In the summer, in the Andes, life is to be enjoyed.
In a ski world where one base village can be eerily reminiscent of the last, where Saturday's cheeseburger is virtually indistinguishable from the previous Sunday's, and where even the best terrain can all too easily blur into a featureless expanse of white, skiers need a break. Fortunately, there are still a few resorts that are distinctly - and gloriously - different. And then there are those that stand alone.
Chile's Portillo, laid out at the edge of the stunning Lake of the Incas and ringed by jagged Andean peaks, stands alone literally and figuratively. There's no base village - only a canary yellow hotel, nestled among the mountains at the end of a scenic 100-mile drive from Santiago, the capital city (itself a nine-hour flight from Dallas, 11 from New York). Apart from a smattering of Chilean and Argentine day-trippers (and the odd soldier from the adjacent military base, engaged in "training" that appears far more recreational than martial), you're likely to share the often abundant powder only with 450 fellow guests, a multinational contingent that generally includes Americans (North and South), Europeans and, more than likely, members of a few national ski teams, here for summer training.
Portillo's 12 lifts, which include two of the strangest contraptions known to skidom, serve 800 acres of inbounds terrain and countless acres of off-piste skiing accessible by hiking or traverse. Experts will want to head to Roca Jack, served by one of the two aforementioned va et vient ("going and coming") lifts, which are essentially five-person slingshots that rocket skiers up slopes too steep for con ventional tows. They look more difficult to ride than they are, and mastering them is an experience unique to Portillo. Chairs, including two quads, a triple and two doubles, serve modest but tasty swaths of beginner and intermediate terrain, as well as more advanced pitches. Go late in the season, which runs from mid-June to mid-October, for drenching sunshine and killer corn.
Ultimately, though, a week in Portillo is about more than skiing. It may be the most relaxed - and relaxing - ski resort in the world. Despite its rather lofty name, the Grand Hotel Portillo is quirky and unpretentious, a comfy old sofa of a place where vintage photographs from the days when Portillo was little more than a way station on the trans-Andean railroad share the walls with pictures of dogs playing poker. Rooms vary in size and appointment, but all will tempt you to sleep late. And why not? There are no liftlines to beat, and the powder lasts for days.
Have breakfast (four meals a day - including high tea - are part of the package), ski a few runs, and pop back in for lunch, or pick out a table in the sun at Tio Bob's, among the most dramatically situated on-mountain restaurants anywhere. Ski some more or hit the sparkling swimming pool, or take a nap, or stretch out while one of the in-house massage therapists kneads you into blissful oblivion. Dinner is served late - as is the South American custom - and is presided over with obvious pride by maitre d' Juan Beiza (who's directed the grand dining room for more than 40 years), a broad, beaming man whose good cheer toward guests is matched only by the eagle eye he directs at his army of red-jacketed waiters. After dinner, the hotel bar hops with live entertainment?and when the bar closes, the disco opens. With a one-to-one employee-to-guest ratio, you need never lack a drink, a snack or a ski lesson from one of Portillo's instructors. At a time when a ski trip can feel like a homogenized schuss downhill, Portillo stands as a singular experience.