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Las Hayas And Ushuaia: A Story At The Bottom Of The World

FrommerLuxuryTravel
Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

Surrounded by a beech forest drenched in deep pools of shade, Los Hayas looks down from the top a hill to the city at the bottom of the world. Ushuaia spreads out before this hotel of palatial proportions, a grid of streets descending to the shores of the Beagle Channel. Far off in the mist, the Andes rise up at their southernmost extreme before declining and disappearing into the sea. On the other side is Antarctica.
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Sergio Rodriguez Zubieta meets us in the Las Hayas restaurant, a comfortable, spacious room surrounded by large windows that bring in the stunning view. It is eight o’clock this beautiful January night, and the summer sun has not even begun to set. Poinsettias put out for Christmas a few weeks ago are still in bloom; they glow in the afternoon light, blending with the warm colors of the walls and banquettes. It is a cheerful environment, but Sergio, a dark haired, handsome Argentine of Basque extraction, confesses he is in a poignant mood. “It is the first anniversary of my father’s death,” he says. “This hotel was his dream.

“My father had been a naval architect and marine engineer,” Sergio explains. “He and my mother owned part of a shipyard in Buenos Aires. In the mid 1980’s, they sold their share. They wanted to start a new life and went into farming.

“One day, they came to Ushuaia to visit my sister, Bélen Rodriguez, who was working in one of the two hotels downtown. It was crowded, and they had trouble finding a place to stay. They came a second time. Same thing. On that visit, they took a trip to the glacier outside the city, and on the way back to town, they passed this site. They stopped the car, walked around through the forest, rested on a big stone. ‘Oh what a stunning view!’ my father said. ‘Wouldn’t this be a nice place to sit down, have a glass of whiskey?’  And there and then, they decided to build a hotel on the site and name it ‘Las Hayas’ which means ‘the beeches.’

They knew nothing about hotels, but my father was a constructor. Even though he was getting older, he still wanted to build. And Ushuaia’s climate appealed to him. In summer, it is never too hot. Winter is mild. So they went downtown and talked to the mayor. Then they bought the land and began the construction of the hotel.

“When I heard about it, I said ‘You are completely crazy. This is nuts.’ I was working in my own business back then. Nevertheless, I kept an eye on what was going on. But Bélen was actively involved. She had studied hotel management at Cornell University, worked in the United States, Switzerland, and then Buenos Aires before she got tired of the big city and got a job in Ushuaia. She knew the hotel business.”

 He continues, “When Las Hayas opened in 1992, it had 20 rooms. During the winter, it was completely dead. They lost money. ‘Perhaps we can sell it,’ I said to my parents. But my father was very proud. When he had an idea, he stuck with it. After a while, I came around. I began to realize the hotel was like my parents’ house and they were much better off living here. They could eat in the dining room every night; they didn’t have to worry about housekeeping and laundry. So I changed my advice. ‘Don’t try to sell the hotel,’ I told them, ‘because the hotel keeps you alive!’

“Then the airport in Ushuaia was built. That made a great difference. Next a ski resort opened. Now we had a winter season. But the major difference was yet to come. In 1998, the conference of the presidents of South America was held at Las Hayas. Nelson Mandela, who cleverly saw he had a good friend in Argentina, was one of the people who attended. That event turned the corner.

“Now we were up to 94 rooms; we operated all year round. My father decided to build a huge ballroom for the many conferences we host -- usually in the spring season, October-November. He bought adjoining land for a parking lot, planned an adjacent  hotel. And then we added the music festival to our calendar, in autumn when the leaves are red and gold and sometimes it even snows.

 “My parents had always been music lovers,” he went on. “At home, classical music was always playing on the stereo.  So when a guest proposed we import a symphonic orchestra that would perform every night for two weeks, my father immediately said ‘Yes, I like the idea!’ Our first concert took place last year. It was wonderful, but we were all crying because by then, my father was no longer with us.”

Sergio paused for a moment, then added “Think of it, during the music festival, it is possible to dine with the first violinist.”

Ah, but this was January, the height of the summer season. No first violinists to dine with. But a Mozart concerto was playing softly in the background, never loud enough to interfere with conversation, yet enhancing the aesthetics of the evening. And  we had the pleasure of dining with this charming man who not only guided us through the dining room’s expansive menu but recommended two excellent Argentine wines, both from Mendoza –a 2004 white Viognier produced by Lagarde, neither too dry nor sweet but with a fruity refreshing flavor, and a 2002 Luigi Borca, a robust and aromatic blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. “We have great malbecs in Argentina,” Sergio told us, “maybe the best in the world. But that doesn’t mean the malbecs are our best wines.”

He returned to the story of Las Hayas. “I was the reluctant one, but ultimately I left the company where I was working to help my father to organize things. And since he died, I have taken over his responsibilities. My sister handles sales and marketing. And my mother is the decorator and oversees the food operations.

