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 is home to six million people.
The tumultuous times of Pinochet’s military coup, familiar to many Americans from the movie Missing — 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.”
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 to situate 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. It is 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 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. 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 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.”
It is an attitude that springs from the top in the person of Andreas Nauheimer, the genial general manager whom we met for tea. Born and raised in Germany, he has worked at Hyatt properties in Thailand, Mexico, Australia, Korea, and India. But Chile, it seems, has won his heart.
“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.”
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.