. I figured it couldn’t hurt to price it out.
Room rates for my dates started at $212 per night for a room with a king bed and a golf-course view.
There was a public rate that included a $50 daily credit for $249 per night. That amounted to paying $37 extra for $50 in value, not enough of a discount to be tempting. Award nights at the hotel started at 50,000 points for the rest of the year, with the exception of a few blackout dates in March. At that rate, my Hilton points would have been worth about 0.4 cents each, below TPG’s valuation of Hilton points, so I decided to book a paid rate instead.
The rate I ended up paying was $256 per night for the $75 credit, which amounted to getting a bonus of $31 in value per night based on the other rates showing up. On top of that, the resort charged a $15-per-night resort charge plus 19% taxes. My total for two nights came to $645. Because of my earning preferences, I ended up earning 7,600 Hilton Honors points — 5,600 base points and 2,000 bonus points with Hilton’s Points Unlimited winter promotion — plus 560 American Airlines miles, because it’s my double-dipping partner.
Ordinarily, I would have paid for my stay with my Chase Sapphire Reserve to earn 3x Ultimate Rewards points per dollar. I was stocking up on Citi ThankYou Rewards points at the time, though, so I earned 3x points using my Citi Premier Card instead.
I did not realize until I was in Cartagena how far the hotel actually was from the city. It was in a real-estate development called Karibana that included a golf course and condominiums along a new highway running north along the coast from the historical center of Cartagena and its airport.
Karibana was about a 20-minute drive (more if there’s traffic or road work) north of Rafael Núñez International Airport (CTG), and a little longer from the city. Taxis and car services cost 55,000 pesos ($19) to and from the city or the airport. That’s compared to 8,000 to 10,000 pesos ($2.75 to $3.50) from the hotels along the beach in Bocagrande to the historical center. Basically, if you’re staying out here, budget for transportation or plan to spend your time mainly out at the hotel.
The main building was an imposing white monolith with a large “Conrad” emblazoned near the top. A bellman opened my taxi door for me and collected my bags from the trunk while I walked up the stairs and to the reception desks.
The interior of the lobby was just as striking as the exterior. The building’s façade was constructed of concrete slats angled away from one another, creating a sort of open-air ambience. Between the exterior wall and the interior wall framing the lobby bar was an open atrium that ran the length of the building.
Combined with the lobby lounge’s mid-century furniture and floors of buffed black and white granite, the overall look was breezy and Caribbean but sophisticated and sexy.
There were no other guests when I arrived, so I had the attention of three delightful check-in agents who went over the details of my reservation, though I had to remind them of the $75 daily credit to which I was entitled.
I asked if I might be eligible for a room upgrade. Honestly, I was just hoping for a boost to a room with a view of the pool or ocean, but they told me nothing was available because of occupancy. (I only saw about a dozen other guests during my stay, though. Total.) I think I was denied because the hotel was just not fully open or operational yet. The Conrad opened with 109 rooms in December. It plans to open 159 more early in 2018. I suspect not all the room categories were finished, and this was why no upgrade was forthcoming.
One of the reps accompanied me to the elevators, which we rode up to the fourth floor, where my room was.
My room was down one of the wings of the hotel, and I don’t think any other guests were staying there at the same time as me, because I didn’t hear anyone and the motion-sensor lights in the hallways were always dark until I entered or exited my room.
My starting-category room, a deluxe king with a golf-course view, was large, at over 500 square feet. I entered via a short foyer.
To the left was the closet, with sections for hanging clothes, drawers, a luggage shelf and a safe. To the right was the bathroom. It could be closed off from the rest of the room with a sliding door, and the shutters that shielded it from the bedroom could be flicked closed.
The bathroom floors and counters were done in travertine. The shower had white tiling on the walls, though, and had handheld and overhead shower heads.
The bath amenities were Mandarin Tea by Shanghai Tang, an Asian brand that I like. There was a full bathtub closest to the bedroom.
The centerpiece of the bedroom was the king bed dressed in white-on-white linens.
The headboard was beige natural fibers framed in dark wood. To either side was a nightstand — one all in wood, the other with a marble top — with a reading lamp.
There were plugs aplenty and USB ports. And the Wi-Fi, which was free, was okay, if not lightning-fast.
On the side of the bed closest to the bathroom was a wide armchair with an ottoman that was a nice place to settle in and work. On the other side of the bed near the glass door out to the balcony was a small marble-topped breakfast table where housekeeping had left small bottles of sparkling and still water.
Along the wall opposite the bed was a low, narrow credenza with the room compendium and bottles of complimentary Conrad-branded water. I really liked the light wooden chair here — it was just so spartan and chic.
There was a kind of tray-desk hybrid inlaid with faux mother of pearl that was handy for carrying my laptop around on. Above it was a 50-inch high-definition flat-screen.
Next to that was an armoire with a parquet door. It contained the minibar, including Colombian chocolate bars. The Nespresso machine was a nice change of pace from the Juan Valdez coffeemakers in the other Colombian hotel rooms I’ve been in.
The windows of my room were floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors that opened onto a private balcony holding a circular wicker lounge chair and table.
It overlooked the tennis courts, golf course and a stretch of the coast.
