Archive for the Travel Category

The town that Rogan built

Posted in Travel with tags , , , on June 27, 2013 by markcoflaherty

Ten years ago, few people outside of the Lake District had heard of the small farming town of Cartmel. Now, thanks to chef Simon Rogan and his fast-growing mini empire, it’s become one of those otherwise offbeat destinations – like Bray and San Sebastián – synonymous with thrill-ride, avant-garde, destination dining.

There’s not much of Cartmel, but what there is looks so lovely that it seems almost ersatz. At one end sits a tiny square, with ancient pubs and a shop renowned for its sticky toffee pudding. From here, the medieval main street crosses a stream – complete with a photogenic regatta of ducklings – and runs along to the huge stained glass windows of the 800 year old Priory church. There are antiquarian booksellers, chocolatiers and acres of fields with lambs and slate rubble walls. There are handmade, crafty jack-in-the-boxes in window displays and the kind of gift shops that obsess over handwritten labels on brown card tags and anything branded with Gil Sans type. Then there is a small contemporary British restaurant called L’Enclume, with its locally foraged ingredients and internationally influential, epic tasting menus, all bathed in the soft alluring light of its Michelin stars.

Simon Rogan at The French, Manchester

Simon Rogan at The French, Manchester

Back at the start of the century – with much of Cumbria deeply depressed by the devastation of Foot & Mouth Disease ­– this was a different, darker place. When born and bred southerner Simon Rogan moved here and opened L’Enclume in 2002 it was the opening salvo for a very new way of approaching ingredients and cooking. Inspired by rave reviews for his high-science cooking, which compared it to that of molecular masters Ferran Adrià and Pierre Gagnaire, Londoners began making the five-hour journey for dinner even before he’d opened rooms for them to stay in. Then he set up a second, more casual restaurant: Rogan & Co., and last year added a lovely ungentrified boozer, the Pig & Whistle, to the fold, with plans to create the perfect pub lunch. (“Because we’re doing it, people expect so much more than just a pie”). Increasingly, Cartmel is defined by one man’s vision and art.

“When we first came here, there was a real attitude of distrust,” says Rogan. “People wanted to know: ‘Who is this southerner coming up here, doing this strange food?’ But over time that changed. We’ve brought a lot of people to the village, lots of new businesses are opening up, and we shout from the rooftops about how lucky we are to be in such a beautiful place. I love it up here. I love going to Coniston and looking down at the water at what looks like a beach. And I love the desolation and isolation of Wastwater at the bottom of the highest peak of Scafell Pike.”

At a first glance around its conservatory dining space on a Wednesday evening in spring, L’Enclume is handsome, but hardly revelatory. It’s elBulli rustic rather than Ducasse grand. The waiters are jovial and diners wear jeans. A couple – who look like father and daughter – are sharing an electronic cigarette. “The style of service fits the food,” says Rogan. “It’s natural, happy go lucky and a bit wild. It’s about having fun. Take pictures, kick your shoes off if you want.” There’s no fancy art or David Collins palaver at L’Enclume. The bare wooden tables and chairs – all occupied – are evidence of a contemporary eye, but the walls of what used to be an old blacksmith’s are rough and whitewashed. This may be an unprepossessing space, but it’s a place of pilgrimage – a must-visit for Sunday supplement food porn addicts, drawn by its two Michelin stars and its 10/10 score in the Good Food Guide [only The Fat Duck has the same] – and a kind of foodie Lourdes for long married couples looking to rekindle the long lost art of supper conversation.

There’s a lot to talk about. Rogan and the town are on a roll. A summer refurb at L’Enclume has just added much needed space for the kitchen and front of house. The French in Manchester, a visually soigné sibling to Rogan’s Cumbrian mothership, opened in March and has become the talk of the town. With its art nouveau doors that open from the lobby of the Midland Hotel – where Mr Rolls first met Mr Royce – and its vast crystal chandeliers, resembling twin Swarovski Death Stars, it sits in stark contrast to the two year London pop-up Roganic, which was not so much Scandic austere as ascetic in style. The French has been booked solid every night, and looks like a dead cert to give the city its first and only Michelin star since Paul Kitching closed Juniper and decamped to Edinburgh, back in 2008.

Then there’s the new Rogan-owned farm, a short drive from L’Enclume, that grows much of the specialist greens that are a staple of Rogan’s menus, from apple marigold cress to borage. “Visiting is a real experience,” he says. “We’re building a room for schools, and we hope to have barbecues up there.” As with Thomas Keller’s farm in Napa, which diners are invited to visit before they take their seats for the evening at The French Laundry, being able to see the agricultural side of Rogan’s kitchens brings depth to the Cartmel experience. On any given Rogan tasting menu, there are umpteen ingredients that you may never have encountered before, and most of them are either foraged, or grown here in a collection of giant polytunnels. The greenhouse containing Rogan’s cresses is particularly beautiful – myriad verdant plant beds sit together, creating a wild green patchwork. “I loved being in this space in the winter,” says Lucia Corbel, who works on the farm and in the L’Enclume kitchen. “It’s always so green and bursting with life. The nasturtiums are growing like mad now, and the borage is so succulent and fresh, it’d be great to just throw it in a gin and tonic.”

There are, increasingly, echoes of Napa in Cartmel. Both are rural idylls that have mined a rich vein of gold in the form of fine dining – but Rogan has an arguably more contemporary approach to the concept. He’s developed a distinctive signature that’s proving influential: small, light, surprising dishes that customarily do eccentric things with English herbs and vegetables – celeriac, ramsons, sea buckthorn, sorrel and stonecrop – rather than depend on sous vide cooked meats and overwrought sauces. Possibly the most memorable dish on the L’Enclume tasting menu is raw venison with charcoal oil. It’s basically the best steak tartare that will ever be. Tellingly, coal oil is starting to appear on menus in London, along with second, third and fourth rate versions of Rogan-style plates.

Meanwhile, the Cartmel influence is rippling across the Lake District. The Samling, on Lake Windermere, is one of the most famous luxury country hotels in the country. It’s old school, rural, chic with overstuffed cushions. The Michelin-starred restaurant, however, is anything but trad, and recently won “Best Dining Hotel in the World” at the annual Boutique Hotel Awards. Dinner (“No photographs please” begs the menu, to thwart the Instagrammers) includes tuna sashimi with Iberico ham, mandarin and vanilla oil. Roast venison – rich, dark and lush –comes with reindeer moss, a much-foraged favourite down at L’Enclume. Dessert involves theatrics with dry ice. The bar has been raised in this part of the country, along with expectations.

