Thursday, March 8, 2007
Viña del Mar and Valparaiso - Commentary
Once we loaded the back seat of our red Mitsubishi pick-up with our luggage, we were ready for our 120 km drive to Viña del Mar, one of Chile’s most fashionable beach resorts. We were a bit nervous about getting out of the city onto the highway heading west (we had observed how folks drive in Santiago with buses traveling at breakneck speed and the reliance seemingly on the horn in place of the brakes!). It turned out to be simple – three turns from our hotel we entered the lengthy cross-town tunnel that makes Boston’s “Big Dig” look like a hole in the ground (and it hasn’t collapsed once!). The tunnel dumped us onto the main road west for a pleasant drive to the coast. Our plan was to visit two recommended wineries, Veramonte and Matetic Vineyards, in the Casablanca Valley, situated between Santiago and Viña del Mar/Valparaiso. The soil in this relatively new winemaking region of Chile is perfect for growing chardonnay and sauvignon blanc grapes and Veramonte and Matetic produced well-regarded whites along with several signature reds (but Barbara prefers white wine). Alas, the guidebook and website directions to these vineyards left much to be desired. For Veramonte, we did have a highway mile marker to help us. However, the numbers changed along the way and we were totally confused. As a result, we zipped by the winery’s only road sign, located right next to the exit, distracted further by an upcoming toll booth. Luckily, after going through the toll there was another exit from which we could see grapes growing off to the right into the distance. Taking a chance, we followed an unmarked road that turned into a single dirt stretch that twisted to a dead end at the rear gate to the Veramonte winery. We convinced the guard we were lost visitors and he let us in, directing us past staff lodging under a beautiful arbor to a soaring rotunda set among grape fields with the mountains in the background. We spent a pleasant half hour in a state of the art tasting room, sampling three terrific wines and chatting with the staff. We left with two bottles of Veramonte’s best chardonnay, determined to smuggle them aboard in violation of ship’s regs and to enjoy them on the cruise. Unfortunately, despite a watchful eye, we never found the Matetic Vineyard and drove straight to Viña del Mar and our hotel, a comfortable Best Western two blocks from the famous Hotel Viña del Mar and the casino. We picked the hotel because it had parking, a premium in Viña during the summer high season when a good portion of Santiago and beyond descends on the beaches. After checking in and dumping the luggage, I had to drive around the block (Viña is a maze of one-way streets) to get to the hotel’s attached parking garage. Unfortunately, my Spanish is so poor I misunderstood the signs about a right hand turn and I went quite a few blocks, taking at least 15 minutes instead of one or two. Barbara and the bell captain were perplexed, to say the least. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening wandering around Viña del Mar, going through the five-star hotel and casino and dining at a lovely tapas-type restaurant overlooking one of the beaches, within site of the “castle” and facing a great sunset. Determined to find the Matetic Vineyard, we got directions (sort of!) from the hotel’s senior remises driver and set off again (after filling up with expensive diesel fuel) on the highway between Viña del Mar and Santiago. We got off at the same exit for the back entrance to Veramonte and turned in the opposite direction. The guidance from the remises driver was to proceed “some kilometers” and the vineyard would be “on the left.” After traveling for quite some kilometers without any sign of Matetic and running into another major limited access road (never mentioned by the remises driver!), we turned around, thinking we could inquire in what looked like a gated winery entrance back a few kilometers. As we came upon the gate we thought was a winery a car was exiting. So we entered only to discover we were in a gated community of homes and the gate closed after we got through! Alas, it wasn’t one of those entrances you can approach to exit and the gate opens; no, to exit you had to punch in a code! So down the only street we went but it looked as if no one was home at any of the eight or so houses. Finally, we saw a man walking his dog inside the gate to his home. Barbara tried to apologize to him in Spanish and tell him in Spanish about our mistake and the need to get back through the gate. Finally, the man asked Barbara in clear English, “What language do you speak?” It turns out he spent some years in the US (“in New York,on Long Island”) and spoke our language far better than we spoke his! He graciously opened the gate for us and provided explicit directions to Matetic, a vineyard he seemed to know well. With guidance in which we had confidence, we found the vineyard in an absolutely glorious setting. Among Matetic’s claims to fame are a first class restaurant and lovely lodging for overnight guests (who wandered about as we did until they stumbled on the place!). We had a marvelous lunch stylishly presented and accompanied by a bottle of their premier sauvignon blanc and served in their restaurant in the round next to a picturesque pond surrounded by roses and other flowers. Awesome! Although we then followed the signs to their bodegas, we never did get to tour the Matetic vineyard. Instead we headed to Valparaiso, Chile’s major port and a captivating town that is the blue-collar sister to the upscale Viña del Mar. We parked near the commercial docks, the main square and an impressive public building. Like San Francisco, Valparaiso is built on hills and one must ride an ascensor (furnicular) to get a sense of the city. At the tourist information office we were directed to Ascensor Artilleria, the city’s longest with the best view of the area. After standing in a long line, we joined about 10 other passengers in an ancient car (scared the crap out of BJB!) for the several minute ride to the top. The view was all it was cracked up to be, enjoyed over a cervesa. From Valparaiso, we headed back to and through Viña del Mar, this time to get a real sense of the beach life on a summer weekend. The traffic would have been maddening if we had been in a rush to get somewhere. Not so committed, it was an enjoyable couple of hours, out to and beyond the high profile and incredibly crowded Reñaca Beach. After stunning views of the Pacific and the upscale apartments and condos, it was back to the hotel, a leisurely Italian dinner and getting ready for boarding ship the next day.