When Michael and Claudia Paravicini moved their family from Switzerland to Chile in 2011, their plan was to leave the world of international finance behind to set up a simple B&B in a quiet corner of Northern Patagonia. Several redesigns later and what emerged was the Hacienda Hotel Vira Vira, a 16 room luxury hotel which quickly joined the elite Relais & Chateaux collection and soon established itself as one of Chile’s leading hotels.
The setting, several kilometres outside Pucón, Chile’s Lake District, with rolling hills, lush meadows and woodland, is somewhat reminiscent of the Paravicini’s homeland, volcanoes aside. It’s a long way from the bleak windswept plains and jagged mountains of Southern Patagonia or the harsh desert of the Atacama, Chile’s traditional tourist destinations and which, along with Pinochet’s dictatorship and the occasional trapped miner, has helped put this long thin country on the map.
Unlike Chile’s northern and southern tips, this pocket of Northern Patagonia is in easy reach of Santiago; it’s just an hour’s flight to Temuco and a 90 minute drive to Vira Vira. Turn into the paddock-lined driveway and you’re entering a microcosm quite unlike anywhere else. At first it’s hard to put your finger on what makes this place so idyllic, but the unifying factors have to be quality and attention to detail. Michael and Claudia were involved in every step of the design and construction, making sure works were carried out to Swiss perfection, and the results are right before your eyes and at your fingertips – every surface you touch is beautifully finished and made of the finest quality materials, which are sourced locally wherever possible.
This perfectionism doesn’t stop with the design, but stretches throughout the estate and into the kitchen. Plates and other crockery are handmade and designed specifically for the hotel. And of course there’s one sure-fire way to make sure your restaurant uses only the finest locally produced ingredients, and that’s to grow them yourself. Backed by this faultless logic, Michael built a 40 hectare farm which surrounds the hotel, coupled with a dairy which churns out cheeses, yoghurt, cream and butter using milk from the farm’s own cattle. Chicken, ducks and turkey peck around a fenced off area behind the farmyard, providing a never ending supply of eggs and poultry. Their neighbours are three plump pigs, snuffling around their own muddy corner of this agrarian idyll. To prove this is the real deal and not just a token nod towards the growing eco-luxury trend, a few miles away a larger farm provides a range of other produce, from wheat through to honey.
The direct beneficiary of this is Alberto Damián Fernández Dupouy, the Uruguayan chef who traded Michelin stars at London’s Le Gavroche for the Chilean Lake District to head up Vira Vira’s superb restaurant. His menus are devised daily, based on the changing seasons and inspired by what the farm can provide. The result is an ever changing array of gourmet fayre, influenced by the local surroundings. We go off-menu to ask for some mashed potato for our one-year-old son. A swirl of assorted purees arrives, each one a masterpiece in mashed cuisine. I fear it was wasted on our son, who seemed more distracted by the birds gliding over the lagoon outside, but I happily devoured the leftovers.
Of course, not all the food can be grown on site, so every few weeks Michael and the chef make the two-hour drive to Valdivia, on the Pacific coast, to source salmon and other seafood. “A good salmon doesn’t lose its colour” he explains over supper one evening, gesticulating enthusiastically to show the difference in head shape of a wild versus farmed salmon. True to form, Michael insists on only using wild salmon for his restaurant.
Meals are accompanied by an exclusively Chilean wine menu, compiled over many months by Michael himself. His attention to detail is striking; moments earlier he had been explaining the qualities of the hardwoods used to construct the hotel, musing on the fire resistance of one versus the lack of knots in another; and why Cumaru, a Peruvian hardwood, is so ideal for the decking. Something tells me this wasn’t knowledge he garnered from his insurance days in Switzerland.
The next morning we amble down to the Liucura river, whose clear waters wind along the edge of the hotel, metres from the villas. Guides await us and we clamber aboard a sturdy inflatable for a gentle float through the native forests. As we round a bend in the river, the snow-capped Villarica volcano appears in the distance, before melting away into the trees as the next curve obscures it from view.
For the more adventurous, or those free from the demands of small children, days can be spent riding, hiking, fishing, birdwatching, kayaking or even skiing in the unblemished countryside that the region has to offer. The hotel is adorned with Chilean rugs and other local craftwork, selected by Claudia.
If outdoor pursuits and adventure sports aren’t your thing, the guides will happily take you round the local market outside Pucon, or the textile workshops where the rugs and wall hangings are weaved. Whatever the option, retreating to a wood-fired hot tub for a Pisco sour before supper is an unbeatable way to finish the day’s activities and enjoy the pure surroundings of this magical spot.