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The Sweet-Sweet Llao Llao Hotel in Beautiful Bariloche, Argentina

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

 “Every year we have many thousands of visitors in Bariloche. And all of them want to come to the hotel. Not everyone knows it is a private resort with guests who deserve their privacy. Still it is very hard to put a brake on. So what we do is have guided tours twice a week. We walk them around and tell them the history of the hotel. In this way, they don’t have the sense that they are being excluded.”

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We are having drinks with Nora Espector, the front office manager with the dazzling smile and effervescent style, on the broad, stone terrace outside the Winter Garden of the Llao Llao (pronounced zhaou-zhaou) Hotel and Resort. It is only our first afternoon here, but already we understand.

Earlier in the day, we had landed in Bariloche, the traditional entrance to mystical Patagonia which stretches from the Andes to the Atlantic, from the top of the southern half of Argentina to the bottom of the South American continent. Our drive from the airport to the hotel followed the coastline of sapphire-hued Lake Nahuel Huapi, seemingly as huge as a sea and embraced by jagged mountains streaked with snow. We arrived at the hotel nearly out of breath and not because of the altitude.  Still the sight of Llao Llao sitting atop a hill overlooking Lake Nahuel Huapi with a second sapphire expanse, Lake Moreno, wrapping around the property’s rear, took what little breath we had left away. The temptation to drive up the road to the parking area, take in the panorama and perhaps a few photos of the great stone and cypress lodge, whose peaked red-tiled roofs suggest a Tibetan temple, would be hard to resist.

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“The hotel is emblematic of Argentina,” Nora explains. “It encapsulates so much of our nation’s history that some people think it is a museum. When it first opened in 1938, the railroad from Buenos Aires to Bariloche was only a few years old. It was the  railroad that made it possible to bring the materials here, to open up the area and attract tourists. Until then, it was largely undeveloped. Still, even with the railroad, it took three days to get here from Buenos Aires.

“The architect was Alejandro Bustillo, the brother of the man who created Argentina’s national parks. We are located within Nahuel Huapi National Park -- the first  one. They say when Bustillo came to Bariloche, he walked up this hill, took in the magnificent views, the little port and the area below -- so perfect for a golf course, and he said ‘This is the spot.’”

She continues, “One year after the opening, a fire completely destroyed the hotel. It was re-built and opened again in 1940, and for nearly forty years it drew a crowd of aristocrats, government officials, and foreign dignitaries. I came to Bariloche for the first time when I was nine years old, and I have a photograph in my brain of the hotel at that time. It was August. There was snow. It was so beautiful.

“Then in 1978 –during a tumultuous period in Argentine history, the time of the military junta and the ‘disappeared’ – Llao Llao closed down. Not many tourists were coming to Argentina then. For us, it was a sin to see this place closed, neglected and abandoned. The lawns that had been so carefully manicured were wild with weeds, the windows smashed, the interior ransacked. But so it remained until 1993 when Citicorp came into the picture and bought the property from the government.

“By then, Argentina had been a democracy for nine years,” Nora adds, “and the situation was much happier. Citicorp made a major investment; they brought a management company from the United States to get the hotel up and running again. And in 1997 they sold it to the present owners: two Argentine families.”

She pauses, and flashes that smile. “So we are working for Argentines now, and it is a pleasure.”

Nora Espector, front office manager with the dazzling smile and effervescent style - click to enlarge
Nora Espector, front office manager with the
dazzling smile and effervescent style

For us, the pleasure was sitting with Nora on this perfect summer afternoon in January(!), looking beyond the terrace to the meticulously cared-for lawn that sloped down to the banks of Lake Nahuel Huapi,  a glassy pane that melded dark green reflections of cypress and pine trees with the blue of a cloudless sky. Squat triangular-shaped mountains, part of the Andes range, some still trimmed with last winter’s snow, rose up in the distance. But off to the left, among the mountains framing Lake Moreno, a single loftier triangle of pure white emerged from the rest. This is the Tronador (Thunder) Glacier. “It is so called because over the summer, chunks of ice break off and fall into the lake with such ferocity, it sounds like thunder,” Nora says. “To hear the roar of thunder on a day like today is quite an experience.”

