The sprawling city of Valparaíso, Chile is undergoing a large-scale renaissance, from its coastal flatlands to its 43 some-odd hilltops. Preservation efforts are peeling back layers of Valpo’s faded vintage glory and giving it a sharper, more artistic focus.
The splendid, 23-room Palacio Astoreca Hotel makes the ideal poster child for these efforts, while also serving as an emblem of Valparaíso’s elegant, cosmopolitan prime. It’s like a big red symbol of local pride overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Since 1923, the Palacio Astoreca has risen high above the Paseo Yugoslaveo in the Cerro Alegre, a fashionable neighborhood named “cheerful hill.” Built by a wealthy Croatian shipping magnate as a gift for his homesick British wife, the Victorian-style mansion symbolizes an era when Valparaíso was one of the biggest international ports and banking centers in the Southern Hemisphere.
Since its renovation, the Palacio also represents a more modern version of this creative city. Now owned by a Swiss-born Parisian and his Chilean wife, it’s full of work by local artists and designers, and has one of the most distinctive exteriors in a metropolis that might as well be an up-ended Easter egg basket. Spreading over half a city block, it’s like a boutique little world unto itself.
Perching in any corner of the lobby can make you feel like you’re in a magazine shoot — even if no one has a camera. The airy interiors are a mix of vintage Victorian and Mid-Century Modern, with ornate moldings, crayon-bright velvets and gleaming wood floors. And the guests, mostly 30- to 50-year-old Chileans and Europeans in over-the-shoulder sweaters and sumptuous leather accessories, look like they’ve been styled by an art director.
Leave a little time to hang out in the front parlor and watch the show, and don’t miss the amazing array of coffee table books and Art Nouveau fireplace in the wood-paneled library. (Sadly, the hotel would not let me take this home, so hooray for you — it’ll still be there.)
Each one of the 23 gorgeous, streamlined guest rooms has a different color scheme and custom wallpaper, and bathroom floors re-purpose the mansion’s original, hand-painted tiles. Best to book a room on the second or third floor for lots of light and bay or hill views; first floor rooms have street or alley views that will probably inspire you to keep the heavy drapes closed.
In case you tend to be as clumsy as I do, try to move slowly around your bed ’til you get your bearings: I twice knocked my shin on the angular wooden rim. Once tucked safely inside it, though, I was thrilled to prop my head on the fringed throw pillows, pull the soft covers up to my chin, and binge-watch South American music videos and Chilean soap operas.
Valparaíso itself plays an important role in the Astoreca’s scene. From the upper-floor guest rooms and the outdoor terrace, you can see pastel-painted buildings tumble over hills and along winding streets, and gawk at the adjacent Fine Arts Museum, a 1906 confection of tile and timber that’s undergone its own impressive makeover. In the center of the action is the yawning crescent of Valparaíso Bay, its silvery surface strewn with pleasure boats and container ships.
My vote for the most impressive part of the Palacio Astoreca, though, goes to its restaurant, Alegre. Leading an innovative, locally-sourced charge in Valparaíso’s emerging fine dining scene, the El Bulli training of the young Spanish chef , Sergio Barroso, shows in the creative pairing and plating of every dish. The seafood here was the freshest I’ve ever had, including centolla (a South American type of king crab) wrapped in avocado. I was thrilled to discover indigenous ingredients like merken, a spice-blend of chiles, and piñónes, the biggest pine nuts I ever saw.
The soothing space of washed concrete and white moldings and its elegant yet friendly service is ideal for celebrating a special occasion or a splashy night out. Bring along a sweater — it tends to get chilly — and don’t skip dessert. Barroso makes molecular gastronomy versions of Pop Rocks and Life Savers that’ll make your head spin.
The breakfast offerings at the hotel are almost as gorgeous, with artfully arranged fruits, house-made yogurt, and if you’re a fish fan, smoked salmon that melts in your mouth. I assembled an open-faced Chilean sandwich of mashed avocado, sliced queso fresco and a slice of bread, lingered over two cups of the Astoreca’s rich, dark coffee…and have dearly missed that meal ever since.
Fortunately, I found consolation in the wood-fire-heated hot tub that dwells beside a soaring, lush and living wall of plants. I had it all to myself one morning, and found profound peace while floating my feet in the toasty water, leaning my head back to gaze far above at the glass-covered sky.
Afterward, I went for a brief swim in the heated pool, surrounded by slate bricks, soft wood floors and gauzy light. I wrapped myself up in a plush robe and stretched out on a chaise lounge, wishing for just one more day here.
Starting at $230 US per night, a stay at the Palacio Astoreca Hotel offers a truly special, purely local experience of Valparaíso. Like the city itself, the hotel’s focus is a blend of European sensibilities and Chilean details. The hilltop location allows a rounded sense of the city’s layout, and just next door, there’s the art museum and an ascensor (historic elevator) that leads to the Plaza Sotomayor and the port. There’s Alegre on-site, many other independently owned eateries and bars nearby, and whimsical street art all over the neighborhood.
But the number one reason to stay here? It feels truly exciting to make your home, however briefly, in the symbol of a city’s architectural and cultural renewal.
The Palacio Astoreca Hotel sponsored my stay,
which included two breakfasts and my dinner at Alegre.
All observations, recommendations and opinions
shared here, however, are purely my own.