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Tranquil, Sandy Refuges From Bustling Santiago

Tranquil, Sandy Refuges From Bustling Santiago

Posted by Juan Gavasa on March 23, 2015

The 35-story-tall sand dunes of Concón are grand formations that took shape over millions of years, growing into seemingly insurmountable mounds that draw thrill-seeking sand-boarders and lumbering climbers alike.

But the real reason to visit is that they are nature’s gateway to Concón, a bustling beachfront city, providing a view of a vast stretch of the Chilean coast, from the seaport of Valparaiso to the south to the ritzy weekend retreats and culinary hot spots of Maitencillo and Zapallar to the north.

This string of seaside communities, snugly contained in the green valleys below the Andes Mountains, would be stamping grounds for my wife and me for a week. The region is far from undiscovered; for at least a century the central coast has been a popular weekend retreat for Santiago’s glitterati. But it remains largely unknown to travelers from the United States.

These communities — connected by a Pacific Coast highway that has its own tight turns, sheer cliffs and stunningly beautiful vistas — offer no all-inclusive resort compounds. Instead, expect extraordinary beaches, an enticing array of fresh seafood and locally grown fruit and produce, and boutique hotels that have been carefully curated to make it feel as if you are staying at your own private, luxurious Chilean beachfront home, with a few other invited guests.

Just getting to the Chilean coast from Santiago — a trip of less than two and a half hours — is a treat. As my wife and I made our way down there in a subcompact Peugeot we’d rented from the airport, we surveyed the riot of mountains that make up much of Chile’s landmass. Then, as we approached the Pacific, vast, green, rolling valleys, fed by the glacial runoff from the Andes, swung into view.

Patrons waiting for a table at El Chiringuito restaurant, where the catch of the day is often what’s on the menu. Credit Fernando Rodriguez for The New York Times

This coastal stretch is essentially a fruit and vegetable factory, home to fields of avocados, peaches, walnuts, olives, almonds, citrus fruits and, of course, miles of wine grapes, including the so-called Casablanca Valley vineyards, known for their sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir.

We stopped at one of these vineyards on the way to the coast — Casas del Bosque — which also serves as home to the top-rated Tanino restaurant, for a lost-in-paradise lunch. Sitting on a large outdoor patio, overlooking the vineyards and a courtyard filled with white, pink and purple flowers, we sampled their crisp sauvignon blanc reserve and nibbled on a shrimp, scallop and octopus ceviche (with red onions, spicy yellow chile and cilantro) and a perfectly cooked slab of Chilean sea bass, our first hint of how the land and sea come together in this region in a delicious but unpretentious match.

Sated, we continued our journey to the coast itself, a stress-free excursion even in our tiny car. The Ruta del Mar led us to the town of Zapallar and its narrow main street, which is lined with a collection of shops offering vacation essentials: a wine store, a small supermarket, a bakery and a place that sells designer sunglasses and bathing suits. Off that strip, though, young children stroll the quiet streets with their friends or pedal by on bikes, while adults greet one another as if they are all part of one large extended family.

The history of Zapallar explains a good deal about the intimate feel of this beachfront community. It was settled a century ago by Don Olegario Ovalle Vicuña, the son of an affluent local landowner, who, after visiting French resort destinations like Deauville, Biarritz and Nice, decided he wanted to build out his own, more modest version of the French Riviera in Chile.

The Casas del Bosque vineyards. Credit Fernando Rodriguez for The New York Times

Zapallar already had a nearly perfect horseshoe-shaped, semi-protected harbor. Mr. Vicuña turned it into a beachside community by offering land to friends and relatives, on the condition that they build their own houses within a couple of years.

The result is a series of architecturally distinct homes — most with impeccably maintained flower gardens. They sit amid a network of winding streets lined with cypress and eucalyptus trees, connecting to a central plaza, which leads down to the sea.

Descendants of the original families still own many of the homes here, and in fact recently united to create a land trust to prevent development on a large chunk they collectively own at the edge of town.

Modern architects have since built steel and glass trophy homes, too. But the town has prohibited large-scale construction, or even any large parking lots, that would open it up to an onslaught of development or day trippers. (The standard luxury house here costs more than $1 million although a weekly vacation rental can be secured for about $300 a night.)

This is the kind of community that has its own polo field, where we took in a match sponsored by Veuve Clicquot and Aston Martin, and where we introduced ourselves to Lionel Soffia, a Santiago insurance executive with an area home, glass of champagne in hand, surrounded by local friends he has known for decades.

“Santiago is one of the busiest cities in South America,” he said. “People come here to slow down. It is casual, but still chic.”

Our hotel there embodied that dichotomy. Hotel Isla Seca, which from the outside looks almost like a vacation home, is a boutique hotel right at the edge of the Ruta del Mar. It offers 41-rooms, eight of them with grand sea views. It has a perfectly manicured backyard with a lawn, a swimming pool and a collection of chaise longues, occupied by an interesting cross-section of guests from Santiago, from Europe and a few from the United States. The common areas looked more like a living room than a hotel lobby.

The surrounding area was far more than you’d expect of a typical backyard, though. From the hotel’s rear exit a pathway leads directly through the tall pines, down the short hill to the beach. From there, we spent several hours one morning walking along a trail built right at the oceanfront called La Rambla, which in some segments is a constructed stone walkway, and in others simply unadorned giant boulders, the Pacific Ocean waves crashing below.

Those waters stay relatively cold, because of the so-called Humboldt Current, which starts in northwest Antarctica and passes along the coast of Chile, meaning that even in the summer the water temperature does not get much warmer than about 60 degrees, similar to summertime temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean in Maine. It was fine when I ran in for a quick, brisk dip, but not comfortable for a long swim. But the beaches themselves are pristine and the hot summer afternoons combined with the cool ocean breezes make for perfect beach weather.

Fishermen still work the local waters, their small, weather-beaten boats tied up in the Zapallar bay, and their daily catch is for sale in an oceanside shack.

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