Exploring Chile's Jewel

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Reed Travel Features

TORRES DEL PAINE, Chile -- Ah, wilderness! is what anyone will say after a stay in Torres del Paine National Park, a 600,000-acre tract of towering granite peaks, glacier fields and crystalline lakes.

The park lies in the heart of Patagonia: 93 miles from the nearest town (Puerto Natales), 248 miles northwest from the closest city (Punta Arenas), 1,500 miles south of Santiago and 1,585 miles due north of the South Pole.

An official Unesco biopreserve, the park is the jewel in Chile's southern Patagonian crown, and its singular deluxe hotel, Explora, adds extraordinary comfort and hospitality to a visit here at the bottom of the world. It was this combination of one of nature's most majestic wildernesses with the region's first luxury lodge that has put a stay in the Torres del Paine park at the top of anyone's travel-to-Chile wish list and has made this corner of Patagonia a top seller on U.S. tour operator programs to South America.

The gateway is Punta Arenas on the Straits of Magellan, a long way from New York, where my journey began with a 11-hour, direct flight on LanChile to Santiago, connecting to LAN's four-hour and scenically splendid flight to Punta Arenas.

From there I transferred to the Explora's van for the six-hour drive -- with a stop in Puerto Natales for a hearty lunch -- to the hotel.

Traveling overland from Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine Park along a gravel road provides a landscape study in big vistas and small trees, few people and thousands of heads of sheep and cattle. At the end of the line, small groups of rheas -- close cousins of the ostrich -- begin to appear roadside and the dramatic towers of Paine loom on the horizon.

Last year, some 34,000 people visited the park, a few to tackle the mountaineering on the towers, the rest, like me, came simply to enjoy its pristine and breathtaking beauty. Additionally, I wanted to to see what all the fuss is about Explora.

The modernist-style hotel burrows into the side of a hill overlooking the Pehoe Lake. With its architectural design and interior decor, built-in comfort, informal atmosphere and outdoor excursion program, Explora has gone right up there on my list of favorite inns of the world.

Explora redefines the phrase "a room with a view": From the public rooms -- dining room, lounges, hallways, guest rooms and even bathrooms -- the snow-covered Torres del Paine massif and the turquoise lake or the Salto Chico cascades, are framed everywhere by panoramic windows.

Who would have thought, for instance, to equip such a wilderness lodge with bed linen from Barcelona, china-ware from England, wicker furniture from Chimbarongo? Well, Explora did.

Guests are accommodated in 30 rooms, the best of those with lake views. All rooms are warmed by Berber carpets over radiant-heated floors and fitted with lavish granite bathrooms in which guests can sit in the tub and look through the bedroom windows and out to the mountains.

This is a place to set one's alarm for 6:30 a.m., in the month of February anyway, when the 10,000-foot granite mountains glow pink in the path of the rising sun. Downstairs, good and hearty meals (fresh fruits and vegetables, Patagonian lamb, fish and shellfish) and fine Chilean wines are served in a glass-walled dining room overlooking Salto Chico waterfall.

After meals -- or anytime -- guests can read a book, drink a pisco sour or contemplate nature from the common rooms that overlook the landscape panorama.

Separate from the lodge and by the falls is a fully equipped spa with heated lap pool, Eastern massage and meditation, exercise machines and outdoor Jacuzzi.

Daily excursions, for half or full days, come in varying degrees of difficulty, with vans leaving every morning to different destinations in the park. Guests choose their outings the night before, and all groups are accompanied by guides who know Torres del Paine park well and seem to truly enjoy it.

One morning I went to Lake Gray to see the glorious blue icebergs and hike through the lenga-tree forest. One afternoon we set out for Lake Nordenskjold, following a trail through the fields of wild flowers beneath the famous towers. Other excursions take guests on half-day hikes to Indian caves to see petroglyphs drawn by the Tehuelches tribes or for bird-watching by the shore of Lago del Toro. A full-day outing includes a Patagonian lamb barbecue and horseback riding.

There are other hiking options for fit travelers as well as trips by motorboat, mountain bike and serious horseback-riding expeditions.

The wildlife you see in the park includes guanacos (tawny relatives of the llama, with long necks and huge eyes), foxes, parrots, ducks that mate for life, flamingos, black-necked swans and condors with 12-foot wing spans.

Explora will open its second property in the northern Atacama desert this summer, good news for visitors wishing to explore another of Chile's fascinating wilderness regions.

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