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West of the Andes at the Grand Hyatt Santiago

FrommerLuxuryTravel
Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

It was early morning, our first in Chile, and up on the sixteenth floor of the Grand Hyatt Santiago, we looked eastward through tall windowed walls to a sky streaked with the rosy light of dawn. The sun, newly risen above the distant mountain range, was shining down on the towers of  Las Condes, Santiago’s high-style residential and financial neighborhood while behind us, a sumptuous breakfast buffet had been laid out in the Grand Lounge.  Courteous servers, dressed in white, were proffering aromatic coffee steaming from silver pots and juice from oranges picked only yesterday in orchards on the outskirts of town. It seemed the best of all possible worlds.  

But something was out of kilter, and it had nothing to do with the fact that it was January 23rd  -- we had long digested the news that winter in North America is summer in South America. What was throwing us off balance was the emergence of the sun from behind the Andes. Our internal bearings placed those mysterious peaks, whether capped with snow or shrouded in mist, along the western edge of South America, stretching down the coast to the very end where they dropped into the sea. But coming to Chile from Argentina the day before, we’d crossed the mountain range. And now, we were west of the Andes, looking back at them from the bottom of a valley that was 1700-feet above sea level.

All of which made for an occasional sense of dislocation, a fleeting awareness that there really was something to South America’s “magical realism.” But such fancies swiftly take flight in the grounded reality of Santiago, a city very much in the here and now, enjoying the rewards of a stable democratic government, low unemployment rates and strict environmental laws. Ringed by a halo of mountains: the majestic Andes and also a more modest coastal range, this capital of the most financially secure nation in South America and home to six million people (nearly half the total population of Chile), has enjoyed uninterrupted economic growth for the past two decades with all signs pointing to continued prosperity.

The tumultuous times of Pinochet’s military coup, familiar to many Americans from the movie Missing -- which came to mind some weeks before our visit in the wake of the former dictator’s death -- seem but a distant memory. Santiago’s biggest and most newsworthy demonstration of late was the Revolution of the Penguins in 2006 when the city’s students shut down their secondary schools demanding free university education. “Some of the demands were met,” a taxi driver told us. “It was not possible to give in all at once. But the students succeeded in bringing their demands to the public’s attention.”

This is a city of broad, tree-lined boulevards, public parks, baroque churches, neo-classical public buildings, and neo-modern skyscrapers. A Sunday afternoon brings crowds to the downtown area via an enviable metro and public highway system. The massive central market that used to be a railroad station is filled with people. Stalls display trays of glistening prawns, oysters and sea bass along with an abundance of the marvelous Chilean produce: cherries, apples, plums, grapes -- a major export along with wine and copper. Young couples are strolling along the riverfront, families are picnicking under the trees, and little boys are frolicking under water sprinklers. Meanwhile, along quiet side streets, small family-owned restaurants are quickly filling up.

Confidence in the city’s future, in all likelihood, convinced multinationals like Microsoft and J.P. Morgan to situate their regional headquarters here. No doubt it played a role in Hyatt International’s decision to undertake a $10 million renovation of the Hyatt Regency Santiago, its flagship South American property, which re-opened at the end of 2005 as the Grand Hyatt Santiago. The property seems tailor-made to serve the needs of the international business community as well as an exploding tourism industry primarily fueled by visitors from the United States drawn not only to this historic and culturally rich city, but to the port city of Valparaiso, beaches of Viña del Mar, and numerous ski resorts -- all within an  hour’s drive –and the aura of mystery and magic that comes with being in the shadow of the Andes.

That the Grand Hyatt lives up to its first name is apparent in each of its 310 oversized rooms and suites. Studies in subdued contemporary design, they make use of the finest of materials and look out to sweeping urban views backed by the ring of distant mountains.

But the grandness is manifest earlier, at the very moment of entry into the round, light-filled, multi-leveled lobby of mirror-like marble and gleaming brass where an atrium rises 24-stories to a sky-lit roof.  Four glass-enclosed elevators silently glide up and down like carriages in an enchanted amusement park while in a semi-circular pit at the base of the atrium, a pianist plays the best loved melodies of such American composers as George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers. With the piano top raised in the soaring space, acoustics are sublime.

Arcaded terraces swirl around the rear perimeter of the arc-shaped building. Shaded settings for cocktails and al fresco dining, they overlook lush gardens –an unexpected delight in the midst of a busy, urban neighborhood --  where a waterfall cascades down from a hilltop patio rimmed with fuchsia bougainvillea into a lagoon-like 10,000 square-foot swimming pool. A brick pathway traces the arcades before it branches off into the gardens leading to tennis courts, a playground, a spa in its own three-story building with fitness center, treatment suites, sauna, beauty and hair salons, and down a secluded lane, the Thai restaurant, Akanena.

