Camino Real Oaxaca: With this hotel you get history


OAXACA -- Fuse history with luxury, then plunk it into the perfect setting and -- if you're lucky -- the result will be something like the Camino Real Oaxaca here.

One of the three handsomely landscaped courtyards at Camino Real Oaxaca. Situated on a pedestrian street in this city's historic district, this sumptuous property is ideal for upscale customers looking for a hotel with an intriguing past and contemporary comforts.

Accommodations at the 91-room Camino Real Oaxaca, a member of the Camino Real Hotels & Resorts chain, do not come cheap, at least by local standards. Rooms start at $185 in a city where perfectly nice lodgings go for $50 to $100 a night. But the Camino Real does not disappoint, as I found during two recent stays.

This historic hotel had its beginning in 1576 when the first of its several adjoining buildings was constructed as the Convent of Santa Catalina.

Although originally a Dominican nunnery, the structure was later called into duty as city government offices, a school and even a jail. Since 1975 it has enjoyed a more hospitable incarnation as a luxury hotel.

The Camino Real's guest rooms are clustered around three handsomely landscaped interior courtyards, plus a central courtyard that houses a lobby bar tucked beneath a shady colonnade. Each courtyard has its own character and purpose: One is the setting for a spectacular pool bordered by a manicured lawn. Another serves as an outdoor restaurant and function area. All are beautifully landscaped with lush foliage, fountains and blooming jasmine and bougainvillea.

Perhaps the most inviting is Las Bugambilias, the outdoor lobby bar just beyond the reception desk. Here guests can sip a very properly made margarita and munch on cacahuates (spicy peanuts) while the sound of Gregorian chanting loops almost imperceptibly in the background.

In another courtyard is a freshly renovated structure called Los Lavaderos, which served as a wash facility from the convent's earliest days. Hotel manager Peter Maxwell said the restoration yielded a few archaeological finds that include bones, stoneware and a series of tunnels that may predate the convent.

Los Lavaderos, which consists of 12 stone pits in an octagonal fountain with a cupola, is frequently used for outdoor receptions. Plans call for a "minimuseum" to house the artifacts unearthed during the renovation, Maxwell said.

Other areas of the two-story hotel also are worth exploring. Upstairs are an antique bedroom and a small religious altar room, both of which are furnished in dark colonial antiques carved in a Baroque style. The convent's chapel, dating from the 16th century, is an austere stucco setting for functions and meetings for as many as 500 people. A closer look at walls throughout the Camino Real reveals fading frescoes that describe the structure's heritage, as well as numerous religious paintings, some of which date back 400 years.

The guest rooms are equally intriguing, although thoroughly modern. Because the Camino Real did not become a hotel until late in its life, its rooms are quirky in size and layout. During each of my stays, the rooms were thoroughly individual in character.

The first had the square footage of a large suite, equally divided between bedroom and sitting room by a half wall. On my next visit, the room was of an average size, but included a long, narrow solarium with exterior walls that still bear the paint of original frescos.

All rooms have high, beamed ceilings and tiled floors, with furnishings that are in Spanish-colonial style and upholstered in colorful handcrafted fabrics of Indian designs. Guest rooms are equipped with air conditioning, a minibar, a cable television or two and direct-dial phones.

Bathrooms are clean, spacious and modern, thanks to an extensive room renovation that was completed at the end of 1998. Other in-room amenities include 24-hour room service, an in-house water-purification system and same-day laundry and dry cleaning.

There is more to the Camino Real than great rooms, however. El Refectorio, the hotel's restaurant, offers the option of dining al fresco or in its main room, which is decorated with memorabilia of the former convent and original paintings.

I found its cuisine refined and nicely presented, but a little pricey when compared with the host of elegant dining spots that are within easy walking distance. Not to be missed, however, is a lavish Sunday brunch.

Before or after dinner, clients will want to check out Las Novicias, a relaxing bar adjacent to the pool. It is decorated as a library, with overstuffed sofas and walls of leather-bound books. But Las Novicias is not always bookish: On select nights local musicians perform lively regional music.

Not surprisingly, the hotel's ample charms and small size conspire to make it a bit hard to find an available room. I had to try several different weeks to get three consecutive nights, for instance, so it would be wise to advise clients to book several months early.

According to Maxwell, clients also should reserve very far in advance for certain dates, including Easter week, the Fiesta Guelaguetza (which occurs during the last two weeks of July), the Day of the Dead on Nov. 1 and the Christmas season.

The Camino Real also is becoming a popular spot for meetings of 50 to 100 people, Maxwell said. Besides four smaller meeting rooms, its chapel and outdoor courtyard make memorable venues for meetings and functions. He added that the hotel offers agents a discount of 50% on room rates on a space-available basis. The Camino Real Oaxaca pays 10% commission.

Camino Real Oaxaca

Phone: (800) 722-6466


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