Thursday, December 19, 2013

Under the Volcano: Reinventing Hotel Antumalal

It’s well over a decade, perhaps considerably more, since I first stayed at Pucón’s Hotel Antumalal, near the base of Volcán Villarrica, one of South America’s most active volcanic cones, overlooking the glacial finger lake of Lago Villarrica. At that time, writing for another guidebook publisher better left unidentified here, I found it a charming anachronism in a region whose architecture tended toward the conventional. Its owner, Rony Pollak, came from a Sudeten German family that arrived in Chile in 1938 and, after a couple false starts, hired a Chilean architect to create a contemporary lodge in the Middle European Bauhaus style made famous by Walter Gropius.
On five hectares of meticulously landscaped hillside gardens, at the western approach to Pucón, Antumalal was one of the Andean lake district’s most audacious projects when it opened in the 1950s – each room had a large sliding picture window with expansive views, in contrast to the small and relatively dark wooden constructions that were typical elsewhere in the region. In a conversation yesterday morning, Rony told me that, although she’s gradually stepping away from direct participation in the business, there will continue to be strong family involvement through her son Andrew, even as the Antumalal reinvents itself as a resort spa.
Even as the Antumalal contemplates a more strictly businesslike future, the personal touches remain here. All of its 22 rooms lack numbers - rather, they place the guest's name discreetly on the door (it's not perfect; they unfortunately typoed mine). Whenever personnel are available, they even wash your car on arrival. Card keys have replaced the simple locks, and there is WiFi throughout, but handsome cabinets camouflage the flat-screen TVs – electronics do not distract from the natural setting and the handsomely built structures.
One continuing anachronism is the use of firewood for water heating – common even in some surprisingly large hotels elsewhere in the region – but that now comes from a sustainably managed forest, and Pucón does not suffer the same severe pollution problems that the larger city of Temuco does. Each room has its own modernized fireplace for in-room warmth but, at present, a late-spring heat wave has let me leave the windows open at night (to be awakened this morning by some raucous buff-necked ibises on the sloping lawn outside).
In what was, arguably, one of the world's earliest design hotels, accommodations are not large by contemporary standards. Still, for a night at least, guests can fantasize getting the same royal treatment as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the highest-profile visitors ever here. Non-royalty (or non-royalists) can alternatively aspire to emulate Jimmy Stewart, Barry Goldwater, or Neil Armstrong, whose photographs also help decorate a lobby wall.

In addition to accommodations, Antumalal has a view restaurant with both indoor and outdoor seating facing open stretches of the lake, and the rejuvenated Antumaco Spa with an indoor/outdoor pool. Arriving with a stiff back, I indulged myself in a deep tissue relaxation massage last night and, this morning, some of the pain has dissipated. It wasn’t cheap, but the results appear to have been worth it.

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