Doorman Juan David Chang provides a memorably lofty welcome to Illa Experience Hotel. Sporting a long grey overcoat and a black top hat, the 2.1-metre-tall former national basketball player towers over our group as he ushers us into this unassuming property in downtown Quito. Later he'll lead a tour of the surrounding San Marcos neighbourhood and I notice that even when he walks in the street and I'm on the raised pavement he's still several inches taller than me.
Located in the heart of Quito's UNESCO World Heritage-listed historic quarter, Illa opened at the end of 2017 after an extensive two-year renovation. Formerly part of a colonial residence dating back to the 1700s, its restoration was closely monitored by heritage groups. It was a pedantic process but the result is a jewel of a hotel that reflects aspects of Ecuadorian culture.
Guests are greeted with an arrival "experience", which in our case is an interactive demonstration of how the traditional hot drink canelazo is made. Wearing aprons, we take it in turns to stir the mixture of naranjilla juice, cloves, cinnamon and Norteno (a spirit distilled from sugarcane). Served in small copper mugs, it's a sweet, potent, chest-warming welcome.
San Marcos is a creative hub for artists, musicians and craftspeople and the hotel has partnered with the local community to create a range of experiences that showcase traditions. Unfortunately, our visit coincides with a national holiday when the entire city shuts down, but ordinarily you can visit the workshop of a wooden toymaker, taste homemade ice-cream and participate in activities such as sweet making and watercolour painting.
The hotel's 10 rooms are spread over three floors, all of which overlook a delightful internal courtyard and ornamental pool. The decor on each floor pays homage to Ecuador's three main periods of history: colonial (Spanish rule), republican (post independence) and contemporary.
The rooms are spacious and sumptuously furnished with high-thread count linens, colourful artwork and handmade furniture. The attention to detail is impressive; a note explains that the wall panelling is a replica of what is seen in a nearby church, while the rugs were handmade by communities in Guano, 200 kilometres to the south. All the bathrooms have enormous rain head showers and L'Occitane toiletries; many of the suites have indulgent standalone baths. Other facilities include a small spa and gym plus a rooftop terrace with sweeping city views.
The hotel's star attraction is Neuma, its intimate restaurant. Run by chef Alejandro Chamorro, who honed his skills at Noma in Copenhagen, and his pastry chef wife Piedad Salazar, it offers a contemporary take on Ecuadorian cuisine. Highlights from the seasonal five-course tasting menu include a rich mushroom and potato soup, a delicate shrimp ceviche and a heavenly chocolate souffle with vanilla crumble. Where possible Chamorro uses native ingredients so we get to sample traditional staples such as Andean deer and an unexpectedly delicious sauce made from big-bottomed ants (yes, they're a thing).
Occasionally, the property's enthusiasm for turning everything into an "experience" comes at the expense of practicalities (breakfast takes 90 minutes), but overall this is an understated gem with a good heart and a towering welcome.
Rob McFarland was a guest of Chimu Adventures.
LATAM flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Quito via Santiago, Chile. See latam.com
Rates at Illa Experience Hotel from $US500, including breakfast and signature daily experiences. See illaexperiencehotel.com
Chimu Adventures can create a tailor-made Ecuador itinerary including flights, accommodation, transfers and tours. See chimuadventures.com