We did not get to hear the thunder, but we did get to see the Llao Llao gardens ablaze with color at the height of their bloom: beds filled with honeysuckle, holly, lupine, foxgloves, lilies, rhododendrons and azaleas, massive rock gardens interspersed with fragrant thyme, and an abundance of roses: scarlet and white floribundas, miniatures in great stone urns, yellow and pink hybrid teas surrounded by clumps of lavender (a Llao Llao theme that re-appears in soaps and sachets in all guest rooms).

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click to enlarge click to enlarge

We also got to take in as much as we could of the 111-acre property and its offerings in a series of days where not a single cloud marred the sky and the sun did not set until close to 10 at night. To fill the long daylight hours, a multitude of activities beckoned: yoga, aerobics, salsa and tango classes, tennis, mountain biking, swimming in the edgeless pool that faces the Tronador Glacier, health and beauty treatments at the full-service spa, escorted or private walks on a sylvan trail following Lake Moreno, eighteen holes of golf on an 86-acre course with fairways that offer incomparable scenic splendor and a clubhouse hidden in the trees, boat excursions from Puerto Pañuelo, Bariloche’s most important lake harbor and departure point for a range of Nahuel Huapi expeditions.

 At times, in terms of international reputation, quality offerings, exemplary service (there are 450 employees and 162 rooms), and attention to detail, Llao Llao reminded us of the much larger Breakers Resort of Palm Beach, Florida. At other times, it brought to mind the national parks of Montana and Wyoming. And then again, the setting of lake and snow-tipped alps made us think of Montreux, Switzerland.

 Yet Llao Llao defies comparison, so locked is it into a most unique locale where remnants of the Ice Age and a sophisticated continental ambience comfortably co-exist.

The setting is Llao Llao’s most defining element, from within as much as without. Windows are strategically placed throughout framing a multitude of perspectives. The huge entrance hall is high and wide with cypress beams strapping the ceiling. Floors are gleaming wooden planks; walls are of hewn logs, smooth beams and massive stone.  Tall wooden pillars branch out like trees, and the intoxicating aroma of roses can make one swoon.

A nearly 330-foot-long gallery that bisects the width of the building provides access to all interior spaces: ballroom/conference halls, library, lounges, restaurants, and corridors to rooms and stairwells. The entrance hall is off the gallery’s center. On the other side is the lobby bar, flanked by two enormous fireplaces, where a “Happy Hour” draws guests for pre-dinner cocktails and live entertainment provides after-dinner pleasures. Just beyond, the glass-walled Winter Garden, which serves lunch and afternoon tea, looks out to the stone terrace where we sat with Nora soon after our arrival admiring the midsummer view that is transformed during July and August into  a snowy landscape, with ski trails running down the mountainsides.

The Winter Garden seen through the Lobby Bar - click to enlarge
The Winter Garden seen through the Lobby Bar
This window frames a view of Turnador Glacier (upper left) - click to enlarge
This window frames a view of Tronador Glacier (upper left)

Paintings by Argentine artists line the gallery walls. Shops offer Argentine handicrafts and products. At one end of the gallery, a grand stairway descends to a ballroom (originally a casino) which turns a corner into a window-lined expanse where breakfast and the nightly barbeque are served. Just beyond is a duplex of restaurants: the coffee shop on the main level, Los Césares below.

