The Llao Llao
There aren’t too many travelers who arrive at a 5-star luxury resort by public transportation. So when our bus from Bariloche stopped right outside the famous Llao Llao Hotel, Tony and I were the only passengers to get off. It was love at first sight. Without a doubt, this was one of the most gorgeous settings imaginable. The luxury hotel was built on a ridge between two lakes and backed by the sharp granite peaks of Cerros López and Trenador. This was a side of Patagonia we hadn’t seen. Gone were the subpolar forests of the south and the dry desert steppe of the east; instead, we stood in a dreamy Alpine wonderland surrounded by soaring mountains and lush evergreen cypress and coihue forests. We couldn’t wait to start exploring the area.
Shouldering our heavy backpacks full of camping equipment, we made our way across the lawn past beds of roses and lavender. At the entrance, we hesitated for a moment and gazed down at our dusty boots. Was this going to be awkward? Any doubts that we had instantly vanished as we stepped into the grand lobby of the mountain lodge. Lucila from Guest Relations greeted us warmly and led us right to the reception area. She didn’t bat an eye at our boots and backpacks: Patagonia’s most famous hotel clearly understood visitors come to the region to hike. As we were checked in, we let our eyes wander.
Cypress and pine logs covered every inch of the interior. My eyes darted from the deer-fur chairs to the antler chandeliers, a Patagonian take on early 20th century retro lodge chic. The receptionist handed us a list of sports activities included in our stay. She had obviously pegged us for the outdoorsy recreational types. Surely, it must have been our rugged good looks. 🙂 With a reminder to take advantage of their complimentary happy hour drink, she sent us off to play. Wow, luxurious PLUS down-to-earth and fun? We were impressed!
From the pictures, it should come as no surprise that the Llao Llao is considered one of the best hotels in Argentina. It is also a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, one of the largest luxury hotel collections including famous names such as The Ritz London. The Llao Llao counts politicians, actors and aristocrats to its long list of famous guests. Evidence of these past visitors is everywhere.
As Lucila accompanied us to our room on the second floor, seventy-five years of history flashed before our eyes. Black-and-white photos of President Eisenhower, Che Guevara, the Shah of Persia, and Fidel Castro – among others – covered the walls of the grand staircase. As we reached the top of the stairs, a photo of the Clintons smiled directly at us. The couple visited in 1995 and, not surprisingly, stayed in the Presidential Suite. Of course, we asked if we could peek in. Lucila was happy to give us a tour pointing out the stately dining room for 12 guests, the double jaccuzzi, and the giant terrace overlooking the Nahuel Huapi Lake. Not too shabby!
“So, is this going to be our room?” I asked jokingly. Hey, it never hurts to give it a shot, right?
Lucila’s answer to my question was to present us with a gorgeous room overlooking Moreno Lake with San Eduardo Church perched on a hill off to the left. While the grand dining area for 12 might have been missing, I think Bill and Hillary would’ve been quite comfortable in our not-so-humble abode. The beautiful wooden floors, the red-and-white wallpaper, the floral curtains, and the pristine, snow-white sheets looked straight out of a Swiss chalet.
But it wasn’t just beautiful, the room was also incredibly functional: closets with plenty of storage, Internet and satellite TV, a bathroom with a tub, bidet, and blow-dryer (not that I needed one, but I certainly appreciated the sentiment). With the killer views from our room, I could have stared out the window all day long. But the warm weather beckoned us to go adventuring. So we headed down to the marina on Lake Moreno to take the kayaks for a spin.
As we pushed off from the dock, I gazed back at the beautiful grounds. Beyond the tall reeds hugging the water’s edge, dozens of cauquenes (Patagonian kelp geese) foraged on the manicured lawns sweeping up to the pool. As we paddled out into the lake, sharp mountains erupted from the glassy water. In the distance, I could just make out a snow-covered peak. Suddenly, the wind picked up and wavelets started forming making our exploration just a little harder. We quickly made a beeline for the shore to escape the wind and check out a bit of the forest.
When I swung my legs over the edge of the kayak expecting solid ground, I almost broke my body. Slippery clay squished through my toes, throwing me off my balance. I practically had to skate on mud to safety. Tony flailed along behind me like a ninja master having a nervous breakdown. Luckily, without any broken bones, we made it onto the shore.
After recovering from our involuntary twerking session, we made it safely back out onto the water. Bobbing up and down along the reeds, we couldn’t help but think about all the other fun activities the hotel had in store. The long list included paddle boarding, pilates, archery, mountain biking, skiing (in winter), rappelling, spinning, hiking, fly-casting, and golfing on the hotel’s 18-hole course. I knew immediately what I wanted to do the next day.
We strolled back through the elegant Moreno wing, the newest addition to the Llao Llao, contemplating the resort’s long history. Since it first opened in the late 1930’s, the hotel burnt to the ground, rose from the ashes like a phoenix, shut down for 15 years during Argentina’s military dictatorship, was revamped and then reopened in 1993. Quite the drama! No wonder, the place oozed charm and character. Every room, every hallway was full of memories.
As we continued through the Bustillo wing, we passed a plush reading room decked out in rustic elegance. I thought the buffalo skull mounted above the fireplace was an interesting touch. Rounding the corner, we went down the wooden staircase into the beautiful lobby bar where the waitress cheerily announced that it was happy hour. Perfect timing. We stretched out on a leather sofa in front of a mammoth fireplace. Seated in a sea of cowhide pillows, we settled in for the evening and sipped our layered kir royal taste-alikes. This was exactly what the doctor ordered as we chatted the night away.
