CAN THE WILD heat of Latin seduction be conveyed through thick layers of thermal underwear and Gortex?
The Luxury Travel Bible contemplated this for, hmmm, maybe a minute before deciding...why not? Skiing in South America has long been a secret 'summer' training weapon for many an elite northern hemisphere snowsports team and is now beginning to emerge as an 'It' destination for those chasing year-round powder and peaks. While the resorts are in a state of expansion and shimmying up in the luxe stakes Chile and Argentina aren't short on epic skis with a view and spas.
This skinny strip of country has the incredible peaks of the Andes to thank for its spectacular ski offering. Not to mention the Norwegian engineers who came here in the late 19th century and first skied their slopes. Portillo, which means narrow valley, was the first resort to be created and it remains the grand dame resting smugly in its quiet isolation and heritage. Two hours drive from Santiago, Hotel Portillo, opened in 1949, offers the only on-mountain accommodation here for up to 400 guests. With around 450 staff, Portillo is high on service ratio and free from shopping malls and town crowds.
Spread out like half a horseshoe on the edge of Laguna del Inca you have a choice between lake or valley views, but the mood of this ex-New York family run hotel and resort is more relaxed elegance than sophisticated. And, no, we don't have the answer to why they painted the hotel exterior yellow. Come here because you want to ski down the kind of slopes international Olympic teams spend their off-season training on, and where Jean-Claude Killy took his first downhill gold medals (ski legend Warren Miller has rated it as one of his top ten resorts...anywhere). Stay because you want yourself or your kids to learn from one of the most renowned ski schools in relatively uncrowded ease. And give yourself time to take in the beauty of this catchment area of the mighty Aconcagua, which at 22,841 feet (6,959 metres) is the tallest mountain in the Americas. Portillo is quite the place to try heliskiing or simply stare into the Andean sunsets.
On the doorstep of the capital city is a ski region already being dubbed as Chile's answer to 'Les Trois Vallees'. Valle Nevado, 37 miles (60 kilometres) from Santiago, is the most expansive and equipped resort in Chile with 23,000 acres (3,207 hectares) of skiable terrain and endless Andean meadows for off-piste. The premier hotel Valle Nevado has just been given a facelift for the 2010 season and is great for those wanting ski-in/ski-out accommodation, but for those wanting a slicker luxe
The Luxury Travel Bible might suggest hailing a helicopter back for an in-city stay at W Santiago. Stacked with the kind of sexy cool you'd expect from W, it's the panoramic views of the Andes from many of the suites (and the in-room bathtubs...and the rooftop pool, sigh) that are a reminder of why you came.
Pffff - skiing? Yes, concentrate, another of the three valleys, La Parva, is only 24 miles (38 kilometres) away. Small on terrain but with enough vertical to keep intermediate skiers amused, accommodation is kept exclusively as condos, reputedly the weekenders of Santiago's elite, but for luxe nights
TLTB would keep heading back to W. Note: book the WOW suite.
Completing this triumvirate of interconnected valleys is nearby El Colorado. Best for advanced/expert and beginner skiers what mostly makes this resort a small gem is crowd-free slopes and proximity to Santiago. Travel 300 miles south (480 kilometres) of the capital and you'll arrive at Termas de Chillan. Rather light on glam, we mention it only because, intriguingly, it is tucked into the side of a volcano (the Gran Hotel here has two outdoor thermal springs, and a spa) and you can ski down South America's longest run - eight unstoppable miles (13 kilometres).
As in Chile, the majority of Argentina's ski resorts run along the spine of the Andes. Valle de Las Lenas ski resort, a few miles outside Mendoza, has developed a reputation for unbeatable snow that covers 568 acres (230 hectares) of terrain with huge back-country and off-piste powder. It is also the highest at well over 9,800 feet (3,000 metres), which makes it 'King' for extreme skiers. Virgo Hotel provides a soft landing zone to schmooze in. Recline in the calm of designer neutral with burnt orange accents, or take your ski legs off to the spa that features indoor/outdoor pool, outdoor Jacuzzis, massage and hydromassages.
