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Home on the Range

Travelers to the pampas get an unexpected dose of sophistication at El Colibri Estancia de Charme.

The bedroom of a deluxe suite at El Colibri Estancia in Argentina.
PHOTO: Courtesy Juan Hitters
By Suzy Buckley

Cosmopolitan Buenos Aires in the east, ski-friendly Bariloche to the south and the Mendoza wine country out west may have a lock on attracting visitors to Argentina, but to know the nation's essence, you must go to its heart. Córdoba Province, smack in the middle of the country, is home to its second-largest city (Córdoba) and a half dozen Jesuit churches. In this windswept area, once the center of Argentine arts and literature, these painstakingly preserved 17th-century cathedrals still preside over many an expansive estancia — a word that, to today's Argentines, conveys as much a state of mind as a rural ranch.

Hundreds of refurbished estancias are scattered across the region, but for the past three years, travelers in search of a country escape with big-city trappings have gravitated to the only one built from the ground up recently: El Colibrí Estancia de Charme. Set on 420 acres of pampas along the Santa Catalina River (a ninety-minute flight from Santiago, Chile), the nine-room boutique hotel is more palatial than pastoral. Light flamenco guitar music and the scent of wild Chilean rosa mosqueta waft through the air. In the dining room, antique accents, like a 120-year-old wood-framed mirror once owned by Argentine president Marcelo T. de Alvear and a floor crafted from century-old wooden railroad ties, complement new hand-carved wooden chairs. In the suites, iron-and-crystal candlesticks and potpourri-filled vases decorate vintage nightstands and vanities, and plush 400-thread-count linen sheets from Peru adorn the beds. The walls and the soaring ceilings were painted by hand with delicate floral designs that echo the patterns on the curtains, which are made of rich velvet imported from Paris.

In fact, there's more than a little bit of France within these walls; husband-and-wife owners Raoul and Stéphanie Fenestraz are French. And it's no wonder they're also the perfect hosts: Raoul's parents, André and Raymonde Fenestraz, own three hotels in the French Alps, including Courchevel's legendary Les Airelles.

Raoul, a polo enthusiast who plays all over Argentina with his own team, has cut two polo fields at El Colibrí; he urges amateurs to take a lesson and join the local professionals. "The horse between your legs is 80 percent of your game," he says. "Even a not-so-good player with a very good horse — and all our horses are experts — can contribute and play." For those not willing to brave the sport of kings, there's plenty to fill the days, whether it's exploring the property's six miles of hiking and horseback-riding trails, being pampered in the intimate spa or touring the nearby historical Jesuit sites. And unlike at the area's older estancias, visitors who choose to hole up in their rooms at El Colibrí can revel in the modern amenities, like Wi-Fi access and DirecTV, and good water pressure in the oversized bathrooms.

Even guests who retreat here to escape the spotlight make their way to dinner. The charismatic executive chef, Gustavo Quieto, prepares food that's grown on the estancia's own land, and he steps out of the kitchen to describe every dish: sautéed doves (often shot by the diners themselves); pacu, a freshwater fish in the piranha family; and, of course, Argentine barbecue. The hotel won't reveal the names of its diverse clientele (as an NFL linebacker pointed out, "Here it's about soccer or polo; no one cares about football!"), but secrets are often revealed personally, since everyone ends the day beside the fireplace in the grand living room, sharing stories over glasses of Malbec from the hotel's 2,000-bottle collection. "We really did create El Colibrí for us, for our kids, for our grandkids," Raoul says. "It's our interpretation of ideal Argentine living, and we hope that people will come to enjoy it as much as we do."

Double rooms from $495, suites from $730. Camino a Santa Catalina, km 7, Santa Catalina, Córdoba, Argentina; 011-54-3525-465-888; estanciaelcolibri.com.

Published on 2/25/2008
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