At the same time, Rogan has pared back the science. His heart is in his farm, and the alchemy now comes from the combination of just a few fresh ingredients, rather than spherification kits and culinary jazz hands. The experience is better, more delicious. It’s a very modern way of eating. Long after the surprise of the first encounter, who ever needs to see another piece of salmon served in a bell jar pumped full of smoke? “I became bamboozled by technique and foreign ingredients for a while,” Rogan admits. “A few people I trusted told me to concentrate on my strong points. So I got back to basics. We went through the science phase, and kept the bits that worked. Spherification essentially dilutes flavour. Now I just want to take the most perfect carrot ever, and barbecue it. Five years ago we would have deconstructed and reconstructed it four different ways. We still have the latest kit in the kitchen, but we use it in a different way.”

With Heston Blumenthal’s credibility adrift somewhere between his hot cross buns for Waitrose and his quest to make the world’s largest Kit Kit on television, Rogan has ascended to becoming the most influential, and arguably the best, chef in the UK. He wants a third Michelin star for L’Enclume (“Michelin only became important to me when we got our second star – now I want another one”). He also wants to win at least a single star in Manchester – where a second restaurant, Mr Cooper’s, is opening in September – and re-establish an outpost for his team in London. But it comes back to Cartmel in the end. “Absolutely everything we do is about making L’Enclume as good as we can,” says Rogan. “The town is a magical place and it’s a very significant part of who and what we are.”

simonrogan.co.uk

Crossing countries in Patagaonia (The Independent)

Posted in Travel with tags on January 30, 2013 by markcoflaherty

As car-ferry crossings go, my trip from Puerto Fuy to Puerto Pirihueico was infinitely more appealing than the usual mix of slot machines, duty-free opportunities and chips with everything in the buffet. There was no gift shop; no one was the worse for wear after sampling rather too much on a booze cruise. In fact, there were no below-deck attractions at all.

Huilo Huilo, Chile

Huilo Huilo, Chile

And if, like me, you weren’t in a car, then you were hemmed in along a narrow, shade-free, open-air gangway either side of the boat. Comfort was in short supply, the potential for sunburn high. But what this ferry crossing offers for the length of its 90-minute duration is some of the most spectacular scenery in South America, coasting through the Patagonian Andes from Chile towards the Argentinian border. There’s a lush, green-velvet rainforest portside and a gleaming glacier-capped volcano to starboard. It can be cold here, and it can rain, but on my journey the air was clear and warm. The cloudless sky – which felt somehow so much bigger than usual – was a startling shade of electric blue.

The trip across Lake Pirihueico is one leg of one of the greatest, but also the easiest, journeys you can make through the Andes. From Temuco in Chile to Bariloche in Argentina, you can (if you have the time, are adventurous enough, and are willing to take minor detours) go white-water rafting, ski, sunbathe or hike through cracks in glaciers so pronounced that they form maze-like corridors. All of these things are possible, depending on the time of year.

Before you pass Go, you have to get to Chile. In my case, this involved an epic 14-hour night-flight from Heathrow, via Paris. Rather than risk a fresh-off-the-red-eye transfer time in Santiago for a flight to Temuco that I wouldn’t, as it turned out, have made, I holed up at the W hotel, drank blueberry caipirinhas by the rooftop pool and snoozed away the effects of last night’s flight.

Normally I’d seek out the most offbeat, locals-only, not-in-a-guide-book restaurant, but I discovered that there was a Jean-Paul Bondoux restaurant off the hotel lobby and a new branch of Osaka across the hall, so I stayed put with superlative ceviche from both.

After a short-hop flight the next day, my tour operator arranged a transfer from Temuco to Huilo Huilo, an astonishing, Tolkienesque version of Center Parcs, fashioned entirely from logs and branches. (One of the lodges is a wild, plant-covered cone that has a constant stream of water gushing from its apex.)

The road trip started out drab but became spectacular, as motorways, mooching cows and the occasional rusted pioneer-town rail bridge gave way to high-impact nature. We passed mountains with soaring trees clustered together in patterns that looked as if they’d uprooted themselves to climb higher. I saw tumultuous rivers and a distant volcano issuing a long, elegant doodle of smoke. We rushed through tiny towns that looked more Alpine than South American. Then, 68km before Liquiñe, as the sunset became particularly golden, we passed an unlikely looking, peculiarly remote disco called The City. This rotunda structure on the edge of a lake looked as if it had landed from space, in the midst of the most striking, gorgeous vista.

Two nights at Huilo Huilo are enough to drive those undelighted by groups of four or five squawking toddlers into a frenzy, but the facilities and myriad rainforest excursions – from birdwatching to ziplining through the canopy – are fantastic and the architecture curious enough to distract your attention from the tots. And for children, of course, it’s an awe-inspiring, adventure-filled wonderland. It’s also mere hiking distance from here to the ferry, which makes it an appealing pit stop before crossing the border into Argentina.

On the other side of Lake Pirihueico, I was picked up by taxi and driven at speed through clouds of dust and a cascade of flying pebbles down an unpaved road to the border. Once in Argentina – via two mildly confusing passport checks – all became Disney-beautiful. This is the Patagonian Lake District at its most wonderful. It’s little wonder that half the Argentinian population want to retire to San Martín de los Andes, possibly the most beautiful lakeside town in the country. The main street is full of varnished log cabins and chocolate shops while the road around the lake itself is a grand widescreen collage of the Great Outdoors: sparkling water and campsites, young couples hitch-hiking, girls in expensive sunglasses swimming and jogging, shirtless boys glistening as they skateboard and perform stomach crunches at the side of the road. Everything and everyone glows with health and energy.

With a fairly long drive behind me, I’d hoped that my next stop, Río Hermoso, would have a decent pool: a dip, a glass of vino rosado and a couple of paperback hours would be just the ticket. However, the eponymous hotel on the river turned out to be a pretty, very modern take on an Alpine mountain cabin, stuck in the middle of Lanín National Park and staffed by women in chic, beige gaucho pants. There was no pool. Instead, there was something so very much better. The hotel sits on a dramatic, painterly bend of Evian-clear river, flanked by soaring, lush green mountains. If any resort has a better view from what is effectively its back garden, I haven’t seen it. As I ran into the water, a condor glided above, drifting from side to side as if being worked by a balletically minded puppeteer.

There are several ways to travel from Río Hermoso to Bariloche, the tourist capital of the Argentinian Lake District. My guide advised that we avoid the well-travelled Road of the Seven Lakes, as coaches churn up so much dust that views become almost invisible, while other traffic moves at a snail’s pace.

