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December 26, 2007

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Where's Frankie D ...                 Ski Chile (pt. 1)



How and why to ski Chile
By Frank DiScala

Summertime. North America. Beach anyone? Nowadays, sitting on a beach often means sitting in traffic. An alternative method for cooling off? Head south and ski Chile! (See our 1 minute video)

You get some funny looks walking through most airports at the end of June, carrying a ski bag and heavy winter coat. But what your friends, family and strangers have forgotten is that while we Americans are celebrating the longest days of the year, winter is in full swing in South America. Late June, July and August are the perfect time to head to Chile and experience world-class skiing, not to mention gourmet food and wine. And thanks to Johnny Jet’s full travel schedule, this time we get to do the traveling. So sharpen your edges – my wife Cricket and I are off to Chile.

On this trip, we’ll cover three prominent ski areas. Our first stop is Termas de Chillan, located in the south and best accessed from Santiago by an hour and a half flight to Concepción, followed by a two-hour drive. Next on our itinerary are Valle de Nevado and finally, Portillo. Both are north and east of Santiago, about a two and a half- to three-hour drive from the city. All three destinations are different in both terrain and appeal. Yet all three are worthy of the travel effort. If you love to ski, you’re going to love Chile.

Our trip began at JFK airport’s international terminal where we checked in for our overnight flight to Santiago, Chile on LAN Airlines. It’s a long flight (13 hours) but easy for Americans and Canadians since Santiago is directly south from New York and on Eastern Standard Time. Translation: no jet lag! And with LAN’s recently launched non-stop service from JFK and LAX to Santiago, the new flights are even shorter. Time passes comfortably with LAN, an airline that still treats you like you’re paying to fly with them. Boasting one of the newest fleets in the industry, this recently privatized South American airline is a welcome change after flying the US skies.

After an effortless check-in we made our way to the Oasis, a shared VIP lounge in the international terminal. Complete with fresh snacks, comfortable chairs, current newspapers and magazines, the lounge was the perfect place to settle in and enjoy a cocktail. Once on board, the flight attendants were attentive and courteous, not to mention beautiful! Our in-flight hostess, Carolina, took our order for the three-course meal and brought us our first taste of Pisco Sour, the delicious native aperitif. We dined on top-notch food (seared tuna encrusted with black sesame seeds for an appetizer!), sipped world-class wine and relaxed all the way to Santiago. The luxurious business class seats on the new planes are like being in your own cocoon, outfitted with a comprehensive, personal entertainment system and fully reclining beds. The older planes are still nice (we flew one home) but it’s worth the effort to book passage on a new plane for this trip. It’s no wonder they were voted best South American airline by SkyTrax. LAN is also a member of the One World Alliance, which includes American Airlines, so it’s easy to trade in all those credit card award miles for a luxurious business class seat.

At touchdown, the Captain announced the local time and weather: 10AM and 34oF (1oC). Feeling rested, we stepped off the plane into the clean and modern Santiago International Airport (SCL). The first stop for US visitors involves paying a $100 tax, payable by check or cash. The good news is that the tax receipt they staple into your passport is valid for the life of your passport. We paid our tax, completed the typical forms, and after the usual international routine (customs and immigration) we were met by Juan, our driver from the Ritz-Carlton Santiago. We piled into our Mercedes Benz van and listened to Juan recount the salient facts of his native city on our way to the hotel. Chile has 13 regions (similar to our 50 states) and Santiago is the country’s capital city. The city is located in a valley, surrounded from the east by the Andes Mountains and to the west by the Chilean Coastal Range. The Mapocho River makes its course across the city, but sadly this river is heavily polluted by the toxic run-off of area copper mines and direct sewage contamination. There are about 6 million people living in Santiago and 15 million in the entire country, 75% of whom are Catholic. It’s a safe country, full of friendly people and unexpected luxuries.

The scenery changed dramatically as we neared El Golf, the neighborhood where the Ritz-Carlton is located. Named for the nearby golf course, it’s the most expensive part of town and the attractive four-year-old brick hotel is a sharp contrast to the poverty seen outside the city. Another contrast evident in the landscape was the trees themselves: giant palm trees alongside deciduous maple trees, barren of their summer leaves. Santiago’s climate is actually Mediterranean and winter temperatures only rarely reach below freezing.