The wood-trimmed French doors that frame this exquisite site where the indoors and outdoors blend seamlessly were open to surrounding verandahs the afternoon of our visit. From our table we could see a small garden where the Asian herbs that flavor Akanena’s dishes (and are not to be found anywhere else in Latin America) are grown. 

The lovely Maria Olivia Undurraga, who directs public relations for the hotel and had joined us for lunch, explained Akanena’s unique market theme which allows guests to select ingredients, often in consultation with an informed server, and have their dish made-to-order. These include an array of grilled fish, steaks and vegetables, strongly flavorful curries and a variety of rice preparations. At the same time, salad and dessert bars filled with exotic selections tempt diners from granite islands.

Maria urged us to try the chirimowa for dessert. “It’s looks like a pudding, but it’s actually a fresh fruit,” she said. It was delicious, but Maria was too excited to eat, she told us, because she was preparing for a major fashion event hosted by a noted Santiago designer to be held that evening at Senso, the newest of the Grand Hyatt’s three  restaurants. When we saw her hours later, her flowing blonde hair pulled back and piled on her head, she was serenely elegant, presiding over a sophisticated haute-couture crowd in a sophisticated haute cuisine setting.

Located within the hotel building and spilling out onto the adjacent terrace through a wall of glass doors, Senso is a sleek, spacious, high-ceilinged room whose wood paneled floors and walls lend it a different ambience depending on the time of day. Its menu reflects the native cuisine of Chef Roberto Illari who comes from Emilia Romagno in central Italy. He infuses its local products -- like the wonderful Grana Padano cheese which is similar to Parmesan from nearby Parma, but not exactly the same – into his cooking. There is a selection of home-made pastas – we loved the tortellini with spinach, wonderful breads, baked on the premises daily, crisp on the outside, airy within, and among the entrees, superb grilled sea bass. A substantial wine collection reflects the viticulture of both Chile and Italy.

“It’s unusual for a hotel to have three different restaurants with three different chefs and cuisines,” David Dehnhardt, assistant food and beverage director, told us when he stopped by our table on the terrace outside Matsuri. “Whichever one you are in, that is the nation you feel you are in.”

David was right. In the beautiful understated setting of Matsuri with a dollhouse-sized bonsai and Japanese earthenware on our table, it was beginning to feel like Japan -- especially after a couple of glasses of Valvizieso Extra Brut (the excellent Chilean sparkling wine). Except for the chef, the staff is local. But dressed black kimonos, gracious, smiling, and expertly informed about the sashimi of the day, we could believe they were Japanese.

Matsuri’s miso soup is filled with tiny shrimp and mushrooms. The tender tenderloin steak is sliced very thin and served with sautéed Asian vegetables. And the sushi and sashimi are not only incredibly delicious, their arrangement evokes a delicate Japanese water color.

“Everyone here has a passion for what he or she is doing,” David had told us,and our experience at the Grand Hyatt Santiago confirmed as much. It is an attitude that springs from the top in the person of Andreas Nauheimer, the genial general manager whom we met for tea in the lounge beside the atrium. Born and raised in Germany, he has worked at Hyatt properties in Thailand, Mexico, Australia, Korea, and India. But Chile, it would seem, has won his heart. 


General Manager Andreas Nauheimer


Public Relations Director  Maria Olivia Undurraga

“I love the people, the atmosphere of Santiago, the entire experience of living here,” he told us. “More than a hotel for visitors, we are part of the community. Our restaurants are destinations for Chileans as much as foreigners. We host local affairs, business, social and family events.”

"A few of the guests at the bris" - click to enlarge
"A few of the guests at the bris"

We witnessed one. On a beautiful morning, we happened upon a brunch on the arcaded terraces overlooking the pool following a bris, the ritual circumcision that takes place on the eighth day after a Jewish boy is born. Santiago has a small but vibrant Jewish community, and in this extended, multi-generational family were a mixture of Sephardic and Ashkenazic heritages, with Chilean roots that went as far back as the 19th century and were as recent as the post World War II period.

Warm, open and welcoming – they even invited us, a pair of total strangers, to join them in their celebration – their presence seemed to confirm our sense of the place the Grand Hyatt Santiago holds in this city. It also confirmed our impression of what kind of  place this city is – modern, democratic, future-oriented, and, at the same time, with a special, dare we say it, magical quality. After all, it is just west of the Andes.

Grand Hyatt Santiago
Av. Kennedy 4601
Santiago, Chile

Phone:  (56) (2) 950-1234
Email: info@hyatt.cl
Web:  http://santiago.grand.hyatt.com 

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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