“We’ve had many chefs,” he added. “They become famous, and they leave to open their own restaurants. Finally we realized the important thing is the restaurant which is permanent. It is famous for its traditional kitchen. You know you are going to eat here like you eat in your home. Very good quality, well prepared foods.”

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Sergio Rodriguez Zubieta - click to enlarge
Sergio Rodriguez Zubieta
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Everything about Las Hayas, from public rooms to guest rooms to a spa with heated swimming pool in the midst of the forest, is on a grand scale. So is a dinner menu that can safely be described as lavish with a list of cold starters, omelets, salads, pasta  and vegetable dishes, grilled meats and fish. Then there are the specialties like king crab beneath a mound of delicious  gravlox (salmon is smoked on the premises), lamb ravioli, entrecote with mustard sauce, sea bass quenelles, scallops with sweetbreads and delectable desserts like dulce de leche ice cream with meringue and cheese ice cream with black currants. It takes a efficiently-run kitchen to deliver such a range of dishes, all prepared to order, artfully arranged and served in an ambience of casual elegance.

“When you are dining in a place like this, you don’t want to have children making noise or disturbing the atmosphere,” Sergio said. “This hotel is for adults. Which is why my father began construction of the second hotel.” 

That was the nearly completed building we had noticed on adjacent property. “It will be geared to families; children will be welcome there,” he added. “The opening is scheduled for next month. But once again, the time will be with sadness for my father did not live to see it.”

But Sergio, Bélen, and their mother must take consolation in the fact that he did live to see the transformation of Ushuaia from remote port to celebrated tourist destination in which his dream hotel is the premier player. Alec Quinn, Las Hayas’ public relations director and a fifth generation Irish-Argentine, told us the hotel is always packed, and with guests from all over the world.

An international crowd throngs the little city of 40,000 with its brightly-colored corrugated-metal houses built by original European settlers – navigators, gold- prospectors, missionaries, and former convicts of the town prison, now the Maritime Museum. Streets close to the shore are crowded with pedestrians; restaurants and cafes are bustling; many of the beguiling shop windows display unique handicrafts inspired by the native Yamano culture, which -- like many indigenous cultures  of South America -- has largely disappeared.

Ushuaia is the capital of the Argentine side of Tierra del Fuego, the huge island at the bottom of South America with breathtakingly beautiful and dramatically changing landscapes. Five miles west of town, Tierra del Fuego National Park, a 156,000-acre expanse of Patagonian forests, begins. It has a wealth of trails suited to all levels of hiking ability; its wonders can also be viewed, with greater comfort and less effort, through a picture window on The Train at the End of the World whose red steam locomotive and bright green carriage cars reminded us of the train that made it over the mountain in the children’s classic The Little Engine that Could. The hardy steam engine of The Train at the End of the World also puffs along a hilly route, sometimes on tracks that follow areas inaccessible by foot. And every so often, it stops at places you thought only appeared in storybooks like the road that leads to a spectacular waterfall in one direction and a replica of a Yamana camp in the other.

The National Park wraps around the back of Ushuaia to the wilderness northeast of the city. We spent a day exploring this region, part of a two-vehicle convoy of battle-scarred Range Rover vans. Bismark, our driver, was a fellow whose  good sense of humor kept our spirits up even through some unexpected adventures. The trip began on the Transcontinental Highway, where the Andes turn a corner and run east to west before resuming their vertical direction, under a sky so shrouded and into fog so dense, we could understand how Lago Escondido (the Hidden Lake) got its name.

Lurching along through streams and mud, over rocks and logs, we finally made it to the shores of Lago Fagnano, the largest lake in the national park. Passengers disembarked and took in the surroundings while Bismark and the driver of the other off-road vehicle prepared lunch in a rough but windowed hut furnished with picnic benches, tables, and a small stove. People drifted off to walk down forest trails or stood at the shore under the drizzle throwing rocks into a lake that seemed to have no end. Then a square of blue square appeared in the sky. Minutes later, the sun came out. And suddenly, everything was quite wonderful.

By the time an excellent lunch of grilled steaks and sausages was ready, several bottles of malbec had been consumed and new friendships cemented. We shared a table with Maria Laura Konopacki, a psychologist from Buenos Aires, and her son, an architecture student at the University of Buenos Aires. Rex Spector, a proper Englishman  recently retired from the EU Bank and relocated to a farm in Australia, joined us.

On the way back, all seemed right with the world until our Range Rover got stuck in the mud. We had to get out, slosh through to dry land, and watch from an embankment as the two vans were roped together. With Bismark directing the operation with many shouts and extravagant gestures from behind the wheel, the submerged vehicle was finally pulled out. Somehow we got the feeling the whole episode had been staged. But never mind. The drama was there.

