Crumbling 1920s mansion gets boutique treatment
'Where did that come from?' This was the reaction of most locals when The Aubrey hotel officially opened its doors in Santiago last year. Not only was it a breakthrough in the Chilean capital's previously rather stilted hotel scene, residents also questioned their observation skills. For years, they had walked past one of the city's most iconic and historic houses without even noticing it was there.
These days, it's impossible to miss the grand, 1920-built mansion. The 15-bedroom property stands proudly in a prime location, at the foot of the city's second-highest peak, Cerro San Cristobal, and at the core of the most up-and-coming neighbourhood, Bellavista. Yet for years it was just a pile of crumbling walls, hidden by untamed overgrowth from the neighbouring botanical gardens.
Santiago is now focusing on promoting itself as a destination for an unusual city break, with the coast, the Andes, ski fields and vineyards all on the doorstep. It was an Australian entrepreneur, Mark Cigana, who saw the potential and took a gamble in a part of town that - although intriguing and artistic - was not associated with luxury travel. He bought it on a whim, then moved into the derelict property and got personally stuck into its renovation.
It has taken US$3 million for Cigana and his British business partner to bring the hotel up to the standard it enjoys today. Care has been taken to retain its original features, including art deco pillars and dark-wood panelling that gives it a mock-Tudor feel. One of the best features - an outdoor wall of dramatic Spanish-colonial arches - was a surprise even to construction workers, who happened upon it while clearing rubble. These have now been incorporated into a defining water feature, backlit at night and framing an inviting open-air swimming pool.
With its leather sofas and wingback armchairs, the central lounge resembles a classic gentleman's smoking room, but with a twist for 21st-century gentlemen who read Wallpaper* magazine. Across the hotel, antique oil paintings combine with modern statement pieces, such as Tom Dixon lamps and chairs by Chilean designer Cristian Valdes.
There are 11 rooms in the main house, which was originally owned by a high-flying political family who invited presidents round for tea. The bedroom decor is safe, boutique-style minimalism, yet it avoids the stark, cold feeling of some modern hotels with splashes of colour and extra-plump beds. A recent extension has seen four rooms added on a newly built wing. Staying outside means you miss out on the historic atmosphere, but if you grab room 12 - with its own outdoor hot tub - you won't be too disappointed.
Until recently, there was a hugely successful in-house restaurant, Pasta e Vino - part of a branch of a hugely popular modern bistros in the nearby coastal city of Valparaiso - that had month-long waiting lists. This folded recently due to an internal management dispute, but will reopen early next month on Sundays for champagne brunches - not a usual offering for Chile - and plans are afoot to transform the space into another gourmet restaurant next year.
In the meantime, there are plenty of other places to eat in the Bellavista barrio (district). The neighbourhood has a bohemian feel, making it a good choice if you want to encounter a cross-section of Chilean life, from people checking out its theatres and new design shops, to poetry fans who come to visit the house-turned-museum of Pablo Neruda, to students from the nearby universities who flock to the pavement bars and cafes. It's the city's most interesting neighbourhood and the Aubrey is a quiet oasis in its midst.
Address: Constitucion 299-317, Bellavista, Santiago, Chile.
Rooms cost from US$240 for a queen-size double to US$450 for a suite.
Getting there: Air Canada flies from Hong Kong to Santiago from HK$22,000 with a layover in Toronto.