Instead, we took Route 63, which was more a riverbed of pebbles, rocks and boulders that just happened to be arranged in the direction we wanted to go in. Forty-five minutes in, as we juddered past a battered traffic sign that had clearly been subject to repeated drive-by shootings, I wondered how far I was from chronic whiplash. And yet, the scenery was a soother, and my attention was soon diverted to my guide and her stories of the local Mapuche people, who speak a language that cannot be written and name their children at the age of three, when the town’s designated wise woman decides on what it is to be.

Bariloche is the most obviously populated town in the area, and locals bemoan the ever-increasing tourist numbers, but with so much space around an immense body of water, it absorbs its visitors fairly easily. As I looked out beyond the figures diving elegantly off the pier behind the El Casco Art Hotel, silhouetted by the sun, things seemed as idyllic as you could hope for. Across the road, at Alberto’s – the best-known parrilla (grill) in town – dinner was served amid waves of deafening holiday excitement as Flintstone-large slabs of medium-rare bife de chorizo landed on tables accompanied by black pudding and bottles of delicious local red. I may love the most fancified suppers, with complex reductions, amuses-bouches and palate cleansers, but fundamentally, you can’t beat a great steak and a few bangers. And Alberto’s does it better than anywhere else in the world, with rustic aplomb, and for about a 10th of the price of a visit to Hawksmoor in London. Weeks later, I was still hankering after a return visit.

Bariloche’s other must-visit restaurant is Cassis, run by German émigré Ernesto Wolf and his chef wife, Mariana. While the view back at Alberto’s consists of the grill and some passing traffic, at Cassis you sip local Chandon on an elevated wooden platform overlooking moss-banked hills, a placid lake and canoeists cutting across the horizon through butterfly-like ripples. It’s dreamy – as is the romantic dining room, which serves a Patagonian lamb strudel that rates as the best use of any wool-clad creature of all time.

My journey across Patagonia came to an end at Llao Llao, a rambling 228-room Swiss cuckoo-clock of a hotel, with an astonishing aspect over a lake and snow-capped mountains. Río Hermoso may still beat it for its privacy and intimacy, but the sweeping views across the valley at Llao Llao are nothing short of amazing. They resemble an almost too-perfect painted Alpine backdrop, unreal and intense. Neck-deep in water, looking out from the infinity pool, it was easy to imagine that this was the absolute edge of the world. Then the sun disappeared, black clouds gathered as if conjured by sorcery, and great gusts of wind sent parasols hurtling over that edge and on to the lawn below.

It was a reminder that all of this isn’t laid on just to prettify Facebook photographs, or as accompaniment to an al fresco club salad. This is Patagonia: real, wild, beautiful and a humbling privilege to be a part of.

Travel Essential

Getting there

Mark C O’Flaherty travelled as a guest of Air France (0871 663 3777; airfrance.co.uk), which flies daily from various UK airports  to Paris and on to Santiago and  Buenos Aires.

l Exsus (020-7337 9010; exsus.com) has a 10-night package taking in a similar route, from £2,450pp, including flights, transfers and board.

Visiting there

W Hotel, Isidora Goyenechea 3000 Las Condes, Santiago, Chile (00 56 2 770 0000; starwoodhotels.com). Doubles from US$249 (£155), room only.

Huilo Huilo, Km 55 Camino Internacional Panguipulli, Neltume, Región de Los Ríos, Chile (00 56 2 335 59 38; huilohuilo.com). Doubles from US$144 (£90), with breakfast.

Río Hermoso, Ruta 63 km 67, Paraje Rio Hermoso, Parque Nacional Lanín, San Martín de los Andes, Argentina (00 54 2 972 410 485; riohermoso.com). Doubles from  US$320 (£200), with breakfast.

El Casco Art Hotel, Avenida Bustillo Km 11.5, Bariloche, Argentina (00 54 11 4815 6952; hotelelcasco.com). Doubles from US$208 (£130), with breakfast.

Llao Llao, Avenida Ezequiel Bustillo Km 25, Bariloche, Argentina (00 54 2944 448 530; llaollao.com). Doubles from US$184 (£115), with breakfast.

Eating and drinking

El Boliche de Alberto, Av Bustillo Km 5,800, Bariloche, Argentina (00 54 29 44 462 285; elbolichedealberto.com).

Cassis, Ruta 82, Lago Gutiérrez, Peñón de Arelauquen, Bariloche, Argentina (00 54 294 447 6167; cassis.com.ar).

More information

For ferry info in Los Ríos see barcazas.cl; chile.travel; argentina.travel

New London restaurants: La Bodega Negra (Elle)

Posted in Travel with tags , , , , , on June 28, 2012 by markcoflaherty

Despite every intention, I’ve never made it to Le Esquina, Serge Becker’s notorious SoHo Mexican restaurant, accessed via secret door and clipboard patrol. Like all such scenester spots, it’s no longer the impossible-to-book place it once was, so of course, I don’t want to go anymore. But then, his beyond-hot MK nightclub was the first place I ever went in New York, about 1000 years ago, so, kudos to me. Yay. La Bodega Negra is a Soho reinvention of SoHo’s La Esquina – right down to a more overt, no-reservations cantina around the corner. From the outside the main restaurant looks like a sex shop, albeit an unnervingly pristine one. Its neon is more Tim Noble and Sue Webster than the Old Compton Street of pornier days now past. Once you’ve made it inside, past two check-in desks, and a lady in a polka dot shorts-suit with feathered trilby, you’re in what might be the prettiest, buzziest basement in London.

It’s very dark, very sexy and very 2012. The décor is all vintage-looking estancia tiling, rough plaster, reclaimed shopfront letters, upturned pianos, taxidermy and curtained-off alcoves. Despite a few buttoned-down banker types and a single baseball cap sighting (with blazer and shirt too, people!), everyone looks like they “might be someone”. The bar staff have Alex James/Nuno Mendes flicks and the punters are rake-thin blondes throwing their heads back to pour another grapefruit margarita in. The music – a fastidiously hip mix of Carly Simon, Ice Cube and Depeche Mode covers by Johnny Cash – gets louder and louder and – “what’s that you say!?” – louder. As much as you might want to hate it, it’s quite fabulous. Becker knows his stuff. It’s such a great party, the food is perhaps a moot point.