 There is drama at the docks of  Ushuaia, especially during the summer months when this harbor on the Beagle Channel, closest in the world to Antarctica, hosts ships flying the flags of many nations that leave daily for the 620-mile, two-day journey to the icy continent . “The Beagle Canal was a huge glacier that fell into the sea,” Sergio had told us.  “Before it was discovered, the only way to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific was via  Cape Horn at the very south and  the Strait of Magellan at the very north of Tierra de Fuego. Both were difficult to navigate. They are many stories of sunken ships along these coasts. When the Beagle Canal was discovered, the perfect route to cross from one ocean to the other had been found.”

The canal is named for the HMS Beagle, a 90-foot sailing ship with an intimate connection to the region. On December 31, 1831, it set sail from Plymouth, England with a mission to survey the coast of Tierra del Fuego. Among the crew was 23-year-old Charles Darwin who’d responded to a newspaper ad for a naturalist to come along on the journey. Captain Robert Fitz Roy expected the young scientist would make observations that would verify the literal truth of Genesis.  Instead they led to an entirely different conception of the origin of life.

 At the Beagle Center, a full-scale replica of the brig brings that historic voyage to life through an imaginative work of musical theater with special effects to rival Phantom of the Opera. Each person in the audience of The Adventure of the Beagle: A Spectacle of the End of the World, signs a “boarding agreement” with Captain Fitz Roy and then boards the ship which is moored beneath a star-filled sky and surrounded by mountains and glaciers. From that vantage point, they witness the story in a multi-media drama performed by a gifted young cast aided by muppets, and film. At the show’s conclusion, visitors can stroll through the Patagonian Nature Interpretation Hall where they can follow the trail of Darwin’s observations that brought him to his evolutionary and revolutionary theories.

Or, they can get on one of the many excursion boats that are moored along Ushuaia’s docks and see what he saw for themselves. We spent a morning on a sparkling white KAM boat that powered into the transparent waters of the Beagle Channel all the way to its end where the white and red Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse stands, still a  welcoming beacon to ships that cross the great divide. It was a glorious day, and Cecilia, our dynamic guide with a moppet’s head of curly blonde hair and bright infectious smile, was in terrific form as she explained the mating and nurturing habits of massive sea lions beached across rocky islets, some feeding their young, others basking in the morning sun, totally oblivious of fellow mammals with digital cameras. Many, many penguin-like birds congregated on plateau-like rocks looking like a crowd of shoppers waiting for the mall to open. On a rise above, a few menacing seagulls calmly observed the scene. “They’ll pick out a single prey, someone young or weak-looking and attack while the rest of the birds stand by, incapable of resistance,” Cecilia said, adding with some contempt: “Mafioso!” But then again, was this not what Darwin meant by “survival of the fittest?”

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We got out onto a little island where Yamanas lived aeons ago, crossed a  small beach and followed a narrow trail surrounded by rocks covered with moss bearing little pink and white flowers clumped together in miniature bouquets. And for the second time in less than a day, storybooks came to mind.

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That night we had dinner at Las Hayas once again, this time with our new-found British friend, Rex Spector. It was 10 o’clock; night had fallen at last. Tomorrow morning Rex would be off on a cruise to Antarctica. He tried to pick out his ship from among the several sea-going palaces whose lights were visible from the Las Hayas restaurant all the way up the hill. From here, they seemed like so many stars in an already star-filled southern hemisphere sky, so different from the one we’d always known. Somehow in the darkness, from this perspective on high, the storybook quality of Ushuaia seemed to take on even greater enchantment. For a moment, we had the sense of being upended, suspended in space, a pair of native New Yorkers and a Cambridge-educated Englishman relocated to Australia, having dinner at a restaurant that overlooked the port of the city at the bottom of the world. Beyond its shoreline, the Andes would fall into the sea while a profusion of straits, islands and islets would bring the South American continent to its end. After that the mysterious continent of perpetual ice and snow loomed up going to the very extremity of the earth at the South Pole. And it was here, so far from civilization as it was conceived back then, that Charles Darwin was able to make the connections that led to an understanding of how it all came about.

Las Hayas
Camino Al Glacier L Martial 1650
Ushuai, Tierra Fuego
Argentina

Phone: 54.1.449-9808

Centro Beagle (show presented Tuesday through Sunday in English & Spanish, October through March)

Luis P. Fique 121
(9410) Ushuahia, Tierra del Fuego,
Argentina

Phone: (54 2901) 43 2090
Web:  http://www.
centrobeagle.com
Email: info@centrobeagle.com

The Train at the End of the World
Estación del Fin del Mundo
Ruta 3 km3042
Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Phone: (54 2901) 431600
Web:  http://www,trendelfindelmundo.com.ar
Email:
reservas@trandelfindelmundo.com.ar

Photographs by Harvey Frommer
 

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

 

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