Overall, though, the room was unremarkable. The palette felt rather bland, all white and brown except for a single teal urn atop the minibar for color. While the aesthetic was clean and simple, it felt soulless.
One further quibble: The air conditioning was not working properly when I arrived. The thermostat was set to 19 degrees Celsius (66 Fahrenheit), but the room never got below 24 Celsius (75 Fahrenheit). It took two visits from maintenance to fix it over the course of three hours. Each time, the front-desk staff was appropriately concerned and fast-acting, and the maintenance man who came both times was extremely polite. Once he figured out the issue, there weren’t any further problems.
Another thing: The second night of my stay, the building’s fire alarm went off twice between 10:30pm and 11pm, but no further announcements were made, and no one called my room or checked on me. I chalked up both incidents to opening kinks that had not been worked out yet.
Food and Beverage
The resort had seven bars and restaurants. The signature one was Biblioteka, with a fusion of Mediterranean and Latin American flavors. As the name would suggest, there were shelves lining the tops of the walls with old volumes. There was also a beautiful, backlit bar illuminating the main dining room.
I started my dinner there one night with a light ceviche of red snapper with lime, mango, resort-grown herbs and candied red radish.
For my main, I chose the paella-like rice with red prawns, chorizo and parsley. It was savory and filling but not heavy.
The focus here was (or at least, eventually will be) on the wine. But because several by-the-glass options were not yet available, I had a cocktail from the Son y Ron lobby bar instead.
The Son y Ron was gorgeous, with seating around the bar plus several swanky lounging areas for more privacy. The hotel plans to eventually offer live music here in the evenings.
Though I did not have it myself, breakfast at the hotel was served at another restaurant called Adesso Tu, adjacent to the lobby. I put my resort credit to good use one evening, with dinner there. The menu was mostly Italian with plenty of salads, pastas and pizzas.
I ordered a Negroni and a pizza with olive, pepper and ham. It was … fine for $12. I would suggest one of the hotel’s other restaurants, or venturing into town instead, though.
Next to Adesso Tu and overlooking the pool was the indoor-outdoor Sea Salt Grill. It was open for lunch only and served a mix of all-day classics and Caribbean dishes. Instead of eating at the restaurant itself, I enjoyed the menu out at the pool.
I started with a salad of mango and hearts of palm, which was light and fresh.
Then I had the catch of the day pan-fried with sea salt and served with plantains and rice. It was delicious and hearty.
Finally, also just off the lobby, was the Market Café for coffee and pastries in the morning, though I just stuck with my in-room Nespresso.
Let’s just get this out of the way: This hotel was basically meant for conferences and events. It had over 24,000 square feet of events space, including several meeting rooms and a grand ballroom, and the centerpiece of the entire Koribana development was its golf course. And the whole complex was too far from the city to experience the colonial charms of the city or take boat trips out to the nearby islands.
That said, if I’d already been in Cartagena looking for a complete beach getaway, or had a personal or professional event to plan in the area, it would have been a great choice.
I didn’t get to inspect the ballroom or conference rooms, but the events spaces were adjacent to the main building, and my own room overlooked a lawn that seemed ready-made for weddings.
The main draw was the 18-hole Tournament Players Club golf course, designed by Jack Nicklaus.
I was looking forward to spending a day out at the Karibana Beach Club, though. To get there, I had to ask for a golf cart, though the ride took just three minutes. The facilities out there included a welcome palapa.
Next to that was a small pool sheltered from the wind by shrubs and a retaining wall.
There was a restaurant out here called the Karibana Beach Club.
The small beach itself had about 20 palapas with loungers beneath them.
The day I was out there, the winds were high and whipping sand around, so I did not stay for long. Speaking of pools, though, the hotel had a large main pool just in front of the main building.
There was smaller pool in front of that in the direction of the beach that seemed to be the adult area, with just a few loungers around it. To the north was a pool for families, though it was coned off at the time. The Sun Bar was set off to the side of it and served the same menu as the Sea Salt Grill.
Whenever I strolled around the pool, at least one attendant would come over to introduce himself or herself, asked if I needed anything and offered to set up a chair or get me some towels. They were all friendly and diligent, and I had a nice time chatting with them and practicing my Spanish.
The hotel will have a kids club, which was not open at the time of my stay. The spa wasn’t open yet either. Both will be at the south side of the building near the fitness center, which was open, and was nice.
I had a midmorning flight my last day, so I checked out at around 8:00am. The front-desk staff was, as usual, delightful. They presented me with a bill for all my meals and my transfer to the airport. When I pointed out that I was entitled to $75 of credit per day of my stay ($150 total), they sorted it out in five minutes, and all that was left to pay was my room bill, since I had come close to the $150 threshold but not gone past it.
The Conrad Cartagena is a beautiful, gleaming new hotel on the shores of the Caribbean Sea. I loved the mid-century, tropical vibe and the super-friendly staff, who all took very good care of me.
As a first-time visitor to Cartagena, though, I was glad that I had not booked my entire stay there. The hotel was too far from town and its various activities to be truly convenient. However, if you’re looking for a relaxed tropical getaway by the pool, this is a good choice in an interesting destination.
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