Before you voyage into the Andes, spend one day and night in Santiago. In less than 24 hours, you can enjoy the little the city has to offer and rest up for your mountain journey. We recommend the Ritz-Carlton, Santiago where you can indulge in sumptuous luxury for half the cost of the Central Park Ritz!

The Ritz-Carlton Santiago’s interior is even more beautiful than all that we had seen on our journey there. It has everything that has become synonymous with the hotel chain’s name. Replete with an elegant two-story foyer, downstairs lounge, sophisticated bar (including lounge act), and rooftop health and fitness center, it alone is worth the overnight flight! We were lucky enough to stay in one of the 49 Club Level rooms, a Ritz-Carlton signature service that includes access to the Club Lounge featuring complementary wine, beer, soda and five fresh and delicious food presentations daily.

We made the most of our brief stay in Santiago and took an afternoon visit to a local cultural village, Pueblito Los Dominicos, where we saw local artisans working their craft. Our first taste of Chilean food was a delicious dinner at nearby Nolita Restaurant. Since Chileans customarily eat dinner late (around 9pm), after the trip to Los Dominicos, we found ourselves back at the hotel with several hours to enjoy the rooftop spa. Under the two-story glass dome, there are almost 700 square feet of sports equipment, treatment rooms, whirlpools, steam baths, saunas, an indoor heated pool and a hot tub. The skyline of the surrounding Andes Mountains is magnificent and the view of the sunset and city lights was perfect from the Jacuzzi. As the daylight faded, the Ritz staff lit candles and dimmed lamps to complete the mood. And if that wasn’t relaxing enough, the Ritz-Carlton Santiago boasts a bath butler service! Just dial the service and your “butler” appears at your door to draw your custom bath. You can even soak in Chile’s renowned wine varietal Carmenère ... though we think it’s better to drink! Rates at the Ritz-Carlton Santiago begin at $399 USD per night. Nolita, Av. Isidora Goyenechea 3456, Las Condes, Tel: 2/232-6114; Ritz Carlton Santiago, Calle El Alcalde No. 15, Las Condes, Santiago Chile, Tel: 56-2 4708500.

After a night’s rest at the Ritz, we returned to the airport for our 45-minute flight to Concepción. It’s another pleasant LAN Airlines flight on a clean, new plane through crisp, bright skies and we are full of anticipation for the first stop of our Andes ski trip, Termas de Chillan. The Concepción airport is delightful and transport is effortless, the airport organized, spacious, new and clean. Chileans are decidedly polite and professional. We embark our awaiting van and our three-hour journey into the southern Andes has begun. Immediately in the distance, we can see the enormous rounded snowy peaks. The vista is reminiscent of Montana, as we leave behind the small houses and town of Concepción and head down the winding road into the valley between the tree-covered mountaintops. Snow tires are a must and chains are required as we ascend. It’s our first taste of winter in the middle of summer. It’s getting colder and soon we are immersed in sparkling landscapes. The poorly plowed roads are a reminder that we’re not in the States anymore. But the locals are smiling and snowmen, it seems, are an international pastime.

The resort of Termas de Chillan anchors the base of the ski mountain. With a large entry and courteous baggage attendants, our bags clear the threshold and we briskly whisk through the often-painful process of check-in. Large windows at the front desk area look out into a wilderness untouched by development and commercialization. There is little here but the resort, the mountains and the sky. But there is a lot of resort in Termas de Chillan. The name itself means hot springs. At the top of the surrounding mountains is an active volcano. Its characteristic cone is visible from the ski lift and the resort captures the thermally heated waters from above, pumping them directly to the pool and private Jacuzzi tubs. A tour of the rustic interior of the five-star resort reveals a fully equipped spa (Aquatherm) spread over three stories. Along with the usual suspects, the spa menu features “Fango”; it’s an application of 100% natural, 25-year-old locally harvested volcanic healing mud in combination with heat and steam. Behind the glass wall at the spa entrance we can see steam rising from the thermal pool that is partially exposed to the outside. That night, we are mesmerized by the unfamiliar southern sky as we splash around in the 37oC pool. (Don’t worry; Spa manager Sandra Platz tells us it’s regularly drained and cleaned, the frequency determined by the results of the local Health Department’s water sampling evaluations.)