After working my way through the menu, I’d say that this isn’t really somewhere you want to come for a full-on dinner, it’s somewhere to book and rock up to as late as possible, for a casual mix of nibbles, liquor and nightlife. As Mexican food goes, it’s not half bad. I bastardise the cuisine at home to decent, cosy, sludgy effect, but frankly, London’s Mexican restaurants – most notably Mercado in Stoke Newington – are uniformly crap. Only retro Greek seems like a less appealing option. This is a big step up, but is it really what you want for dinner? With a heavily policed two-hour table turning policy? At these prices? Yes and no. With a bit of maybe.

First, a word on those prices: A small plate of red snapper ceviche at £13.50 and a seabass in alternate green and red seasoning for £26 is spendy. With a few tacos, salads and bits and bobs, you’ll blow £50, or much more, with ease. This is London-small-plate-hazard-red-alert territory. But then, some of it’s very good. From the starter list, BBQ octopus is dark, tender and tasty, and a seared tuna starter near perfect. Grilled corn with cream would be better off the cob and with less herb on it. The steak tacos (£6.50 for two) were much-moreish but the chorizo version was so spiced that I needed an emergency glass of milk. A single tuna tostaditas was light, tasty and creamy, but a side of white beans with chorizo was anaemic and lacked seasoning. A plate of roasted vegetables looked dark, leaden and unappealing, with aggressive chunks of onion. It didn’t taste much better. The main problem at La Bodega Negra is that everything tastes curiously similar, and everyone at my table hankered for at least one thing a little lighter.

Come to La Bodega Negra for lashings of margarita-based cocktails and trays of tacos to soak them up, or have some ceviche and a main (the chicken paillard or slow roasted lamb for two are stand-outs). It’s such a shame about the two-hour turnaround, because this would be a great place to linger, revelling in the candlelit funk and glitz, running up a ridiculous bill on drinks and finger food. It’s such a fun room. But then, hey, at least you can book – and let’s face it, most London restaurateurs choose to insult you one of two ways these days: make you wait in the rain for a table or ask for you chip and PIN while your halfway through your pudding. And if the main restaurant at La Bodega Negra was “no reservations” there’d be a very weird, very long unlikely-looking queue outside of Soho’s most salubrious sex shop.

Outer site! (Spear’s Wealth Management)

Posted in Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 2, 2012 by markcoflaherty

There’s a lot of flying to do before you reach Minaret Station. After half-circling the world in one of Singapore Airlines’ caramel-leather armchairs on an A380, there’s a short-hop to Queenstown in an Air New Zealand 72-500 turboprop and then another in a three-bladed Squirrel chopper. Up and over Lake Wanaka, around the gulley, past dazzling sapphire-snakes of river and deep into the valley towards the glaciers in the Southern Alps it goes… ‘Look down there,’ says the helicopter pilot. ‘It’s an island on a lake, on an island on a lake.’

Image

You can’t reach Minaret Station any other way. There are no roads or trails to it. Every stick of furniture at this incredible tented lodge, currently in its first summer season, was ferried in by helicopter. It took 600 flights to put together and the finishing touches were made in December. It’s a new twist on the super-lodges that have come to define a distinctive kind of luxury in New Zealand. From the plush log cabins of the Fiordland Lodge on the shores of Lake Te Anau to the Pacific Rim haute cuisine at Blanket Bay in Glenorchy, there’s a level of sophistication to Kiwi hospitality on the South Island that really is the business.

Minaret Station is, essentially, an offshoot of the Wallis family farm, one of the most successful in New Zealand. Tim Wallis made a name for himself by pioneering live-deer capturing using helicopters. He subsequently made fortunes in the deer export business and aviation industry in the Seventies, took over an ailing farm at Lake Wanaka that dated back to the 1860s and ploughed millions into it. Now run by his four sons — who all display the muscular, outdoorsy, derring-do of their father — it’s a money-spinning sheep-farming operation. Wallis himself, who was knighted in 1994, oversees things and looks after the local biannual air show of historic war planes, Warbirds over Wanaka, the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere.

One of his sons, Matt, had the idea for Minaret Station after three months spent in tented lodges on safari in Africa. ‘I wondered if a version of this could be done in the high country in New Zealand,’ he says. ‘I envisaged something luxurious, with amazing bathrooms but still using canvas for the bedrooms, so that it was romantic and you still knew you were in the Southern Alps.’

The result is remarkable. Totally isolated, guests come here and can heli-ski, trout fish, explore the glaciers, or just fritter away afternoons in a hot tub, watching the deer and chamois play on the hillside. And while the cons are mod in the extreme (a hydroelectric plant has been custom-designed and built into a waterfall to run the whole show, and you can have a ten-hour, roaring hot power shower if you like), it’s still part of a working high-country station in the wilds. One minute you might see 2,000 sheep on their way to graze, the next you might feel the need to pull your possum–fur blanket over yourself as a hurricane-force wind sails around the valley and rattles the army-green canvas walls.

Many guests at Minaret are combining their stay with a few nights at one of the neighbouring Relais & Chateaux properties. There’s Whare Kea Lodge, with its high-design, contemporary Alpine Chalet on the edge of Mount Aspiring National Park, and then there’s Matakauri Lodge, which was given a radical makeover by interior designer Virginia Fisher in 2010. All the suites here face Lake Wakatipu, with walls of glass and epic vistas on the water side, and complete privacy. The only way to see in would be to take a set of binoculars on to the 1912-built coal-powered TSS Earnslaw steamship when it’s performing one of its regular loops of the lake.

Matakauri is one of those scientifically meticulous five-star-plus resorts, where the service is so good that it borders on unnerving. Dinner is served at a table with panoramic views over the lake and entails colourful, flamboyantly arranged locally sourced ingredients, accompanied by rusted-claret Pinot Noirs and butch Syrahs.

The level of luxury in this corner of the globe should come as no surprise. Both New Zealand and Australia continue to enjoy a phenomenal economic boom, and geography dictates that jetlag-free domestic and trans-Tasman Sea tourism continues to thrive. The all-inclusive super-lodge is a 21st-century model that will continue to roll out. Longitude 131° has been doing it for years over in Australia’s Red Centre, and there are two new luxury camps — the five-room Kuri Bay and eight-cabin Windayi River Camp, both accessible only by helicopter — scheduled to open on the coast of the Kimberley, in north-west Australia, later this year.  

Apart from the high level of luxury and the rack rate (a night in one of the four luxury tented suites at Minaret starts at £1,675), the one thing that these lodges and camps have in common is their site-specific nature. Longitude 131° is all about sunrise and sunset tours of Uluru, and each of its tents faces the rock, while the very fabric of Minaret Station is infused with the history of the high country.

