Buzzing above Antigua in a helicopter, we can see the former colonial capital of Guatemala stretched out like a canvas beneath our moving shadow. Our host, John Heaton—French-born and raised in England and Switzerland—arrived here 17 years ago, one of the first wealthy émigrés who've come to live among these narrow cobblestone streets and lemon-yellow bell towers set against a backdrop of volcanos. "Guatemala combines a little bit of Europe and a smattering of the Americas," says Heaton. "It has an Atlantic port and a Pacific port, 500 miles from each other. It also has a relatively intact ethnic culture." And this is the main draw for American and European adventurers, who seek a more indigenous experience. But until recently it simply couldn't accommodate travelers who expected good service and en suite bathrooms. That's all changing, thanks to Antigua's new and rapidly growing class of boutique hoteliers and restaurateurs. "For North Americans it's one of the last frontiers with good proximity and decent amenities," says Bruce McCowan, a former partner at Goldman Sachs in New York and now an innkeeper in town. "It's only a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Miami and Houston. Yet it's still to be fully discovered."
Taking a room at one of Antigua's chic B&B-style residences—most lie behind whitewash and blush-pink walls with pretty courtyards and rooms filled with antiques—is not like checking into a hotel. "You are booking into a web of connections," says Heaton of his own Quinta Maconda, one of the city's best inns. Indeed, stay with this maverick Frenchman and find yourself on behind-the-scene tours of Guatemala's museums, in helicopters exploring isolated highland villages, meeting artists, and talking politics with some new and very smart acquaintances. Quinta Maconda itself reflects perfectly Antigua's new sophistication. A fountain-filled courtyard is crowded with urns over-flowing with flowers. The open loggia leads to cool interiors stocked with colonial antiques, textiles from Papua New Guinea, Bali, and Mexico, and local artifacts. The staff includes a splendid chef, an efficient crew, and a major domo who, at 6 p.m., delivers tea (or tequila) and readies the fireplace in your bedroom.
After a six-year restoration, Heaton will also soon open Casa Oriente, an 18th-century house he will occasionally rent for weddings and large parties. It has a spacious quad flanked by pillars and a terrace with terrific views of the adjacent Convento de las Capuchinas. Fourposter beds and furniture from China and Java, as well as carved-teak Sumatran doorways, fill the interiors.
Another excellent expat hideaway is Bruce McCowan's Meson Panza Verde, the already well-established restaurant he opened with his wife, Laurel Jacobson. The couple recently added six new rooms to complete a 12-room boutique hotel and gallery done all in terra-cotta, burnt sienna, and ochre. In the rooms, antiques fight for attention with claw-footed baths, spectacular arrangements of tropical lilies, and views of planted terraces off in the distance.
A few doors down from Panza Verde, the eight-room Hotel Mansión del Pensativo sits on a half-acre garden with a swimming pool. (Also here is Posada del Angel, where Bill Clinton stayed recently; however, with the new openings, this five-room inn looks less appealing). Just a short cab ride from town is the Lion's Inn. On an old coffee plantation, it has five bright rooms on two floors around a courtyard (the peppermint- and cream-colored master suite has its own hammam).
Not surprisingly, Antigua's restaurants are toeing the same line. Azafran and Caffè Mediterraneo are the best, with the former specializing in sophisticated international cuisine and the latter serving very good authentic Italian food (the salads and pastas are superb).
Could this be the beginning of a luxury boom for Guatemala? Island Outposts' Chris Blackwell recently invested in a property at Rio Dulce. Other hotel groups are sniffing around, with one company looking at five Antiguan townhouses to convert into a luxe hotel. Francis Ford Coppola has just done up a small lodge within an easy drive of the Mayan ruins at Tikal (La Lancha, with ten rooms, just opened last month). The signs are encouraging, even if the buzz is still behind closed doors—for now.
• Hire a helicopter from the city's best tour operator, Viaventure (502-832-0478), and fly to Iximhe, a stunning Mayan site less than 10 minutes from Antigua. Have your hotel arrange for a picnic from Epicure (6a Avenida Norte #35a; 502-832-1414), the city's popular new gourmet boutique.
• The best private guide is American Martha Hettich $ $150 a day; 502-832-2134; firstname.lastname@example.org), who buys Guatemalan textiles for international museums. Hettich delivers, especially when it comes to shopping. She'll take you to Angelina (4a Calle Oriente #22; 502-832-0203), an eclectic source for local antiques and wood sculptures; Celadon (4a Calle Oriente #10; 502-832-5693) for contemporary ceramics; and Maya Cot (Frente a Casa Santo Domingo; 502-832-2606) for cutting-edge textiles.
• Visit Mitchell Denburg $ (561-274-3611, by appointment), whose factory in Antigua produces extraordinary rugs, using materials as varied as woven copper, chenille, and sisal. Warren Buffett, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and designer Andrée Putman are all fans.
• Bring back a box of bonbons from Doña María Gordillo (4a Calle Oriente #11; no telephone), a fourth-generation matriarch who sells traditional sweets like higos cubiertos, figs soaked in sugar for three days.
Quinta Maconda and Casa Oriente Rates, $3,500 for a three-night stay at Quinta Maconda, including meals. Rates for Casa Oriente upon request. Book both through Steven Chew in London, 44-20-7384-2332; www.cazloyd.com.
Meson Panza Verde Rates, $75-$150. At 5a Avenida Sur #19; 502-832-2925; www.panzaverde.com.
Hotel Mansión del Pensativo Rates, $135-$220. At 4a Avenida Sur #20; 502-832-0308; www.mansiondelpensativo.com.
Posada del Angel Rates, $175-$225. At 4a Avenida Sur #24a; 502-832-5303; www.posadadelangel.com.
Lion's Inn Rates, $200-$290. On Calle de los Duelos, Las Gravileas #1; 502-832-7371; www.lionsinnantigua.com.
La Lancha Rates, $95-$150. At Lago Petén Itzá; 502-824-4912.
Azafran Dinner, $30. At 1 Avenida Norte #1; 502-832-0802.
Caffè Mediterraneo Dinner, $25. At 6ta Calle Poniente #6a; 502-832-7180.
Restaurant prices reflect a three-course dinner for two, excluding beverages and gratuity. Hotel prices show high-season rates from the least expensive double to the most expensive suite.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.