Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Southern Cone Stay List: Commentary & Critique

Several months ago, the editors at National Geographic Traveler asked me to submit nominations for their 2011 Stay List that, for the first time, would include the best hotels in South America. That list finally came out, in the magazine’s April issue, and include three of the five that I nominated: Argentina’s Cavas Wine Lodge and Chile’s Lodge at Valle Chacabuco and Ecocamp Patagonia. They declined to include Argentina’s Rincón del Socorro and Chile’s Hotel Indigo, though I personally consider them superior to some others that did make the list, and would still recommend them enthusiastically.

I won’t critique the entire list here, but I have a few observations on some places that I know well and a couple others that I’d like to get to know better. Among those that made the Chile list, I would heartily endorse San Pedro de Atacama’s Hotel Awasi, an eight-room gem (pictured above) that’s so inconspicuous as to be nearly invisible despite its mid-village location. I’m less impressed with Explora’s nearby Hotel de Larache, on San Pedro’s outskirts, a 50-room monolith that dominates the landscape, has surprisingly small rooms, and indulges itself with four swimming pools in an area where every drop of water is precious. Under the same Explora ownership, in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, the Hotel Salto Chico is a true luxury hotel that fits far better into the landscape - few visitors to the park are even aware it’s there, even as they pass within a few hundred meters on the nearby road.

In Santiago, the best new accommodations is The Aubrey, which has turned two neglected properties into a charming boutique hotel around the corner from the late poet Pablo Neruda’s landmark residence, which is now a museum. In the Colchagua valley wine district, the Residence Lapostolle overlooks its own vineyards and contains a unique gravity-fed winery where every grape is chosen individually to produce a single premium vintage. The photo below shows the lobby and restaurant building; its four suites are free-standing structures mostly hidden from view.

I have no quibbles with anything on NGT’s Argentina list, but with the caveat that anyone expecting to enjoy the rooms at Estancia Villa María (pictured below), an elaborate Tudor-style mansion on sprawling grounds outside Buenos Aires, should do so soon. Within the next few years, some of its former pastures will become a real estate development with a new hotel, and the current accommodations will become a clubhouse for golfers, riders, polo players and tennis players (under the auspices of Argentine tennis legend Guillermo Vilas).

On the Argentine side of the Andes, Finca Adalgisa hasn’t gotten the press that Cavas has, but Gabriela Furlotti runs an intimate 11-room winery hotel in the Mendoza suburb of Chacras de Coria; the grapes come from its own vines, with the production overseen by local legend Carmelo Patti. In northern Patagonia, after marrying into an Anglo-Argentine family, Londoner Jane Williams of Estancia Huechahue turned herself into a gaucha who leads hard-riding horseback trips through the backcountry of Neuquén province. To the south, on the outskirts of San Carlos Bariloche, the Aldebarán Hotel & Spa has huge rooms on a quiet peninsular isolation with spectacular views of Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi.

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