The wood used for the flooring in the main lodge is reclaimed Rimu — celebrated for its integrity, brightness and an absence of knots. Originally milled in the late 1800s, the wood was floated down the nearby river as a raft and then used to build a primary school. When the school closed, Matt Wallis bought it and had it flown beam by beam to the Station. The thick, snowy, wall-to-wall sheepskin flooring in each of the tented suites is, of course, from Wallis’s own sheep, and the excellent wine list — including Pinot Noir from Mount Difficulty and Rippon’s mature vines — is focused on Otago varietals.

The draw for guests to somewhere like Minaret Station is, in part, an inaccessibility equating to a very literal kind of exclusivity. One of the most popular day trips that Wallis offers is a helicopter trip to the mouth of Gorge River, where he goes diving for crustacea in waters well known to be great-white-infested. ‘I wear a special sonar device so that when they get within a few metres of me, it repels them,’ he says nonchalantly.

The only other human life around Gorge River is the hermit, Robert Long — known as ‘Beansprout’ — and his wife. Beansprout left most people’s idea of modern life behind three decades ago to bring up a family here in his ramshackle shack. Wallis often brings him a newspaper when he’s on a heli-fishing trip with Minaret guests — it’s a three-day walk to civilisation otherwise. Beansprout settled here after, as he puts it, ‘picking a bright western star and following it’. His is a romantic, if occasionally difficult, idyll.

Few would want to follow his example, but many thrill to a touch of true wilderness, wrapped in the guise of ‘soft adventure’, as tour operators are wont to call it. And at Minaret Station it doesn’t get much more remote, or wilder. As you walk towards the old stone remains of a shepherd’s hut — once home to a single solitary man, with hundreds of sheep, for three and a half months of the year — the Station’s little cluster of buildings seems to disappear within the surrounding mountainous, emerald landscape. You could, you feel, be the first human to ever walk this most beautiful part of the earth.
 
  
Mark C O’Flaherty was a guest of Minaret Station (minaretstation.com), Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com) and Tourism New Zealand (newzealand.com

 

Bahia and beyond (The Guardian)

Posted in Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 2, 2012 by markcoflaherty

As destinations go, it was hard to get to, and even harder to leave. “Why aren’t there any donkeys working on a Sunday morning!?” I demanded, dragging half a ton of glossy black Rimowa luggage through the sand towards a ramshackle rowboat.

There aren’t any cabs in Caraiva. And there aren’t any roads. In fact, reports of electricity coming to the town seven years ago may have been exaggerated too. My first night in a beachfront villa at Casa da Praia – one of only a handful of mini tropical resort-style pousadas in the town – was spent candlelit after the power went down. And when it rains, it washes away most contact with the outside world. But herein lies the appeal of one of Bahia’s most remote, and resolutely most beautiful, coastal stretches.

“You must go further south to Caraiva,” recommended a Brazilian friend when I told her of my plans to visit the chi-chi Bahian resort of Trancoso. “It’s paradise.” So I did. After a day’s long haul on Air France followed by three hours of short hop flights via Belo Horizonte, one aborted landing at Porto Seguro due to a flooded runway and then one successful one, a bumpy-as-hell two hour 65km 4×4 drive, a canoe and then a donkey pulling a cart with the word “taxi” painted on it, I arrived. It had taken a full 24 hours, but I’d made it.

Caraiva is, by all accounts, what Trancoso was 20 years ago, before the road was built south of the airport and Diane von Furstenberg and Terry Richardson started holidaying there. There are just a handful of pousadas, and when you walk along the beach, with its sand the colour of crystallised caramel and its feisty but warm Atlantic surf, there’s little sign of civilisation at all. Most journeys are undertaken by fishing boat, and all of the homes are built on a stretch of sand cut off from the rest of Bahia by the mouth of the river. There’s a small square with a tiny white church, and a pizzeria with a terrace at the riverside where the canoes are moored, and not much else. During the day, butterflies dance around you as you make your way through the lanes, and at night, fireflies take their place and flash like a hundred tiny stars.

A uniquely slow and precious pace of life thrives in Caraiva. The Pataxó Hãhãhãe Indians – one of seven tribes in Bahia, along with the Baenã, Kamakã, Tupinambá, Kariri-Sapuyá and Gueren  – still live here untroubled, a 6km horse ride away in the Caramuru-Paraguaçu Reserve, with sloths dozing in huge numbers in the forests around them. There are over 54,000 Indians who live in the Reserve, created by the then Indian Protection Service in 1926. On the way to Caraiva you’ll pass a handful of tiny stalls at the roadside with the locals selling simple tube-shaped lampshades and other Pataxo handicraft. The tribe welcomes visitors to see how they live and to try their hand at archery, making feather headdresses and to dine Pataxo-style, on freshly caught fish baked in leaves. Visits are easily arranged via your pousada or tour operator… this part of the world isn’t entirely without commercial smarts.

There’s a touch of the throwback tie-dye to this town. If Trancoso was Bahia’s 1970s drop-out idyll, then this is where the hippy bed and breakfast owners who didn’t want to invest in wine lists and sushi chefs came when the fashion crowd invaded. It’s somewhere that’s been repeatedly discovered by more intrepid travellers from the bigger cities who decided to sell up and live the good life. Which isn’t to say that the place is awash with gap year kids waxing lyrical about American Spirit organic tobacco: there are as many retired couples on long weekends from Sao Paulo here as there are students with summer jobs. There’s a level of sophistication that belies the remoteness. The pousadas in Caraiva are all simply furnished and functional, although you might want to bring your own mosquito net. Most consist of detached chalets, dotted around a well-kept garden. Expect the basics and you won’t be disappointed – there’s air conditioning and hot water and the bed linen is inoffensive, but there are no designer, boutique flourishes and if you want mood lighting, then reach for a candle. You’ll certainly eat very well though. Lunching every day at Casa da Praia, I became hooked on the vegetarian version of the feijoada – a black bean stew – and sizzling plates of fresh fish and king prawns. And of course the cuchaça-heavy caipirinha, which the Brazilians ignore in favour of a vodka-based alternative, but which, to sun-starved European tastebuds at least, is a muddled lime blast of feel-good seaside fun in a glass.

A trip to nearby Espelho beach is a must, to visit Silvinha, who has been living in the same candy-coloured house for 16 years. She has three tables on her porch, you have to reserve via your pousada (everyone on the coast knows her and has her number, but here it is anyway: +55 73 9985 4157) and most afternoons she cooks a set £24-a-head lunch. It varies from day to day, with no menu as such, but there’s always fish (on my visit, with soy, ginger and orange) and there’s always an array of colourful bowls filled with tropical veggies and sauces, dished up from bubbling saucepans and steaming pots in the kitchen of her house, visible from the porch through streams of beads and embroidered fabrics. As someone said to me before I went, “you can taste the love”. Approaching from what must be one of the most beautiful beaches in South America – its surface shimmering like white lasers dancing on tin foil – you can understand why Silvinha has never wanted to leave, and why it’s a place of pilgrimage for locals and travellers who have heard about it via word of mouth. “I don’t want many people to know about this place,” she says. “I don’t want to run a business.”

