Patagonia: Tip of the icebergs

With its wilderness and vast, empty landscapes, Patagonia is one of the most remote parts of the planet. But even in this sparsely populated region, David Usborne discovers that you can put your feet up in comfort after an awe-inspiring day of action

It wasn't long after touching down in Punta Arenas, a gritty port city on the southern tip of Chile and the country's commercial gateway to the Antarctic, when it began to dawn on me. In this wild and rugged land, we would be far from alone. We had arrived at last in Patagonia, an immense wilderness at the end of the world where the sheep and guanacos (they are related to llamas) easily outnumber humans, and yet solitude was not to be the main feature of our stay.

With a gentle smile our driver, Juan, explained that the eight other seats in our van would have to be filled before we could begin the journey to our final destination, Remota, a luxury hotel just outside Puerto Natales, about three hours to the north. Two more travellers would be landing soon, and there was an American group that needed picking up in town. We nodded, hiding our irritation.

Being thrown in with strangers on a trip can either be unexpectedly rewarding or very aggravating. We had a bit of both in Patagonia. The van ride on that first night, though, was all shared anticipation - a couple from Ecuador living in Texas, six environmentalists working for Arnold Schwarzenegger, my partner and me. Surprisingly, only we seemed to have much clue about what to expect from Remota. Everyone else had tagged Patagonia on to longer trips at the last minute, and travel agents had picked the hotel for them.

At last, the flat and open pampas ruptured into fjords and distant mountains and the van was climbing a short driveway to the hotel. "Oh," said one of the Americans warily. "It looks like a bunker."

Set beside Last Hope Sound, Remota opened in late 2005. It is a modernist hotel unlike any you will ever have stayed in. The hotel was designed by German del Sol, a world-renowned Chilean architect, whose other works include the Explora Hotels, one in the nearby Torres del Paine National Park and the other in the Atacama desert. It is stunningly successful not only in the warm surprise it delivers when you walk inside but also in its ingenious loyalty to the rugged, wind-whipped Patagonian landscape outside. Its camouflage includes flat roofs planted with wild grasses, exterior walls of black asphalt and windows skewed off-vertical to echo the slanting posts of sheep fences.

A total of 72 rooms line two legs of the hotel that run down a slope almost to the edge of the water. Fine linens and bath toiletries betray the hotel's luxury rating, but the rooms retain a bracing roughness too, with slate floor and much unvarnished wood from the local lenga trees. Without televisions or much furniture beyond the bed, the rooms are designed for sleeping and bathing. It is the public spaces of Remota that demand your attention.

By the water's edge, a separate building houses the spa, including massage rooms, saunas and a pool lined with tiles of slate. For the brave, two Jacuzzi tubs gurgle outside.

What you see first, however, is the main lodge, a hangar-like structure whose windows reveal, when the clouds lift, a gripping view of Andean peaks and glaciers across Last Hope Sound. From the main entrance and registration desk you walk up a long ramp to the bar and dining room at the far end. There are two open-pit fireplaces, scattered furniture to lounge on and low tables littered with maps of the local mountains and trails. Del Sol demands that nothing about the décor gets changed without his permission, even down to adding a vase of flowers.

Not setting foot beyond the confines of the intensely hospitable hotel might seem a perfectly serviceable option. The full-board package means there is no guilt in enjoying three meals in its good, if not quite excellent, restaurant and as many glasses of Chile's national drink - a cocktail called pisco sour made of a local brandy, lime juice, egg white and bitters - as you can manage. But most people come here for the stunning Patagonian scenery of high mountains, luminous lakes and mammoth ice-fields.

Happily, your booking also guarantees you, at no extra charge, a wide range of daily excursions led by the hotel's own band of young and enthusiastic guides, headed by the son of German del Sol, Matias. Evenings at the bar offer a ski chalet atmosphere, with guests exchanging tales of adventure. Matias, meanwhile, does the rounds signing you up for the following day's activities.

No one should miss visiting the 450,000-acre Torres del Paine park. (A new road is due to open soon that will cut the driving time there from Remota to little more than an hour.) The mountain formations in the park, rising abruptly from the flat Patagonian steppe, are thrilling. These include the dramatic Cuernos, or horns, and the Torres themselves, three vertical towers that are a favourite prize for serious climbers. However, on the day we were there, group travelling got under our skin. Matias had thrown us together with six jabbering retirees from Spain who saw more joy in leaving the van for lavatory and souvenir breaks than for a chance to explore any of the park's myriad trails.

