A range of exclusivity

Skiing in Chile is limited, but if it's old-school glamour you want, buckle up, says Stephen Wood
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The Independent Travel

Courchevel 1850 might claim to be the most charismatic ski resort - it's where Posh and Becks went in their prime, last season, along with many a diva and divo - but there is another faraway place which, despite having very limited shopping and no night-life worth the name, is far more exclusive; and its name provokes a sort of wistful yearning among serious skiers. The resort is Portillo, in Chile.

Courchevel 1850 might claim to be the most charismatic ski resort - it's where Posh and Becks went in their prime, last season, along with many a diva and divo - but there is another faraway place which, despite having very limited shopping and no night-life worth the name, is far more exclusive; and its name provokes a sort of wistful yearning among serious skiers. The resort is Portillo, in Chile.

Why is Portillo so exclusive? Largely because it's so far away, from anywhere except Argentina. The journey from London to the resort, via Madrid and Santiago, can take the best part of 20 hours. Then there's the inconvenient fact for northern hemisphere-dwellers that the snow falls only after your skis have gone up into the loft: Chile's winter lasts from June to October. Expense is obviously a factor, too. When, earlier this year, the mass-market tour operator Crystal launched holidays to Portillo (and to Chile's other internationally known resort, Valle Nevado), the cheapest packages available cost more than £1,200 a week.

Fewer than 100 holidays were sold, but then there would be no point in sending a crowd to the resort, because it would have to be turned away. Actually, to describe Portillo as a "resort" is an exaggeration: it's little more than a hotel with a smallish ski area attached. And the hotel has only 123 rooms.

Portillo, 150km from Santiago, is said to have great skiing, particularly off-piste, but I can't confirm that because on my one visit the area was all but closed by a huge snowfall. Up in the Andes on the Argentine border, the setting is awesome, with runs descending to the beautiful Laguna del Inca, lying in the bottom of a cleft of the mountains at 2850m. But it is Hotel Portillo which makes the place glamorous, in a rather Forties, tuxedo-and-ballgown way. The interior feels like a cross between a gentlemen's club and an ocean liner, and the staffing levels are just as old-fashioned. The exterior is rendered in a bizarre but spirit-lifting ochre.

Henry Purcell, patriarch of the family which owns the hotel, built the resort up by combining a scrupulous attention to detail with bold marketing gestures such as hosting the 1966 World Championship (for which event a proper road was finally laid, making Portillo accessible by car as well as by the now-defunct narrow-gauge railway).

Chile's other main ski attraction, Valle Nevado, was built by French investors and bears an uncanny resemblance to Seventies French resorts. Its ski area (with two satellite resorts) is much bigger than Portillo's, but there's something futile about going all that way and feeling that you've only reached France. There is a whole string of other resorts, stretching from Termas de Chillán down to Cerro Mirador near Tierra del Fuego, with its single lift. But even Chillán is 480km from Santiago, and after a very-long-haul flight you might reasonably hesitate to make that detour.

For more information on Portillo, contact 00 56 2 263 0606; www.skiportillo.com. Crystal: 0870 160 6040; www.crystalholidays.co.uk

EASTER ISLAND

Mysteries and warnings - Easter Island has a list of them. How people got to Easter Island is nearly as big a mystery as why they carved hundreds of gigantic stone moai, the elongated all-head figures which dot the island, and why they then knocked them all over.

Archaeologists have picked through the island rubbish dumps to reveal a sorry tale of environmental destruction leading inevitably to disaster. When the first Polynesians arrived, the island was cloaked with a dense subtropical forest, including an 80-foot palm tree with a trunk nearly six feet thick. Bones found in the rubbish pits indicate that the islanders enjoyed a healthy diet featuring a wide variety of native land birds, the many types of sea birds which nested on the island and porpoises which were caught in fishing expeditions far out to sea.

As early as AD800, 400 years after the first arrivals, deforestation was underway. By 1400, the island's huge palm tree was extinct, and without wood to construct their great canoes the islanders were trapped on the island. Around 1500, porpoise bones disappeared from the pits. As the wood supply dwindled, building fires became more and more difficult and over-exploitation began to wipe out native species. Soon native bats, birds, lizards and even snails were gone and the island was totally covered in grassland without a bush or tree more than 10 feet high.

When Captain Cook dropped by he commented that the island seemed to have only a handful of canoes. And although they were artfully constructed of stitched-together boards and branches, they leaked like sieves and were totally unsuited for venturing any distance from shore. Cook and the other early European explorers turned up as the once great civilisation entered its death throes. The population was dwindling (not least because cannibalism had become rife) and every moai on the island was tumbled in bitter local wars.

Tony Wheeler

Tony Wheeler is the founder of 'Lonely Planet'

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