The following morning, we made our way down the timber-lined corridor to the breakfast salon overlooking the gardens and the lake. I was speechless: the breakfast buffet was out of this world. A long table, the centerpiece of the room, was covered with – well – everything: fruits and meats, yoghurts and müslis, cheeses and breads, sweets and juices. One section was even reserved for healthy low-fat and gluten-free choices (which, of course, we didn’t touch). I’m pretty certain, Tony’s eyes welled up when he first discovered the waffle and omelet station. Did he just wipe away a tear?
The breakfast was simply perfect and had everything you could imagine. Or almost everything. I actually watched an Australian lady pull a jar of Vegemite out of her purse. Seriously, with delicious food like that? My only regret was that I couldn’t stretch my stomach far enough. Maybe I just needed some exercise.
While eating is certainly my favorite form of workout, the hotel’s fitness center was definitely meant to work these stomach muscles in a different way. Tony claims to have an allergy to pumping iron, so we decided to take advantage of some of the other health club offerings such as the sauna, the jaccuzzi and the heated pool.
We walked past the spa to the glass-enclosed indoor pool, dropped our bathrobes and dove underneath the partition to emerge in the infinity pool outside. Completely alone, we floated on our backs staring at the intensely blue sky. The views all around were simply breathtaking. From the edge of the pool, we watched black-faced ibises picking through the grass behind the hedges. I swam back to the center, and when I tilted my head at a certain angle, the water seemed to flow right into Lake Moreno in the distance. Would this be my favorite moment at the hotel?
As I floated on my back again, I watched a huge flock of cauquenes fly overhead. Suddenly, I remembered the afternoon archery lessons we had signed up for. (Don’t over-interpret that train of thought.) I had never used a bow and arrow, but being a total Katniss wannabe, I was eagerly awaiting the experience.
At 3 p.m. , we met our comrades-in-arms on the grassy hills behind the Llao Llao, away from any unsuspecting hotel guests. After a quick introduction, our guide Pangui lined us up facing the target. Our first goal was easy enough: make the arrows fly. Tony released his string like a pro, driving the arrow deep into the target. Clearly, those archery lessons in high school still paid off. (Can you believe that Californians have archery in high school?) I, on the other hand, discovered my arrow dangling from a tree, but I sure wasn’t the only one struggling with aim. Two Texans were off to the left crawling through the bushes looking for theirs. I suspected they were much better with rifles than with bows and arrows.
When we all had at least one successful shot at the target, Pangui upped the game. Round two meant hitting a balloon pinned to the target. Arrows flying everywhere, the balloon exploded with a loud pop, and Tony threw his arms up in the air. Really? With each round, the balloons got smaller while my confidence grew a little bigger. In the end, no burst balloons for me, but at least I managed to graze the bull’s-eye. Tony, having had high school practice, destroyed two out of five balloons AND fired one arrow smack-dab into the center. But hey, who’s counting? What really matters is that we all had LOTS of fun, right?
After collecting the stray arrows, Tony and I went back to the hotel through the winter garden. Afternoon tea was being served. Although the pastry chef had cast a table full of sweet chocolaty spells, we were able to resist his magic. We needed some extra space for tonight’s dinner. Reservations were already made at Los Cesares, the Llao Llao’s top restaurant known for its French cuisine. If the food was anything like the breakfast, we had nothing to worry about at all.
The restaurant’s dress code suggested a smart-casual look with no shorts or tank tops. The only question was, who of us was going to look smart and who casual? After several wardrobe changes, we had figured it out and made our way from the room down to the lobby bar for yet another happy hour.
It was 7 p.m. We emptied our cuba libres and strolled down the hallway to the restaurant where we were quickly seated. Just like the hotel, Los Cesares was done in wood and natural stone and radiated warmth and comfort. The tables had crisp white linens and flowers as well as little table lamps, which helped our 45-year-old eyes read the menu.
We started with the delicious octopus carpaccio and the prawns with gazpacho. Hmm… Italian and Spanish appetizers? Clearly, this French restaurant was much more inclusive than its title suggested. Our mains were simply striking, both to the eye and to the palate. Tony went for the grilled veal tenderloin with braised vegetables, black bean ragout and truffle mousse. Excellent, or should I say, “Oh là là?” I opted for the venison loin with shallot flan and onions pickled in red berries, which went perfectly with our deep-red Malbec. Again, delicious. As we both have a sweet tooth, the desserts were yet another highlight. Tony had bitter chocolate mousse with red velvet cake and sorbet, and I had whisky and vanilla parfait with crème brûlée. Yum! I love my job.
Our evening at Los Cesares Restaurant completed our amazing stay at the Llao Llao Hotel. Halfway through our stay, I had wondered which of our many experiences was going to be my favorite moment. Honestly, there were so many that I couldn’t possibly pick just one. We absolutely loved everything about our stay. But seriously, who wouldn’t? With its jaw-dropping dream location and super service, the Llao Llao quickly won us over. It has rightfully earned its place on our list of Patagonia highlights.
If you would like to find out more about the Llao Llao Hotel & Resort, inquire about their room options, their restaurants and bars, their wide range of recreational activities or their spa and health programs, visit them at www.llaollao.com/.