24 April 2013 by Pete Mathers
Pete Mathers weighs the pros and cons of Chilean Patagonia's latest luxury hotel.
Never have I seen a single hotel cause such debate among experienced travel specialists. Then again, never have I seen a hotel like The Singular, a repurposed abattoir and cold storage plant in a stunning setting, with a skilled French chef and national monument status.
Strangely enough, the contentious issue was not about the merits of sleeping in a building that from 1915 until 1985 had seen 3,600 sheep killed a day, frozen then exported to the markets of Europe. The luxury refit and inspired design - the kind that makes art directors at glossy travel magazines drool - had soon dispersed any early-onset queasiness. What was causing the furore was the hotel's location.
Sitting right on the edge of Last Hope Sound in Puerto Bories, The Singular is about 100km from Torres del Paine National Park, the reason most people come to this far-flung region at the tip of South America. And with 5-star hotels already available both in and around the park, any new addition to the luxury set would have to really turn heads to draw people away from the region's star attraction. Did The Singular cut the mustard? Or were we stuck with mint sauce?
Arriving from nearby Puerto Natales, the first thing I saw was an assembly of chimneys and low industrial buildings, nothing that would hint at a luxury hotel. We left our vehicle beneath the tin-roofed remnants of the plant's old sheep pens and ventured inside, where staff were on hand to guide us politely to a glass funicular. Like Bond descending into Blofeld's lair, we travelled soundlessly past the external brickwork and into a world where old and new collide.
The hotel reception is a giant glass cube, suspended at one end of the plant's original boiler room. Below a tall, pitched ceiling of rafters and old pipes stand the British-made furnaces, pumps and pulleys that used to push cool air to the storage units. The jarring contrast between old and new is quite intentional. The hotel owners, whose forbears established and worked on the plant, sought to honour the building's history by setting any new additions quite clearly apart, hence the ruler-straight lines of the reception cube and the glass-sided walkway that guests follow from it to the only new wing to be added to the building.
All bedrooms look out at Last Hope Sound
It's here in this wing that the guest rooms are found. All are accessed from the same side of a long single corridor, which means you've quite a long walk if your room is at the end, but affords each guest with a priceless view of the Patagonian fjords and surrounding mountains. The 54 rooms are a generous 500 square feet (the three suites come in at 770) and feature handsome Victorian-style furniture, sleek modern bathrooms, comfy beds and the biggest picture windows I've ever known in a hotel - six metres wide and as tall as a man.
The other side of reception, walkways lead you through an airy museum to a huge brick and wood-beam bar and restaurant with a mezzanine breakfast area. The cavernous space was once the plant's tannery and the triple-height ceiling and original wooden staircase have been used to great effect. Comfortable sofas, soft lighting and an open fire create a relaxing environment for a glass of champagne or a pisco sour before dinner.
The food here has really got people talking. In only two days I tried spiced king crab, seared local scallops, juicy guanaco steak, delicious cuts of lean wild rabbit and tender Patagonian lamb.
The former tannery is now a spacious restaurant
With so much food on offer it's a good thing The Singular includes daily excursions in its all-inclusive rates. "Our challenge is to persuade people that there is so much more to Chilean Patagonia than just Torres del Paine," explained Pancho, one of the hotel's knowledgeable guides, throwing fuel on our debate once again.
We had just set off from the hotel's private pier - where meat and wool were once loaded onto ships bound for Britain - aboard the hotel's speedboat, heading for the glaciers of Balmaceda and Serrano. Sadly on this occasion the wind picked up and it became too choppy to land safely near the glaciers, a not infrequent event in windblown Patagonia. Nevertheless, afternoon excursions were quickly made available: a choice between a visit to the mylodon cave, the source of Chatwin's ‘piece of brontosaurus' that opens his classic novel, In Patagonia*, and condor spotting by Laguna Sofia.
We chose the latter and after an hour-long climb through nothofagus forest we were standing on the edge of a vertical escarpment watching a pair of condors circling in the wind. Directly below shone the turquoise waters of Laguna Sofia. To the left the mountain descended more gradually, past giant boulders rolled and discarded by retreating glaciers. But all eyes were on the condors, which oblivious to our presence would launch from the cliff edge, spreading what must have been a nine-foot wingspan, and soar right past us less than 30 feet away. The sight was spectacular.
Condor spotting by Laguna Sofia
Back at the hotel, lying face down on a massage table at The Singular's small spa, I knew it was time to pick a side in this debate. When time is precious on a trip to Patagonia, is The Singular worth a stop?
Like the fjords that surround it, which hang like loose threads at the end of the world, even The Singular is rough around the edges. The area directly in front of the bedrooms is in desperate need of some tidying and landscaping. And however good the food is, waiting 40 minutes between main and dessert and 50 minutes for the wine to arrive (both on our second night) is sure to cause frowns among the high-at-heel that the hotel is obviously seeking to impress.
Yet teething problems are to be expected in a hotel that only opened in 2011. Service and gardening can easily be taught. What The Singular has in shearing shed loads is an unquantifiable wow factor. By all means spend time in Torres del Paine - you'd be a lunatic not to - but set aside a few days at this landmark hotel when heading to or from the park. Go for the experience, for the fabulous food and to see another side to pristine Patagonia. It's certainly singular - a hotel like no other.
*For those unfamiliar with the book, ‘A piece of brontosaurus' was what Chatwin's mother mistakenly called the scrap of mylodon skin ‘stuck to a card with a rusty pin' in a glass-fronted cabinet in her mother's dining room. It was this piece of skin that Chatwin tells us first piqued his interest in Patagonia. The skin actually belonged to a mylodon, or giant sloth, found preserved in a cave on Last Hope Sound, a short distance from The Singular.