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Memphis Flyer Last-Century Luxury

Life on the Argentinean estancias redefines the art of country living.

By Paul Gerald

APRIL 17, 2000:  The moon rising over a field of super-sweet grapes. Meat crackling over hot coals. Floating in the pool while parrots fly around and trees sway in the breeze. Searching for treasures in the nooks and crannies of an old home, or hoping for more stories from your host.

Memories of Los Alamos blend together into one long, lazy afternoon siesta. The hot sun is setting behind the adobe walls, the shadows add a touch of drama to the house under the trees, a dog strolls over to say hello, and the wine you had with lunch says, "Go on, nap in the hammock."

Surrounded by vineyards and orchards, Estancia Los Alamos, in the Argentinean wine country of Mendoza, is more a feeling than a place. Sure, there are activities to be pursued. You can ride horses among their cattle and look for their water buffalo. You can get a car to a nearby canyon and go whitewater rafting, hiking, climbing, or fishing. You can tour several wineries in the area. In the winter (our summer), you can ski nearby.

But after about a day at Los Alamos, all you'll probably want is more days at Los Alamos. You'll want to keep waking up to the bird songs, the cool air, the fresh-baked biscuits and homemade preserves, and the morning stroll through the fields. You'll want to explore the rambling 1830 house. You'll ponder the legend of the Indian chief who was hanged in the courtyard. You can look at the thick walls around the courtyard and hark back to the days when a moat outside protected the place from attack.

But perhaps the finest thing about the place is just feeling like a member of the family for a while. Argentinean estancias used to make lots of money, feeding the world beef and dressing it in wool. Los Alamos had cattle and sheep before it started growing grapes for local wineries. But now the estancias largely serve a new purpose: taking tourists back to the elegant ways of yesteryear. They aren't cheap by any means; Los Alamos is $280 per night, but that does include all your food and wine and activities. But they exist on a different level of luxury, where "family resort" means "a family's resort-like home that you can stay in."

In many, as in the case of Los Alamos, they quite literally take you into their homes. A member of the fourth generation of Los Alamos' owning family, Cesar Bombal, met us at the gate when we arrived, and we spent much of the next few days just listening to Cesar talk.

He talked about growing grapes and about the hardships a farmer faces today. He described the complicated process of acquiring water in his irrigation channels. He told stories about his aunt Susana, who hosted writers and artists there for years. She was, in fact, a friend of Jose Luis Borges, the country's most famous writer, who stayed in the home several summers. Susana's five books of poetry are on display in a corner of the living room, and the artistic tradition lives on in the family: Cesar's niece Carolina is a professional photographer, and her brother is a writer.

A writer and a photographer would be equally happy at Los Alamos. The writer could sit and ply stories out of the family, or just go room-to room and ask what everything is. Whose collection of hand-held fans is that? Does anyone play the antique piano? How old is that massive prickly-pear cactus by the pool?

The photographer, meanwhile, could try to capture the shadows on the spiral staircase attached to the house, or the magnificent old oven in the kitchen. To us, every nook and cranny seemed like a photo that needed to be taken. The cowboy hat hanging on a rack filled with mysterious trinkets was a favorite, as was the sun coming through the windows in the sitting room, where Cesar and I had some late-night games of backgammon.

But what I remember most fondly is the asado, the traditional barbecue we had out behind the house one night. Cesar was holding court at the end of the table as the staff brought out several salads, much wine, and chorizo, blood sausage, lamb, chicken, sweetbreads, and ribs right off the fire. The moon was bright over the field of cabernet sauvignon, and dogs were running around begging for scraps. The talk around the table was of horse trips into the Andes, cruises in the Chilean fjords, and which local wine was the best.

I looked away from our little temporary family at one point and noticed that the water in the irrigation channel was flowing, heading into the fields of Los Alamos, bringing life to the place once again, a place where life has been just fine for a long, long time.

For information on estancias in Argentina, surf over to www.69.cyberhost.net/argentin/english.htm.

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