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SUMMER SKIING IN THE SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE: A WEEK IN PORTILLO, CHILE

Arialhotel_1 Skiing is the closest I come to flying. So when I saw an Andean condor soaring among the jagged 19,000 foot peaks at Portillo last September, I felt truly inspired. With its 11-foot wingspan, it rode the thermals in a cobalt blue sky, leaving enormous shadows against the rocky flanks of the Andes. (Photo courtesy of Ski Portillo)

Condors weren’t the only reason I had for journeying to Chile for a week of skiing at Portillo, South America’s oldest ski resort. The views at Portillo are so breathtaking that it’s hard to take them in. I’ve been in the Rockies and Alps, as well as the High Atlas of Morocco and the Tibetan Himalayas. But there’s something so dramatic and primeval about the Andes that it took days for the grandeur sink in.

The topsy turvy seasons added to the wonder. In South America, skiing commences in June and runs through early October. July and August are the busiest months while September offers the equivalent of spring skiing. Back home in New York, it was Indian summer. Here, it was 20 degrees.

"Portillo is a gorgeous place and a great escape from South Florida when it’s 96 degrees and 100 percent humidity, says David Deehl, a trial lawyer and adjunct law professor from Coral Gables who has made 14 visits to Portillo.

From Santiago, Portillo is a scenic two-hour drive through wine country that leads to a corkscrew mountain road to the resort, which sits high above treeline in the Andes. If the weather cooperates, you can glimpse nearby Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, at 22,840 feet.

(Photo courtesy of Ski Portillo)

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Like me, Deehl enjoys Portillo because it is not a conventional ski resort. For starters, there’s no town, just the solitary Crayola yellow Hotel Portillo and a few satellite buildings, overlooking the deep blue waters of Lake of the Incas. How deep are they? Well, a Cousteau Expedition was unable to discover the bottom of the lake.

Everything revolves around life in the hotel, a self-contained village of 450 guests and 450 staff. Most people come for a seven-night ski week and are glad to leave the outside world behind. And frankly, there is nowhere else to go. It’s like you’ve been thrown together in an ark set high up on a lake’s edge in the Andes.

"It’s my favorite place in the world to vacation," Deehl told me. "Portillo is the only place I’ve been where I do not think about work. You meet the most interesting people from all over the world. Many of them are amazing achievers and they’re fun to be around."

Indeed, the guests are one of the most extraordinary aspects of Portillo. I found myself dining with supermodel Bridget Hall and her entourage, in residence for a top-secret photo shoot for the "Sports Illustrated" swimsuit issue. At an American resort, she’d have bodyguards to keep away the paparazzi and the likes of me. Not in Portillo.

I had breakfast one morning with the former Chilean Ambassador to the UN and his wife. The next day, it was lunch with a pair of Irish snowboarders. There were Chilean and Brazilian families, an Argentinian winemaker and a parade of young athletes from the national ski teams of Austria, Italy and the US , who come to Portillo for training every year.

Portillo has been drawing North American skiers since it opened in 1949, when it was run by the Chilean government. Unable to make it work, they sold it in 1962 to two Americans, Dick Aldrich and Bob Purcell. They hired Bob’s nephew, Henry Purcell, as the general manager. Henry was 26 and a graduate of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. Decades later, Henry’s still there. But now he owns Portillo and his son, Miguel, is the general manager.

They’ve built Portillo into a true ski mountain, one with 12 lifts, including five chairlifts. Two of the lifts are unique indeed, found only in Portillo. They’re Va et Vient or "Come and Go" lifts designed in the 1960s. These Poma lifts take five people at a time, shooting you up the mountain as if you’re waterskiing uphill. They’re used in avalanche -prone areas to access chutes across the Roca Jack and the Condor slopes. The terrain they serve is expert, including open slopes and steep chutes, like the famous and dangerous Super C.

"Since there are no trees, you don’t get a sense of how challenging the slopes really are," Deehl confesses. But frankly, there are plenty of cruising runs at Portillo, and I happily skied Juancalillo, Plateau and David’s Run. And they groom 80 percent of the terrain every day. With so few guests, pistes remain uncrowded.

"The Brazilians want to sleep late, hang out by the pool and socialize," mountain guide Jorge Sepulveda told me. "Americans want to get on the first chair of the day and ski Super C and other steep stuff immediately."