Although a bus thunders along the dirt track a couple of times a day, stopping just short of the river, Caraiva remains profoundly cut off from the outside world, and no one is likely to want to lay down asphalt or build bridges any day soon. Each November the guest houses repair the winter’s damage and unfurl the hammocks for what counts as a busy summer in this part of the world. You might have to carry your own case back to the canoe if the donkeys are still asleep, but it’s a small price to pay to get access to this much unspoilt beauty and perfect solitude.

Essentials

Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315, www.journeylatinamericaco.uk) offer six nights in Caraiva and three nights in Rio de Janeiro from £2,363, including all flights, hotels, transfers and breakfasts.

Air France (who recently began partnering with GOL, which offers regular internal flights to Porto Seguro for Caraiva) has flights from London to Rio de Janeiro via Paris from £542 return (0845 050 5871, www.airfrance.co.uk).

Pousada Casa da Praia (+55 73 3274 6833, www.casasdapraiacaraiva.com.br) has rooms from £35 p/night.

For more information visit http://www.caraiva.com.br.

Finding Niemeyer (Financial Times Weekend)

Posted in Architecture, interiors and design, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2012 by markcoflaherty

Aquim is a small, alluring, jewel-box of a chocolate shop on one of Ipanema’s most fashionable shopping streets. Inside, the usual bon bons and bars line the shelves. Behind the counter, there are several extravagant handmade oak boxes housing owner Samantha Aquim’s most rarefied chocolate: QO. Each set is numbered, with its own gold tasting fork, sliding drawer of chocolate discs and three pieces of Q0 shaped into an elegant, s-shaped wave, designed by Oscar Niemeyer. “It’s edible architecture,” says Samantha.

Niemeyer Foundation building, Caminho Niemeyer, Niteroi

If Niemeyer proposed a mid-century fantasy of what Brazil might look like in the 21st century, then Aquim is one of the results, a symbol of a booming economy with an insatiable hunger for luxury and high style: the Q0 box retails at a cool €1,000. It may not be quite what devout Communist Niemeyer wanted, but there’s now an economic energy that fits with his utopian architecture, and with the country already giddy on the endorphins of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, there’s new investment – literally – in Niemeyer’s vision. His work isn’t just a history lesson: though he turned 104 last December, he is still planning and realising new projects while older ones are renovated. At the same time, specialist tour operators, like Cultour in Brazil, sell architecture-themed trips, while the likes of Journey Latin America in the UK have noticed an upswing in requests for Niemeyer tours. “Most tourists still want to see the favelas,” says JLA tour guide Felipe as we drive across the bridge from Rio to Niteroi, its wild, flying saucer-shaped contemporary art museum fast approaching. “The more cultured, literate travellers want to see Niemeyer.”

An architour of Oscar Niemeyer’s Brazil is like a trip to Disneyland for aesthetes, covering eight decades of history, from his first meeting with Corbusier – alighting from the Graf Zeppelin in Rio in 1936 – to today. No single architect has forged such a seductive collection of reasons to visit a country before, while the vogue for modernist Brazilian design pervades the most flash corners of its cities, from the Diz chairs by Niemeyer’s peer Sergio Rodrigues on every balcony of Rio’s most fashionable hotel, The Fasano, to some of the same designer’s 1950s pieces at Alex Atala’s D.O.M restaurant in Sao Paulo. So many of the key reasons to visit Brazil – including carnival, held in the 1983 Niemeyer-designed Sambodrome – are intrinsically linked to modernist Brazilian design.

My Oscar tour took in very long weekends in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, an overnight stay in Curitiba, several days in Brasilia and an afternoon in Belo Horizonte, where I visited one of his earliest landmarks, the 1943 Church of Saint Francis of Assisi.  For such a committed atheist, Niemeyer has managed to craft some of the most dramatic places for worship in the world. Just as everyone should visit the chiesas of Florence for the Renaissance glamour, Niemeyer’s churches are incredible objects in their own right, with the impact and modern drama of the Tate Turbine Hall, amped up with stained glass.

The Belo Horizonte church is a tiny, cartoonish, Palm Springs-flavoured hint at a remarkable and giant career ahead. While the local archbishop once cursed it as looking like “the devil’s bomb shelter”, it’s actually very sweet and now much loved. In cool Mediterranean blues and white, it’s a doodle for the epic wigwam-shaped Cathedral of Brasilia that would be realised in 1958, at the heart of the city he invented from scratch with urban planner Lucio Costa. The wraparound glass and coloured light-filled space of that building is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. You enter via an underground passage, on a vivid Hollywood-red carpet An hour passes quickly, your attention captured by the play of shadow and colour on the floor and altar. It’s a celestial space.

Cathedral of Brasilia

A new church is on the cards for Niteroi, as part of the Caminho Niemeyer, an as yet unfinished collection of buildings intended to inject new life into the area but currently caught in local government red tape. Niemeyer inaugurated the most artful of the collection of buildings – the Oscar Niemeyer Foundation – on his 103rd birthday. When the front gates are unlocked, you can walk around its dome and its curved elevated walkways, but sadly nothing here is as yet ready and open for business. It’s still an emotional and rewarding experience; the Alphaville vacancy of the spaces here are vaguely sinister, and Niemeyer’s futurism has a charming naivety to it – the lines of the buildings predate the computer age, and you can see the hand-drawn imperfection of their curves. While Frank Gehry’s buildings in Bilbao and Seattle look like they’ve formed from pixels, Niemeyer’s clearly come from pencil and paper.

When I visited Niemeyer’s old Rio home, the Casa das Canaos, a short drive past the black steel tube of his Hotel Nacional (to be renovated and reopened for the World Cup), I had the place to myself, apart from the house’s guardian, José, who took charge of things when Niemeyer left the country in exile after the 1964 military coup. “He never came back, but I still work for him,” says Jose. “He’s an amazing man. He always treated me as an equal, never as an employee.” The house is a perfect 1950s time capsule, with white, kidney-shaped, curvilinear roof, glass-walled living room and the furniture that Niemeyer designed himself. It looks as if he left five minutes ago.

