Style: Individualised designer-adventure
Scene: Just outside the Torres del Paine National Park, poised on an escarpment with views across to the iconic Paine massif.
Seen in the lobby: Famously active entrepreneurs, reclusive business-owners, loved-up fitness-enthusiast honeymooners.
WE'RE looking at a dozen Lego-brick-shaped wooden boxes scattered along a greenly wooded escarpment facing eastwards towards the compelling view of Patagonia's Torres del Paine.
In terms of designer hotel experiences, these shipping-container-sized cabins for Awasi Patagonia, southernmost of all the hotels in the Relais & Chateaux group, rated high on my excitement meter. They're pretty much on the same spot where one of those madcap Victorian lady-explorers, Lady Florence Dixie, set up camp in 1879 and described this same panorama:
"The grassy plain... led direct towards the three huge Cleopatra peaks rising from out of the snow glaciers far ahead of us. The thickly-wooded slopes which we could perceive in the distance filled us with an eager longing to reach them."
Remote and remarkable landscapes deserve brilliantly imagined hotels. But they don't always get them – because (by definition) there isn't unlimited opportunity to build new properties in remarkable landscapes.
Chilean hoteliers Awasi are developing an idea inspired by African safari camps: upmarket, luxury properties in iconic locations offering highly individualised service to only a handful of guests at a time.
They opened the Awasi Atacama in 2007 with only eight guest rooms (yes, eight), each with its own dedicated guide and 4WD. Six years later, and 4,200km south, they opened Awasi Patagonia here with 12 cabins (with just two more to come next year).
This is high-concept hospitality which comes with a very high price tag. So it has to be bloody good.
Our personal guide Juan-Pablo ("just call me J-P ") drove the two hours south to meet us in Puerto Natales so we could follow him back in our hire car over the corrugated gravel roads. I've never followed a more courteous driver.
Did we want to go out for a ride when we arrived? He could radio ahead to get the horses saddled up. (We decided we'd prefer a hike up the hillside to get ourselves orientated.)
When we eventually reached the main lodge of the hotel, we were invited to abandon our car outside. While we were welcomed with steaming hot hand towels and refreshments, someone would drive it up to our cabin, unload all our luggage and clobber, then disappear it.
When we wanted to settle in to our cabin, we could stroll up, or someone would drive us in a buggy. Later that evening, when we opted to walk back down to the main lodge for dinner, we found a numbered basket in the entranceway where we could swap our walking boots for a couple of pairs of slippers.
Our late-afternoon hike with J-P up the trails behind the property introduced us to the breadth of his knowledge and enthusiasm, and his dry wit. We came upon a pair of roosting caracaras and sat and watched them with the binoculars he'd brought for us. (As my daughter commented later: "I didn't think I was particularly bothered about birds – but J-P could make you interested in anything.")
When she said, "Caracaras are all very well, but what about a condor?" J-P calmly replied, "Like that one?" and there was a condor rising above the ridge on a lift of wind.
So by the time we slipped into our outdoor wood-fired hot tub an hour later (which had been lit for us before we arrived), we were so impressed with our guide's omnipotent efficiency we quite sure it was no coincidence that the setting sun lit up the three towers in our spectacular view just as we took a first sip of our cold drinks.
We loved the wood-lined cosiness of our big box: one generous space with sitting area around the wood-burner at one end, sleeping space leading to the bathroom at the other. No tv, no wifi – you communicate with the main lodge by VHF radio. It was a place to hunker down. It exactly evoked the spirit, if not the design, of the retreat Bruce Chatwin described in In Patagonia;
"I pictured a low timber house with a shingled roof, caulked against storms, with blazing log fires inside and the walls lined with all the best books..."
The site is arranged so that each cabin is completely private and not overlooked by any of the others. (You can see the appeal for honeymooners, or rock stars.) When we closed the shutters and went to bed we were lit by the rosy glow of the stove.
The main lodge had the same woody warmth, with inviting groupings of Scandinavian-style furnishings rather than buttoned-leather clubbiness. Dinner was gourmet-adventurous with well-chosen wines, and the picnics sent out with us on our excursion were world-beating.
Ours wasn't the only 4WD truck to head out at dawn to catch the morning ferry across Lago Pehoe to the starting-point of the trek up the Valle Frances. The breakfast J-P packed for us included gourmet bacon sandwiches and a flask of best-ever hot chocolate, drunk as the rising sun lit the pampas. (Our lunch included a reviving flask of home-made tomato soup, and with our mid-afternoon break J-P produced yet another flask of hot tea.)
Our excursion had been discussed and chosen over a glass of wine with J-P the night before. We had our pick of anywhere in the national park, and beyond – it was only the constraints of our time that made us opt for a don't-miss section of the popular W trail.
With all Awasi's emphasis on having your own personal guide, we struck gold. J-P has been with Awasi Patagonia from the start, and invisibly managed our experience so that we got seats on a crowded ferry, stopped for lunch off the beaten track, and went at a pace that suited ourselves.
And when we asked "Is it much further to the river crossing?" he responded deadpan: "I don't know – I've never been here before." Ha ha. He's hiked this route scores of times, but when we hugged him goodbye at the end of our stay he thanked us for giving him the chance to enjoy one of his favourite trails again.
A fellow guest felt her younger escort wasn't such a good match for her. Awasi are keen for you to request a swap if the relationship doesn't click. And it's worth considering beforehand what makes the difference for you – and letting them know.
The redoubtable Lady Florence Dixie said of one of the guides her expedition recruited: "As to Guillame I need say nothing, except that all our party disliked him very much."
Our party felt quite differently.
|Check in: Tercera Barranca, Torres del Paine Patagonia, Chile
|Ultimate Luxury: Your own dedicated host and guide, with 4WD, who will arrange each day's programme exactly to your wishes.
|Insider Secrets: Get planning a year in advance. Three-night minimum booking, and next Christmas is already booked out by May.
|The Little Things: Refillable metal water bottles with your name on.
|Junior Luxies: One Master Villa has two bedrooms and two bathrooms, for family groups. With your own guide, you can tailor excursions for your family's endurance.
|Dress code: A cosy Alpaca sweater and walking boots.
|Perfect luggage: Land Rover day pack, with outside pocket for your water bottle.
|Dent in the platinum:
|Luxury Hotels Link: www.awasipatagonia.com
Jennifer Stevenson 30/04/16