Portillopoolbygregepstein (Photo credit: Greg Epstein)

When I came down for lunch around 12:30, I entered the formal dining room, the locale for breakfast, afternoon tea and dinner as well. Here the gracious maitre d’, Juan Beiza, a 37-year Portillo veteran, greeted me by name within a day’s residence. The dining room has aged, leather-lined walls, and an army of red-coated all-male wait staff. It’s like an old fashioned European resort hotel, with tablecloths, china and those great views. Lunch might be grilled chicken or seafood risotto, desert ice cream with chirimoya, a rather prehistoric looking custard apple. Some days I lunched on the mountain at the rustic Tio Bob’s, with alfresco tables, sweeping views, and rather good cheeseburgers.

I found the Hotel Portillo’s guestrooms to be simple and comfortable, not deluxe. There are no TV’s or radios, but that only encourages mingling in the hotel’s living room overlooking the lake. This vast space with columns and a coffered ceiling has a large fireplace and nearly a dozen couches for lounging, reading or playing games. In fact, Portillo’s atmosphere is reminiscent of a relaxed European house-party. As Ellen Purcell, Henry’s wife says, "There are few places as an adult where you can come and make friends. Portillo is one of them."

Wandering the halls is a lesson in ski history. Dozens of antique skis line the walls, left over from the days when people would store their equipment here. There are pictures of ski racers, including Picabo Street, who got engaged here. You might encounter the frisky house St Bernard, Margot. Or step over a shaggy mutt called Muchillera or "the backpacker," the dog who "arrived one day and never left," according to Ellen.

There’s a gym, a basketball court, a daycare center and even a cinema, where ski movies loom large. The one-to-one guest-to-staff ratio means better service than I’ve had at many five star hotels, right down to the elevator man operating the hotel’s antiquated lift.

While there is phone service and even broadband internet service, that simply makes the isolation of Portillo that much more convenient. Apres ski, I’d jump into the large outdoor pool or join the babble of conversation in half a dozen languages in the alfresco hot tub. I also became a devotee of afternoon massages from Carmen, whose strong hands have become a legend among the lyrca-clad athletes that frequent Portillo.

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(Photo courtesy of Ski Portillo)

There was afternoon tea and the welcome bar, dark and cozy, created in 1965 by Patricio Guzman, a decorator from Desilu Studios. Apres ski is the best time for the national drink, a Pisco Sour, which consists of lemon juice, egg white, confectioners’ sugar, grated lemon rind and a shot of pisco, a local brandy. And then maybe a nap. Dinner doesn’t begin until 8:30, with seatings as late as 10 PM.

"The first day," Henry Purcell says, "Americans think it’s so late to eat dinner. By the second day, they’ve think 8:30 is fine. As the week goes on, they come in later and later."

As you walk in, you’ll find Miguel, Henry and Ellen in the first booth on the right. Like clockwork, they come in exactly at 9PM every night.

"I can see everyone," Henry says, of the booth he’s occupied since 1962. "I can see if they’re happy or say hello or deal with a problem."

The food is very good, served course-by-course by that army of waiters. One night it might be Curanto Chileno, a classic seafood stew. Another night, grilled swordfish, or leg of lamb. The wine list is filled with an array of Chilean wines that you’d be hard pressed to find in North America. Dinner is always leisurely and paced. No one’s in a hurry.

After dinner, people wander into the living room for coffee. They might head to the bar or the disco. But I liked walking across the road under a Milky Way that looked so very different here in the Southern Hemisphere. My destination was La Posada, a former trucker’s brothel that was long ago converted to the staff bar. Hotel guests, however, are very welcome. Here, you rub elbows with the ski instructors , wait staff, and even the occasional supermodel, as if you’re a member of a private club. You won’t find this classless conviviality in Aspen or St. Moritz.

"You get pampered at Portillo," Deehl says. "They know how to take care of you."

Indeed, like virtually every skier or snowboarder who makes the long journey south, that’s why I became a quick convert to the Portillo way of life.

THE DETAILS:

Seven-night Ski Week packages start at US$1,200 per person. That includes seven nights of lodging, seven days of skiing, four meals daily, and a welcome cocktail party. These rates are good from September 9 to October, 7, 2006.Contact 800-829-5325/ skiportillo.com.

There are daily flights to Santiago on American, Delta, Lanchile, Continental. And for further air/hotel deals to Portillo, visit the website of tour operator Ski.com.

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