São Paulo might be as ugly as Rio is beautiful, but there’s a transporting quality to watching the sun set from the rooftop pool deck of the Hotel Unique. It’s an arresting, luxury-packed, postmodern landmark, designed by Niemeyer protégé Ruy Ohtake in the shape of a smile, with huge porthole windows. Anonymous tower blocks and transmitters light up in the distance through the twilight gloaming like a weird art installation – made all the weirder since the government banned outdoor advertising. The Unique is also the closest hotel to Nieyemeyer’s pavilions and sculptures in Ibirapueria Park, the most impressive of which is the Auditorium, with its snaking red tongue rising from a flat, angled white frontage, and its rear – a vast blinding white backdrop with an inset red screen. Against blue sky and green grass, it’s stark and powerful.

Brasilia is, of course, the main event – the UNESCO-stamped mid-century modernist theme park to end them all. At the same time, it’s the city that “no one goes to”, which is partly what makes it so thrilling. Arriving here is like touching down on a different planet – from the runway, Niemeyer’s new TV transmitter, completed in December and resembling a beguiling white triffid, is the first thing you see on the horizon. Wandering between the library, which looks like a giant, beautiful double-iPod dock, and the perfect Moonbase dome of the Honestino Guimarães National Museum, with the Cathedral in the distance, it’s wonderful to be able to take photographs without anyone else in shot. As white clouds part, and speed away, the iconic upturned and downturned domes and H-shaped structure of the National Congress fall into sharp sunlight, as if being hit with a row of theatre follow-spots. Dazzling white against vibrant blue – they’re magnificent.

There are also lesser known gems in Brasilia: the black and red interior rotunda of late president Juscelino Kubitschek’s mausoleum, with its sinister up-lighting, resembles a chamber from the Death Star. Then there’s the perfect curl of the acoustic shell outside the Ministry of Defence and the abandoned, narrow crescent of the open-air auditorium on the road towards the Palace. Close by sits the Brasilia Palace Hotel, one of only two functioning Niemeyer-designed hotels in the country (the other is Hotel Tijuco in Diamantina). Its proportions are long and narrow yet boxy, the bulk of the building elevated elegantly with stilts. Even though it’s always busy, you feel like the only guest. There’s a glossy, JG Ballard desolation to it that’s immensely memorable and strangely attractive. Sitting by its pool in the blazing sun, it looks like any era from the mid-1950s to the distant future.

The real draw of Niemeyer’s work for the tourist – from design nerd to the uninitiated – is the unbridled sense of fun and fantasy it has. He’s more of an artist than an architect: the steep inclines on his buildings often make you feel like the penguins who used to struggle with Lubetkin’s photogenic but impractical enclosure at London Zoo. And Niemeyer’s huge domes are impossible to segment into successful exhibition spaces. But as vast concrete sculptures, how exciting they are! They capture the essence of a time when the world was promised jetpacks. But there’s no melancholy in their nostalgia, just child-like wonder. In the Niemeyer-designed museum in Curitiba, inaugurated in 2002 and freshened up in December, there is a definitive collection of models of his work, as well as several fine collections of varied contemporary art and design. It’s a great destination as these things go, but the most exciting artwork by far is the immense black eye-shaped gallery itself. From last year, a local company began offering Segway tours of the city that culminate at the building. Zipping around the adjacent concrete ramps and walkways and racing around a huge open concourse, the sense of joy and liberation is incredible. This is entirely Niemeyer’s vision of the future, we’re just privileged visitors, invited along for the ride.

Juscelino Kubitschek's tomb and memorial, Brasilia

 

 

Mark C.O’Flaherty travelled as a guest of Air France, who fly from multiple destinations worldwide to Rio and Sao Paulo via Paris, connecting with local airline GOL in Brazil 0845 050 5871, www.airfrance.co.uk, and as a guest of Journey Latin America, who offer two-week holidays focused on tours of Oscar Nieyemer’s buildings in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Curitiba and Brasilia from £3,584 p/person including flights, transfers, excursions and breakfast. 020-8747 8315, http://www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk

Salta – beyond the beaten track (Elle)

Posted in Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2012 by markcoflaherty

Despite earlier assurances to the contrary, it was very obvious that we weren’t going to be driving any further today. We’d had an elegant lunch at Estancia Colomé while waiting for the all clear, driven for an hour, and then… Where once there was road, there was river: vast, fast-flowing, mud-brown. So wild, it created its own surf. ‘This hasn’t happened in six years,’ said someone with a walkie-talkie. ‘We’ll tow you through in about an hour with a tractor.’ My partner and four other not-quite-departing Colomé guests looked sceptical, and well and truly adjacent to their comfort zone. An hour later half a tree floated past at high speed, as if towards a waterfall’s edge, and we drove back to the vineyard, defeated and largely stranded for the foreseeable. But I had a plan…

The journey around Salta in Argentina had, so far, been merely mildly adventurous. Harry at PlanBA – our tour operator, fixer and ‘man in Buenos Aires’ – had warned us that the drive might, on occasion, be hairy: some of the roads aren’t really roads, many come with vertiginous mountain aspects and unexpected rain can cause havoc. A few days earlier we’d been towed out of a ravine next to an alligator sanctuary. I’d never before been in a car whose wheels churned up mud across the windscreen rather than moving. I thought it only happened in films.

And yet, misadventures aside, Salta – which borders Bolivia to the north and Chile to the west – remained the most beautiful place I’d ever set eyes on. You have to forgive its capricious tantrums. I’d never experienced so many dramatically different, wild and alien landscapes in such a short period of time, while bedding down in serious luxury night after night. One minute there were lush, velvet-green Hebridean hills; a mile later, Wile E. Coyote red-earth desert with thousands of seven-foot cacti spread out as far as the eye could see, like some vast, static army in thorny camouflage.

After several days of 85 degree, blue-sky poolside lazing at the whitewashed-elegant House of Jasmines (previously actor Robert Duvall’s private residence), we moved to Estancia El Bordo, a rich, dark, colonial, antique-filled estancia that’s still a family home. It’s the embodiment of genteel Argentina estancia life – every mealtime calls for fine ornate china and silver cutlery, there’s sunset horse riding before rounds of gin and tonic, and every night is a dinner party.

From El Bordo we took Route 9 up towards Jujuy, stopping at the tiny clay-coloured adobe market town of Purmamarca for a lunch of steak washed down with Cerveza Salta Negra, a kind of effervescent, sweet stout that’s more Coca Cola than Guinness. We drove onwards and upwards, upwards and upwards, to an altitude of 4,200 metres – where we felt light headed and, most bizarrely, couldn’t whistle because of the thin air – then down again to the Salinas Grandes. Black clouds streaked across an otherwise blindingly bright blue sky and we took pictures of each other leaping into the distance and lying flat on the dazzling, crystalline white earth. Within the salt flats, it’s difficult to establish from sight alone what is solid, liquid or air. The salt resembles the crust of a frozen lake, or clouds that have become heavy and descended below the level of the horizon.

