Day 1 - Friday, Arrive in Santiago, travel to Vina del Mar

By Gwendolyn

We learned some time before our trip that there is a reciprocity fee in Chile and Argentina of $100 dollars for Americans, which you pay when you arrive at the airport. Luckily, arriving on business class assures that you are off the plane early and in the front of the line for customs, hurrah! We watched the line grown longer behind us and gave a ‘whew, we’re glad that’s not ussmile as we approached the next customs agent. He inspected the passports and tells us in broken English that we must go back to the counter behind the line. Confused, we return to the indicated counter,  and line , to discover that you must pay the reciprocity payment BEFORE customs! Note to self: Read all signs when in foreign airport. Waiting there for some time, we finally pay, get our passport stamped in approval and move ourselves back to the customs line, now filled with passengers from the plane that arrived after us. One hour later and we are thankfully stamped through, although our momentum was somewhat dulled. At least the delay meant that our bags were ready and waiting for us at the baggage claim.

The rental car process moved quickly. We were given an old Nissan Sentra that was pretty beat up, but we were driving through the vineyards of Chile, beat up car is good! After exiting the airport, we accelerated the car up to 90km/hr. It was this point when the steering wheel began to shake violently and the vehicle became impossible to use. Alas, another setback in our momentum as we returned to the airport. But we received a second car speedily and were on our way to the beach, Vina del Mar.

On the way to the beach we made a stop at the Veramonte winery, right off Rt. 68 between the city of Santiago and Vina del Mar. Veramonte is a well-respected winery known in particular for its Sauvignon Blanc,  bottled in screw cap for the past two vintages and the first wine in Chile to do so. Running at about $9 or $10, this wine is a fantastic value. It’s crisp and grassy, easy-drinking and perfect for any hot day.

At the winery, we were given a small room to freshen up and rest - we’d gotten plenty of sleep on the plane, but our bodies were still somewhat out of sync,  14 hour flights can do that to you. An hour nap and a shower, we were ready for tasting and tours. The friendly and educational staff first took us on a tour of the vineyards. We rode along the bumpy vineyard roads and we were surprised by the similarity of Chilean vineyards to California vineyards. The hills, like many in California, were brown with patches of green and a valley floor covered in vines. Post vineyard tour, the winemaker took us through the cellars and sat with us for a tasting.

On Veramonte Wines: The winery will put their ‘05 vintage of Chardonnay in screw cap and are hoping to put the reds under the same closure, eventually. Most Veramonte vineyards lie in the cool Casablanca Valley, with lots of sunlight, but tempered by the pacific winds. Strong diurnal temperature shifts help the grapes to cool at night but gain ripeness through the day, allowing for a longer growing season. It has proved to be a great area for producing Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. It is also demonstrating excellent potential for Pinot Noir. Veramonte’s plantings for this varietal are continually increasing. Tasting the Pinot Noir gave us hope that this grape would find a niche here in the Casablanca Valley,  the Veramonte version showed great promise. Right now, the production is too small to take it internationally. 90% of Veramonte’s production is exported, most of that to the US and much of that is the Sauvignon Blanc.

The tasting was followed by lunch, a delicious meal,  an appetizer of thin bread wafers with a goat cheese. The goat cheese here is different from the French and American versions. It was a crumbly texture that reminded me more of a sheep’s milk cheese than the soft, pungent type found here. Next course - salmon was served with three purees,  one of beet, one of carrot and one of green beans. The taste of each went so well with the salmon and so well with each other, it was delightful. We tasted through the wineries’ reserve wines during lunch and their Merlot, showing beautifully, turned out to be our favorite.

After lunch we continued our short drive to Vina del Mar. As expected, being in the Casablanca Valley meant that there were many mountain ranges around us. Directions in the country were better than we expected, and getting there caused no arguments or disagreements and we never got lost! In Vina del Mar, the signs stopped and I reached for the Fodor’s Chile book to continue our journey. The lack of street names and roads that did not exist cause a bit of frustration, but we just followed the water and found our grand hotel in good time.

Our hotel was the Sheraton Vina del Mar,  a recently renovated property sitting on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The pool is the draw here although we were not prepared for the difficult weather that affected any potential pool time.

It was sunny upon arrival, but we took a quick nap to recharge. Little did we know that was the only sun to be seen for some time. At 5pm we decided to take a walk. We walked long the Avenue Marina and then the Avenue Saint Marten. Along this route are a few restaurants and the famous Hotel Vina del Mar ,  the casino being the draw here. Lots of grafiti adorned the columned walls by the ocean and cleanliness was not the strong point of the streets. We returned to the hotel as the temperature dropped and had a drink and some seafood rolls at a bar overlooking the water called ‘Enjoy del Mar’,  we should have known that it was a bit too touristy. They brought us paper placemats that had Spanish lessons written on them. Was it that obvious? Back at our room, Mike fell asleep and needed the rest due to his cold. I watched Law & Order with Spanish subtitles and fell asleep myself. And so while not an eventful first day, we enjoyed a great time at the winery and our bodies recovered well.