Our moment came after lunch, a picnic with lots of pisco and wine. A little worse for wear, the Spanish were overruled when we demanded that we at least do one of the park's most popular hikes across the bottom of Grey Lake with views north to the snout of the vast Grey Glacier. Dotting the lake's surface were mini icebergs the colour of turquoise toothpaste that had broken off from the glacier. The following day, a repentant Matias ensured we had a guide to ourselves, who took us on a six-hour trek over a mountain shoulder. The walk featured close encounters with circling condors, views of Lake Sofia to the northwest and stops at a series of deep caves that once gave shelter to the ancient Aoniken tribes of Patagonia. The hike ended at the largest of all the caves in the area, the Cueva del Milodon, once home to the extinct giant Patagonian sloth or milodon, and nowadays part of another national park.

A journey as momentous as one to Patagonia is best shared with like-minded people. Avoid any company that grates, and swap tales of adventure by a fireside at the end of the day. At Remota that is what will happen for sure. If Patagonia is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Remota, with its unique architecture and the way it embraces this weather-beaten region's breathtaking scenery, will surely be as well.

THE COMPACT GUIDE

HOW TO GET THERE

David Usborne travelled as a guest of American Airlines and World Odyssey. American Airlines (08457 789789; americanairlines.co.uk) flies to Santiago via New York from £826 return. World Odyssey (01905 731373; world-odyssey.com) offers tailor-made itineraries in Chile including three- and four-night packages at Remota Hotel from £550 and £742, respectively. The price is per person based on two sharing and includes return transfers to Remota from Punta Arenas airport, full board, with drinks and daily excursions. World Odyssey can also arrange return flights from Santiago to Punta Arenas from £380.

FURTHER INFORMATION

ProChile (020-7637 1270). Also see visit-chile.org.

10 places to explore from Remota

1. Balmaceda and Serrano Glaciers

For a thrilling close-up look at the blue ice glaciers of the region, board a small covered boat for a five-hour round trip - with food and drinks served - from Last Hope Sound to the Balmaceda and Serrano Glaciers. You should have the chance to disembark and walk on the ice for an hour or so on Serrano Glacier.

2. Milodon cave

If you fancy a moderate but highly rewarding trek, ask your guides about seeing the Milodon cave, one of the oldest human settlements in Patagonia. It is a stunning five-hour adventure to reach it via a high bluff where condors nest. Lie on the rocks and gaze at these huge birds circling immediately above you.

3. Parque Torres del Paine

On no account miss the Parque Torres del Paine, with its astonishing mountains, scattered lakes and rich wildlife. It's a lot of driving in the hotel van but insist on getting out for short treks, especially at Grey Lake with views to the foot of Grey Glacier. The hotel provides a great picnic with wine.

4. Play the gaucho

Be a gaucho - the name given to cowboys around these parts - for the day. The hotel has plenty of horse riding options from all-day rides almost as far as the border with Argentina to less ambitious outings closer to home. One of the best is the ride to nearby Mount Dortea with great views of the town and Last Hope Sound.

5. Barbecue under the stars on a ranch

Have a barbecue at a nearby ranch owned by Hermann Eberhard, grandson of one of the region's very first European settlers. He hosts the meal - spit-roast lamb and pisco sours included - on a little island reached by Zodiac boats. There are short walks afterwards to assist digestion.

6. Tower climb

If you are feeling fit, the towers in the Parque Torres del Paine await. No one is asking you to climb them - though many have - instead, you are offered a strenuous six-hour hike from a park road to the base of the stunning towers through lush forest. You may need to take the following day to recover, however.

7. Fish in the peace of Lago del Toro

If you have come to Patagonia for peace and meditation, a day fishing from the beach at Lago del Toro on the southern edge of Torres del Paine park comes highly recommended, although fly-fishing experts should bring their own equipment. The lake is said to boast an abundance of trout in its crystal clear waters.

8. Puerto Bories

Amateur historians will enjoy a visit to nearby Puerto Bories, a collection of industrial brick buildings on the edge of the sound that was once a vast sheep processing plant and was filled with British machinery for exporting wool and meat to the UK, that is until its closure in the early 1960s.

9. Penguin spotting in the Straits of Magellan

No visit is complete without a short cruise, usually aboard the comfortable MV 'Mare Australis' that departs from Punta Arenas. The trips offer a unique chance to see the Beagle Channel and the Straits of Magellan, where you can keep an eye out for penguin colonies.

10. Tenerife mountain

Welcome to Tenerife, and we are not talking about the Canaries. This pyramid-shaped mountain, about two hours from the hotel, is a favourite among climbers attempting its south face. However, it also offers great trekking that is not too demanding as well as some of the best views into the Torres del Paine park to the north from its lower reaches.

The Antarctic beckons from the shores of Grey Lake, Patagonia (main picture), which is so cold that icebergs which have broken away from glaciers float on the surface. Right, from the left: Remota Hotel, a rare and successful example of avant-garde architecture in the wilderness; and then in the next four images the Torres del Paine Park and its towering peaks, which present climbers with a huge challenge; animals grazing at the water's edge; and waterfall-watching

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