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5 luxury vacations in Chile
Patagonia and the Atacama Desert are wild and untamed. That doesn't mean you have to be
When planning an empty-the-vault, max-out-the-credit-card vacation -- complete with helicopter rides and private yachts -- Chile may not spring to mind.
True, South America isn't known for service and opulence in the same way as, say, Asia. But travel this long, thin country with a fat wallet and you'll find plush resorts, personal butlers and private tours standing by.
Better still, Chile's high-end hotspots are under-publicized. Mining turns the country's financial wheels, while tourism accounts for just 3% of GDP.
Yet from a traveler's viewpoint, Chile has it all -- mountains, desert, ocean, fjords, glaciers, lakes and volcanoes.
Now there's a wave of high-end hospitality to match the beauty.
1. Vineyard heli-tours
Luxury factors: Helicopter tours, four-poster beds, Jacuzzis
Wine tasting by bike, horseback and car is so last year. The view is far better from above.
As luck would have it, family-run vineyard Loma Larga has its own helicopter.
This Casablanca Valley winery produces Chile's only cold-climate Malbec, a 93-point 2010 Cabernet Franc; and an unusual blend of Syrah, Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc called Rapsodia, which smells of strawberries and cream.
“This isn't one of the big, mass-produced vineyards,” says Loma Larga sommelier Alejandra Gutierrez. “It's family run, and our coastal winds make completely unique wine.”
Next it's up and over the Casablanca Valley, swooping over the vines and landing in San Antonio on the front lawn of Viña Matetic.
This winery uses gravity for grape production, rather than pumps, and makes the most of its resident chickens, geese and alpacas for fertilization. It's one of few vineyards where you actually see the winemaking process -- something to see, since all the grapes are handpicked.
The lineup for tasting is Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah.
Then it's on to the hacienda-style wine lodge, La Casona, where all seven bedrooms are named after varieties of wine. Sauvignon Blanc -- the only suite -- has a pool view, four-poster bed and Jacuzzi.
Santiago Adventures operates helicopter tours of wine valleys; +56 22 44 2750; $1,037 for one person, maximum 3 people at US$456 per person; www.santiagoadventures.com
2. Slick Santiago
Luxury factors: Butlers trained for royalty, extreme Chilean cuisine
Where to sleep in Santiago?
No one does old school glamour like The Ritz-Carlton, Santiago, while The W is the queen of modern cool, complete with infinity pool and helipad -- handy if you fancy hitching that helicopter back from the vineyards.
But the 138-room San Cristóbal Tower is the only hotel with personal butlers to unpack, press, polish and bring you morning tea.
We're not talking run-of-the-mill butlers -- these guys are trained by the lady (quite literally Lady Iris Spencer) who shapes up butlers for the British royal family. Plus, the Presidential Suite was good enough for Barack Obama.
The first thing you notice at Boragó is a smoky aroma. Chef Rodolfo Guzmán is a foraging fiend who uses all-native food. His motivation? Rescuing products and Mapuche techniques that have been forgotten.
Guzmán cooks over volcanic rocks, with local flowers and herbs in place of traditional condiments. He lives by one rule: “Anything that grows at 4,000 meters must be good.”
The eight-course tasting menu comes on 5-kilo plates made from river rocks, and changes daily depending what Rodolfo forages. In 2011, he fashioned 725 different dishes.
Highlights include Patagonian Murtilla berries that grow for just two weeks each year; seeds from an Atacaman tree that taste like cinder toffee; and a Glacial Freeze dessert that makes you breathe out steam (dry ice) like a dragon.
San Cristóbal Tower; Josefina Edwards De Ferrari 0100, Santiago; +56 2 2707 1000; Presidential Suite US$3,000 per night; www.starwoodhotels.com
Boragó, Vitacura 8369, Santiago; +56 2224 8278; Boragó
3. Private Patagonia
Luxury factors: Al fresco hot tubs, high-end cuisine
Salto Chico is the best hotel inside Torres del Paine National Park and the view over the Paine Massif is so unbelievable it looks like a screensaver.
“It's like a five-star base camp,” says Patagonia guide, Romi da Pieve. “The luxury is waking up to this incredible view, spending all day outside hiking, horseback riding and visiting glaciers, and all evening relaxing and eating.”
The Singular, however, serves the best food in the south, conjuring local dishes like Magellan lamb and king crab in an open kitchen for all to see.
Located near the small town of Puerto Natales, the Singular has three 70-meter suites and is in a good position for exploring other parts of Patagonia, like Milodon Cave, where giant sloth lived 10,000 years ago.
The hotel itself has some history -- it was built by Brits in 1915 for mutton processing, and the original machinery remains.
Both hotels do excursions in style, with top guides and a ready supply of pisco sours -- on Explora's boat ride to Grey Glacier, the boatman chills your drink with 10,000-year-old ice carved from the glacier.
Hotel Salto Chico; +1 866 750 6699; full board from US$2,040 for three nights; www.explora.com
The Singular, Puerto Bories; +562 2954 0480; full board in a suite from US$910 per night; http://thesingular.com
4. Chiloé fjords by yacht
Luxury factor: Personalized private cruises, access to places few others go
The charm of Chiloé lies in its eccentricity. Like traveling back 100 years in time, myths, religion and tradition pave the way of island life.
Not counting too many stars yet? Don't worry, there's a yacht on the horizon.
Rather than an über-glam Monaco-style yacht, what Chiloé resident Vicente Zegers had in mind for his dream business was a handcrafted wooden boat. He commissioned local craftsmen to build it, and after two years in the making, the 17-meter Ona took to the waters.
“This is a voyage along channels of incomparable beauty, with remote landscapes where the ancient culture and traditions make an adventure for your eyes and senses,” says Raffaele Di Biase, cruise naturalist and owner of Birds Chile.
Three-night, four-day cruises take you to the most remote parts of the archipelago, places accessible only by sea, making stops at small villages to visit some of the area's 150 churches, eating local delicacies such as locos (a type of abalone) and sipping pisco sours as the sun sets without a person in sight.
The Ona accommodates a maximum of eight guests (you can book the whole yacht for yourself), plus a guide on board to fill you in on the Chilote myths -- one recounts the legend of a phantom vessel -- and a chef to fill you up with fresh seafood.
+56 233 455 96; minimum value for charter US$13,500; www.travesiasur.cl
5. Desert comfort
Luxury factors: Six swimming pools, private desert tours
The Atacama is the driest desert on earth, and travelers come here to explore some of the planet's largest salt planes and highest geysers.
At Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, six swimming pools take the edge off life with little natural water.
Highly recommended is cycling to the salt lakes, catching sunrise at the geysers and hiking across the Valley of the Moon.
Thanks to the dry climate, high altitude and lack of light pollution, these are some of the clearest skies in the southern hemisphere and Alto Atacama has its own observatory.
If you don't want to mix with the masses, private tours can be booked.
You'll be pushed to find food this good elsewhere in the desert. Lodge chef Daniel Molina uses local, organic produce such as native Socaire potatoes and quinoa, and rustles up a mean rica rica gnocchi.
If you need more proof this is no desert outpost, the Puri Spa has Finnish saunas, Turkish baths, Scottish showers and quinoa facials.
Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa; Camino Pukara S/N, Sector Suchor, Allyú de Quitor, San Pedro de Atacama; + 56 2 2912 3900; prices from US$726 per night for full board and full-day private excursions; www.altoatacama.com
For more information visit the Chile National Travel Service.