Guests take glass elevators (which show off the resort’s spectacular mountain views) to get to their rooms. Ours was comfortable and clean. We arrived in time to ski the last run of the day and those of us who brought equipment hit the slopes after lunch. The rest of us hit the rental shop, whose pros moved quickly and expertly.

If you are an expert skier, bring your own boots. All the resorts we mention have excellent new skis for all abilities, but none have demo boots or boots suitable for true experts. All have new (or, close to new) boots and helmets. But if you have a large head, bring your own helmet too. And goggles. No one rents goggles, but the rental attendant at Chillan (who refers to himself as a “ski professor”) offered to lend me his own.

We reconvened that evening in the bar and adjacent lounge area which is really a gigantic living room filled with welcoming, overstuffed couches and chairs. Floor to ceiling windows open up to limited views of treed and snowy mountain walls. Attentive servers brought us drinks, always suggesting the local favorite, Pisco Sour. And if this tart yet sweet aperitif doesn’t appeal, Chillan also boasts a wine cellar with over 280 different bottles. If you’re a wine enthusiast, you’ll have come to the right place! Try our favorite, the uniquely Chilean varietal Carmenère – wow. We ate our evening meal in Chillan’s large dining room. Bustling with smiling happy people, we partook in a vast buffet extending almost 60 feet long. Bursting with fresh and pickled seafood, meats, desserts, fruits and vegetables, the selection was always impressive and tasty. After a good meal and a relaxing soak in the healing thermal volcanic waters, we were ready to sleep. We left the windows open and noticed that the only sound outside was the wind through the trees.

Rates vary depending on season and room type. Apartments are available for much less than the hotel rooms and all are based on per person. Range is from $600 to $4,000 per person per week. Termas de Chillan, Tel: 56-42-434200.

The next morning’s sun and crisp winter air beckoned us to the slopes. Tempted to go directly to the Chilean snow, we first head to the sun-filled dining room for another taste of Chillan’s elaborate buffet spread including fruit, eggs, bacon, sausage, dried meats, cheeses, dried native fish and the most delicious freshly squeezed raspberry juice. We made a quick transition from the restaurant to the ski locker (Guarda de ski) where ski boots, poles and skis are intelligently sorted by guest room number and the staff greets you with a smile and friendly ‘hola’.

Everything in place, we skied directly from the Guarda de ski down the gentle slope to the first lift. The color of the cloudless sky was reminiscent of Crayola’s Cornflower Blue crayon, or maybe it was more like Benjamin Moore’s Hydrangea Blue, a subject we debated on our smooth ride up the mountain on our double lift. Regardless, it was a short ride to about mid-station and we continued our trek up the mountain to open bowls reminiscent of the Colorado Rockies or Sierra Nevadas. It was really a combination of the two: visually reminiscent of the Rockies, but dry with ski conditions more like the Sierra Nevadas. The terrain was unlike anything we had ever seen, the snow’s surface pockmarked with dark chocolate-colored igneous rock leftover from some previous age, giving the effect of chocolate chip ice cream. It didn’t take long to figure out the source; a glance over our shoulders revealed the textbook cone shape of the nearby volcano, including wisps of steam from mountainside vents!

The lifts are not modern and not particularly fast but they are safe. With no lift lines, sun, comfortable temperatures and treed alpine scenery, it’s about the journey not the destination. Just two days before, it had snowed about three feet and never warmed up sufficiently to melt or create a crust. It wasn’t powder, but well-groomed soft corduroy and conditions improved as the day wore on. There weren’t 20 people on the mountain; it was like we had the place to ourselves. Once hungry, there were two or three options. Go hungry (okay, not realistic), return to the hotel, or eat at the mid-mountain cafeteria. We opted for an al fresco lunch at the cafeteria. The food was good, ski resort fare, served by the helpful Chilean staff that really makes the experience a pleasure. Try the Churasco Italiano, which was a sandwich on homemade bread with some kind of meat, melted cheese, some kind of sauce, sliced tomato and mashed avocado. They actually brought the food out to our tables while we enjoyed the afternoon sunshine and recollected favorite moments of the day.

With no lift lines at all, we skied to our hearts content. When our legs had finally turned to rubber, thighs burning, we coasted back to the Guarda de Ski. We traded in our skis for homemade hot chocolate and relaxed in the living room. If we had had just a little more energy, we might have enjoyed the 4:30 yoga class in the spa or the salsa dance lessons at 5:30. That night, after a Peruvian-themed buffet, we explored the resort’s newest addition: a sparkling casino. It’s about the size and feel of a casino on a cruise ship. High in the mountains, hours away from the town of Concepción, it will likely only attract the skiers that come for the week or weekend of skiing, or guests of the new convention center. But it has a nice feel, the hosts were friendly and it’s an added attraction for this destination ski resort.