 Llao Llao’s gastronomic dining room continues the rustic yet elegant ambience that pervades the hotel in its spaciousness, comfortable furnishings, antique fixtures, and unexpected formalities like the presentation of entrees covered with silver domes that are removed in unison. Chef Dario Gualtieri brings to Los Césares a wealth of experience  from the international kitchens he’s worked in, places on the level of the Hotels Crillon and Bristol in Paris. His classic menu is highlighted by Argentine products, in particular the excellent pink trout and salmon from local waters and the famed Argentine beef and lamb, simply grilled or prepared in complex sauces. One memorable touch was the tableside assemblage of a Caesar salad in the old fashioned way: the huge wooden bowl being rubbed with a garlic clove before beautiful fresh beautiful greens, mashed anchovies, grated cheese, and croutons were added one at a time followed by the tossing with raw egg, olive oil and lemon juice. An artistic presentation and a superb starter.

Making the salad - click to enalrge
Making the salad
And choosing the wine (with the help of sommelier Valeria Weihmuller) - click to enlarge
And choosing the wine (with the help of sommelier Valeria Weihmuller)

The wine suggested by the Swiss-trained, young  and clearly intelligent sommelier Valeria Weihmuller was a Malbec from Mendoza, aromatic, deep and fruity.  The Malbec grape, transplanted from Cahors in southwest France, has taken on an identity and quality all its own in Argentine soil and has gone far in putting Argentina on the map of quality wines. Llao Llao has its own Malbec label because, as Nora told us, it is typical of Argentina and it never disappoints.

Even though neighboring Chile had elected its first female prime minister the week before, the sight of a female sommelier at Llao Llao came as something of a surprise. “Argentina is still a country that men rule,” Nora agreed. “But at this property, women have important positions.” In her position as front office manager for the past seven years, Nora clearly is the face of the hotel.

The vivacious native of Buenos Aires decided on a career in tourism after reading Arthur Haley’s “Hotel” when she was twelve years old. Plans to study in Switzerland were sidetracked after she met a Swedish man on a fishing trip in Patagonia. They married, lived in Sweden for a while, returned to Argentina, and later divorced. Today she raises her three sons in Bariloche.

“When we moved here, I started in another property nearby. It was a small boutique hotel, just 14 rooms,” she told us. “I loved it because in a small hotel, you learn that service is what matters. It is ‘the extra mile.’ I was there for nine years, and then I was called by Llao Llao. It was the same neighborhood only a different job. But I’ve brought that ‘extra mile’ along.

“I had always known about Llao Llao,” she added. “To every Argentine, you mention Llao Llao, and it is wow!”

Gilda Fuentes, who handles Guest Relations with her partner Veronica Peralta, echoes Nora’s enthusiasm. “Even in the whole country of Argentina, it is difficult to find a hotel more beautiful than Llao Llao, difficult to find a better setting.

“To me, the hotel is a metaphor of Argentina with all its ups and downs. It came back to life after the country got rid of the military and came back to life itself. Now after the economic crisis of  2001, which was the worst time I remember in my short life, the hotel has come back to life once again. Argentina is becoming more and more a popular tourist destination. It is safe; the government is stable. And we have 80% occupancy with 65% of the guests coming from out of the country.”

Gilda Fuentas - click to enlarge
Gilda Fuentas
Veronica Peralta - click to enlarge
Veronica Peralta

It was from Gilda that we learned that “Llao Llao” means “sweet, sweet” in the language of the indigenous Mapuche Indians. It refers to a mushroom that looks like a clump of orange beads and grows on branches of the coihue tree, an evergreen typical of the area with a tall trunk, gracefully curved branches and fine pine needles. Along the trails near the hotel, there seemed to be forests of them, some as tall and broad as Sequoias.

There was one moment that it suddenly dawned on us why they looked so familiar. A coihue grows outside our dining room window. We’d never paid too much attention to it except to notice that it was different from the white pines so prevalent in the region. But now, named and recognized, our coihue tree has taken on a special meaning. It remains a constant memory of and connection to the singular sensation that is the Llao Llao Hotel and beautiful Bariloche.

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Llao Llao Hotel and Resort
Av. Ezequiel Bustillo km. 25
R8401 ALN Bariloche, Rio Negro

Phone: (54.2944)448530

Member Leading Hotels of the World 

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

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


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