Further south, the lakes district of Patagonia opens up some of the most spectacularly scenic resorts. Rising up just behind the city of San Martin de Los Andes is Cerro Chapelco, renowned for its beauty - corridors of deep Lenga forests, views of Lago Lacar and Lanin Volcano. There is on-mountain accommodation but to ramp up the luxe head down to the edge of Lago Lanin where Rio Hermoso Hotel de Montana channels a warm, creamy chic in contemporary cabin style. With only six suites and a family room living suite, the fabulously excessive window glazing dips you deeply into the oh-so-private forest and lake just outside.
Lahuen Co Eco Resort and Thermal Spa, also inside Lanin National Park, similarly brings nature up close but adds in a different kind of water experience. Based on Japanese and Greco-Roman bathing principles, kind of like a gym circuit, without the pain, you hop between progressively hotter pools with the brave finishing off or alternating with Vichy shower and outdoor pools. The Master Ofuro suite has its own private thermal area and garden.
Go further south again and the ski and lake experiences just keep coming. Cerro Bayo near the township of Villa La Angostura has played up its small, but super pretty, size with a 'boutique resort' offering. There is an on-snow 'Re-charge' area that offers new body therapies and equipment to get you back on-slope energised, as well as a trail of gourmet sponsors, not least of which belongs to the nearby Relais & Chateaux Las Balsas Gourmet Hotel and Spa. Ski down to the base of the mountain and head to Barsovia which offers everything from drinks to gourmet snacks to DJs with the personalised service of the hotel. Overlooking Lago Nahuel Huapi, the style of Las Balsas again is chic wood cabin with only three suites and 12 rooms. Try not to get stuck browsing through the wine-tasting cellar when there is a spa serving up a range of treatments with a view.
Still in Patagonia an hour south near the mini-Swiss city of San Carlos de Bariloche is what is described as Argentina's 'most complete' resort - Cerro Catedral. With 1482 acres (600 hectares) of skiable terrain, what you give up in crowd-free shushing you gain in cutting-edge snow-making technology and facilities, including a speed bubble lift. Set inside Nahuel Huapi National Park the incredible view of the lake system below from the summit could prove a major distraction in back-mountain navigation - mind the turn.
Much of the high-end accommodation happens along Avenue Bustillo, all offering lake and mountain views. Design Suites Bariloche will keep you close to Bariloche nightlife as well as nature. Departing from the area's traditional Swiss-influenced architecture, the hotel's exterior swoops away in angles and curves, while interiors mix earth, stone and wood with cool contemporary designer furnishings. There is an art gallery as well as health club, sauna and heated indoor/outdoor pool. Yes, we'd prefer it if the in-room soaking tubs weren't clad in pine. Never mind, the views through the windows more than make up for any 70s alpine flashback.
Aldebaran Hotel and Spa, also along Bustillo, takes you deeper into the forest silence and away, once again, from Swiss chalet style with its contemporary take on Argentinean farmhouse. With only 10 rooms and a restaurant that seats 20, this hotel is boutique intimate. The spa springs a range of treatments, but just getting back to the restaurant: homemade bread, organic beef, bottle of Malbec. Are you with us?
The full-stop on South American skiing comes with Cerro Castor, the southernmost ski resort in the world. It's exclusive - read boutique with only nine lifts - but it still shapes up with some serious slopes. One is registered with the International Ski Federation for downhill timekeeping and you might stumble across the Italian ski team in pre-season training. While slopes cater pretty evenly to all level skiers, there's also great Nordic skiing through the forests. On-mountain accommodation is supplied by Castor Lodge offering 15 cabins, that each sleeps six. Convenient, sure. Comfortable, yes. Luxe? Perhaps head to Los Cauqennes Resort & Spa on the edge of the Beagle Channel a little over nine miles (15 kilometres) away. More conservative contemporary than cool, you try saying no to all those sea and Andean mountain views. And the spa's chocolate treatment. It's therapy, ok? During winter the hotel makes getting on-snow easy with transfers to Castor. If you want to go any further south to ski - catch a cruise to Antarctica.
Prue Rushton 19/7/10 Updated 9/7/18