It’s always hard to say goodbye. Alejandra Belart, our host, cried when we left. We wanted to cry, too. So much warmth from people that we had just met! It was hard to believe there could be more fun and even better skiing ahead! But, we trekked on, back down the mountain to the airport at Concepción, and on to our return flight to Santiago, where another van was waiting to return us to the mountains. This time we were heading north.

Not a ski bum? Chillan is open year-round and features golf, trekking, mountain biking, rock climbing and tree canopy tours during their summer season. Winter rates for the five-star Gran Hotel start at $1265 per person and include 7 nights’ lodging, breakfast and dinner, lift tickets, hotel transfer, use of the hot springs and sauna, fitness center, and nursery. And if someone in your family isn’t interested in skiing, they can trade their lift tickets for spa treatments.

Ski Resort Location: South Central Chile
Ski Resort Elevation: 1,800m (5,900ft) to 2,500m (8,200ft)
Ski Resort Vertical Drop: 1100m
Ski Resort Inbound Terrain: 10,000 hectares; 29 groomed runs; half-pipe snowboard park 20% Beginner, 30% Intermediate, 30% Advanced, 20% Expert
Lifts: 9
Backcountry Access: Excellent
Heliski: Unnecessary! You can access excellent off piste via the lifts
Annual Snowfall: 23 meters...this place gets hammered!

Join us next week as we continue our ski adventure, stopping first at Valle Nevado where we will ski back country by helicopter, and finishing at the most famous Chilean ski resort of all, Portillo.

*Please tell us what you think of this story!

Note: This trip was sponsored by LAN Airlines .

International Recreation Expert. Francis J. DiScala (Frankie D) was born to do it differently. On his first camping trip at 10 years old he was sequestered from his group for talking and forced to sleep in an open field away from the safety of the tents. He immediately realized that the moon was much clearer out under the stars and has been "out there" ever since. Never one to say no, Frank has been to Mountains of Montana, Idaho, Arizona bow hunting and sleeping outdoors, fishing off-shore amongst the whales for giant tuna, skiing and snowboarding almost every major mountain in North America, racing motorcycles on international racetracks in New Hampshire, and scuba diving reefs from Australia to the Red Sea in Jordan. fun and games are often interrupted and trips cut short by his need to return to his beautiful wife and to his legal career. He hasn't stopped talking and often can be seen and heard giving strange opinions on television shows including CNN'S Headline News/Nancy Grace and Court TV. Despite a hectic schedule, Frank has also found time to travel and write and in recent years has become an enthusiastic contributor to, one of the most comprehensive travel resources online.

Christina (Dr. Cricket) DiScala is by profession, an equestrian veterinarian, and by nature, a luxury aficionado. Subjected to a childhood filled with luxury and tasteful decor she had to learn "roughing it" early in her career when darting wild Bison in the winter snows of Yellowstone and while tracking wolf and grizzly bear populations in Glacier National Park. Now, most of her traveling is via her work truck, but she enjoys air travel and fine hotels as much as anyone and knows the difference between a tent, a Motel 6 and a Ritz Calton. When not repairing lame international world-class athletic horses she enjoys dressage competition, skiing, beaching, flying first class and sleeping late with her best friend, Cumpee loomps.

Pictures From The Trip


Nice new plane!


First class LAN food


Straight down from New York


Sleeping in business class


Sky beauty Christina


First glimpse of Chile from the air


First stop: Ritz Santiago


Top notch suite at Ritz


Our Room at the Ritz


Ritz Pool


View from the Ritz


Palm trees and Snowy Mountains


The little village


Bartering for history




Clean Airport Boarding LAN to go south (again)


Courtesy Van To Chillan


Nice road to Chillan


Chillan Chalet


Chillan Snowman in June


Chillan Room


Chillan Hotel




Group meeting in paradise


Courtesy desk Chillan


Thermal Pool Chillan


Hearty food


The buffet


Not winning in the casino


Incredible treed mountains


Hotel Base Chillan


On Court TV


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