I had no desire to return to Chile. I’d been there three times and my last trip, about eight years ago, left me nonplussed. Pollution in Santiago sat on the city like yellow pea soup. Traffic was chaotic and the arteries so choked that getting anywhere was both a chore and a bore. Once you did get out into the countryside, good meals and fine accommodation were limited — to put it politely.
By 2008, however, I’d been hearing more and more positive reviews from returning visitors and colleagues. That, and the lure of fabulous new wine estates, convinced me to give the country another look. Because I’m a wine columnist, I was offered a tour with a few other writers to visit Chile’s wine regions. The plum I was salivating to pluck was the much-heralded new Casa Lapostolle Residence set in the forested hillside overlooking the vineyards of Clos Apalta. This lodge, owned by the Marnier-Lapostolle family of Grand Marnier fame, promised to have it all – great wines, fine dining and fabulous guest rooms.
The trip started auspiciously enough. Travelling from the airport was a comparative breeze on new highways and underground tunnels. And my first night in Santiago showed me the air was now breathable and parts of the city were even tranquil, especially on weekends.
In Concón, one of the traditional beach towns near Viña del Mar, the beloved vacation area for Chileans, I succumbed to a tea-ritual massage treatment at the hotel spa. Claudia, my therapist, first had me choose an herb – the scent of the rosemary proved most appealing. Apparently, that meant I needed to replenish energy and recover strength. I then had mega doses of the herb including rosemary tea to drink, a blend of rosemary and oil to exfoliate dead skin on my body and rosemary aromas with my Thai Yang massage that combined reflexology, lymphatic drainage and other massage techniques. That night I left the windows open to the ocean breezes and slept like a baby.
The following day we drove by avocado plantations, garlic fields and fruit orchards to our first stop, the winery Errazuriz, just over an hour away in Aconcagua. This winery is one of many in Chile with a long history dating back to the late 1800’s. The lovely old building with its Oregon pine floors and beams was surrounded by vineyards that grew like an amphitheatre up steep hills dotted with cactus. I took off up the pathways which wound through the vineyards to the top of one steep hill where a wooden cross marked its peak. From there I had a panoramic view of the property and beyond.
We visited other great estates including the historic Santa Rita and Concha y Toro properties in Maipo and the sleek, modern wineries of Altaïr in Cachapoal and Montes in Colchagua. Lovely, but I couldn’t take my mind off the promise of Casa Lapostolle.
At the Santa Rita Estate, we stayed up into the early hours playing pool, drinking fine Santa Rita red and enjoying the atmosphere with its old wood panelling and antique furniture. But I found myself delaying returning to my room. Despite being spacious, it was a bit gloomy and in need of an update.
Yet another room, at the Santa Cruz Plaza, was tiny and dowdy. Our next stop,Casa Silva Inn, had historic charm but my accommodation was near the noisy front desk. Add to that engine roars from the parking lot outside and din from a nearby highway. Definitely not the the ambience I had hoped for.
When we finally arrived at Clos Apalta in the Colchagua Valley, I sensed I had found hotel heaven. As we drove through verdant vineyards up to the main lodge and gardens, scents of lavender and herbs filled the misty morning air. I was so ready for a night here, I could almost feel the pillows.
With over $30 million spent constructing the property, every inch was artistic, from the gravity flow winery to the infinity pool and four ‘casitas’ that provided hillside accommodations. Needless to say, I was surprised when the staff greeted us with a look of dismay. Not quite the reception I expected from such a high-end hotel.
I couldn’t believe my ears when they announced that we were supposed to arrive the night before. As we stood motionless, the lodge manager politely showed me the confirmation fax that even noted our picky food preferences — no garlic or butter for me. He told us that the night before the staff had gone to their usual extraordinary lengths and stocked our rooms with wines from Casa Lapostelle and Clos Apalta. Despite a tariff that averages over $500 a night, this place books up months in advance. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic bungling of our host and local organizer caused us to miss the climax of the entire trip.
As we dragged our heels and went on a tour, I looked at the silk comforters on the bed I’d never sleep in, the room fridge stuffed with complimentary wines and Grand Marnier I’d never drink, the breakfast terrace with its sweeping vineyard views I wouldn’t enjoy and even saw the dinner menu that listed extraordinary dishes I would never have the pleasure of tasting.