On our journey, it was the cemeteries I found most incredible. They were as beautiful as they were moving: simple stick crucifixes that had succumbed to the weather and come awry, standing next to ornate colonial-style iron crosses, gleaming white gravestones and mounds of pebbles. There was one huge graveyard at the foot of a lush green mountain on the way to Purmamarca and another on the desert road from Cafayate to Colomé, just past a ghost town with an abandoned post office and rusted petrol pumps. Its prosaic headstones stood within sculptural boulders in the dusty earth, covered in brightly coloured garlands of flowers that had been hung during a festival a few days before. The place felt so remote, it seemed inconceivable that anyone would ever visit. But the flowers were vibrant signs of life, memory and tribute.

Much of our trip took the form of an elongated loop. First, down from Salta to Cafayate, with one pit stop for rather too many delicious empanadas (yes, they’re essentially mini Cornish pasties) at the rustic but wonderful El Papabuelo in El Carril, and several more to take in the sights around Quebrada las Conchas. The Devil’s Throat was the most mesmerising and disorientating of the attractions; a cave full of distorted, rippled red stone with a vast back wall that looked like the bottom of a valley tipped up on its side, trees growing towards you, as if defying the laws of gravity.

After a stay at the swank, ranch-like Patios de Cafayate, and a night out at the riotous local folk festival that coincided with our visit, we began our drive up Route 40 towards Colomé, prepared for the worst. ‘You’ll see a sign for a short cut, but don’t take it!’ warned someone at Cafayate. ‘The Dakar Rally drove through last week and destroyed it.’ Why, of course it had! The first hour or so was plain sailing. Then the asphalt road ended, and we began driving through sand and over rocks, entranced by the ever-weirder and more spectacular boulder formations, ghost towns and frequent sightings of condors gliding overhead. Just after the village of Molinos – whose tiny church is hung with the most charming Andean, woven, stations of the cross – we were towed through a small river by a tractor. Then for an hour, we wondered if we hadn’t actually taken a wrong turn and were off-roading further into the desert. Surely nothing could be out here… Surely this can’t qualify as an actual route on a map? Then we came to a sign for Bodega Colomé.

Colomé is the incredible, impossible, Fitzcarraldo of organic wine resorts, built and planted by tycoon Donald Hess – with no expense spared – in the middle of a high-altitude nowhere. One of the most luxurious bodegas in Argentina, it takes up the whole village, produces well respected wines (the Syrah is a stand-out), and, most bizarrely, has an architecturally phenomenal museum devoted to the contemporary art of James Turrell. It’s a curious and delightful experience to go from off-roading through hell to walking into one of several vast, disorienting, pristine light installations by one of the world’s foremost conceptual artists.

Colomé was bliss. Until it came time to leave of course, and that tiny river we’d expressed only mild alarm at being towed through a few days before had turned into an impassable force of nature. But as I said earlier, I had a plan…

I called Harry in Buenos Aires. ‘So… a helicopter is nearly $3,000 so that’s out, but I saw a Caterpillar make it most of the way through the river when it was moving trees to try to stop the town flooding. I see no reason why we can’t abandon the car and get in that!’ And so, after another night of enforced luxury at the estancia, with a little palm-greasing for the driver in the form of crates of vintage Colomé wines, we dressed in swimwear and vests, sealed our Mandarina Duck luggage in bin liners, and climbed aboard a juddering piece of very heavy machinery to plough our way to the other side of the river. Once there, we made our way to the Hacienda de Molinos for empanadas, humitas and some restorative Malbec, while we waited for Santi, the guide Harry had arranged to drive us to Salta City for a flight to Buenos Aires.

‘It’s going to be a tough drive,’ warned Santi, on arrival. ‘And you won’t make your flight.’ It was, and we didn’t, but Santi would prove to be the most all-action Indiana Jones of guides and our experience was as amazing as the scenery we drove through. The rains in Salta had done much more than swell the river at Molinos: an hour after leaving the Hacienda, we hit a landslide several thousand metres up a mountain, on a hairpin bend. I had visions of us on the Caterpillar, heading back to Colomé – but instead, Santi jumped out, waded through gushing water over perilous freshly fallen rocks, hurled what he had identified as the most troublesome boulders over the cliff, and drove us over it and through. It was something he would repeat time and time again until we got back to the city where we checked in to the Legado Mitico hotel, changed out of our mud-covered swimwear and headed to the bar for cheese and wine. ‘So, how was your journey in?’ asked the waitress.

WHERE TO STAY

House of Jasmines, Salta. Dreamy, plush, rural grandeur. Doubles from around £215, B&B. Enq 00 54 387 4972002 ; houseofjasmines.com.

Legado Mitico, Salta City. Super-chic boutique hotel designed by Francis Ford Coppola’s favourite interior designers. Doubles from around £115, B&B. Enq 00 54 387 4228786; legadomitico.com.

Estancia Colomé, Colomé. Remote and resolutely luxe. Doubles from around £211, B&B. Enq 00 54 3868 494200; bodegacolome.com.

Estancia El Bordo de las Lanzas, El Bordo. High-ceilinged, grand quarters in a historic family home. Doubles from around £224, all inclusive. Enq 00 54 387 155041310; turismoelbordo.com.ar.

Patios de Cafayate, Cafayate. Plush wine, spa and golfing estate. Doubles from around £145, B&B. Enq 00 54 3868 422229; patiosdecafayate.com.

NEED TO KNOW/GETTING THERE

A car is essential, and if you’re driving on unpaved Route 40, it should be a 4×4. The driving can still be tough, depending on the weather, and hiring a driver and guide (through tour operator PlanBA, from £400 extra on a seven day itinerary) is a good option for the wary. Check on the availability of the petrol specific to your hire car, and refuel at every opportunity. Expect very little English to be spoken away from the main hotels, but the local people are very friendly and helpful. Plan BA offer seven nights in the best estancias in the area, including airport transfers and 24/7 concierge service from £1,787 p/person. There are regular short-hop flights between Buenos Aires and Salta, and Air France fly daily from London to Buenos Aires via Paris, from £806 return. Enq 0871 66 337777; airfrance.co.uk. Long haul flights are considerably cheaper booked from Europe than via tour operators in Argentina.