San Francisco world travelers should know that, between Mammoth Mountain, the Lake Tahoe resorts and Big Bear, California rivals Utah and Colorado for having the best ski resorts in North America.
You would think, at the end of the season, skiers and riders would trade in their skis and snowboards for surf boards, head to the beach and partake in that other outdoor activity for which California is famous. Many do just that. Others mourn the closing of the lifts, and fly south for the summer. South, meaning South America.
Take, for example Robin Barnes. World travelers should know that she has worked as a ski instructor and instructor trainer at California’s Heavenly Ski Resort since 1989. As a highly advanced skier, she is also a member of the PSIA-Western Regional Demo. Robin eats, drinks, breathes and dreams skiing throughout her California winters.
When the lifts close, she leaves Heavenly, and heads south to the resort that Snow Magazine calls "heaven on earth:" Portillo, Chile. Here, she works as the ski school director, a job that puts her in charge of some of the top ski and ride instructors from all parts of the globe. Robin is also an instructor for the California-based North American Ski Training Center, which just happens to offer a ski clinic in Portillo.
The Portillo experience: If songwriter Scott Mackenzie had visited Portillo, Chile, he would have told us to wear some flowers in our ski helmets. No wonder it appeals to San Franciscans. From the moment you arrive, the staff and other guests make you feel as if you are a beloved member of an international, multicultural skiing family. In fact, some regular guests arrange to visit on the same week each year: almost like a family reunion. Portillo also serves as summer training grounds for numerous Olympic ski teams, but there's no snobbery here. You might share a lift with an elite athlete, who will chat with you as if he was not as important as he is.
The big yellow hotel: It's the layout that encourages intimacy. Most of Portillo's guest stay in the main building, the iconic yellow hotel. Those looking for budget accommodations can choose between the Octagon Lodge, which has two sets of bunk beds in each room and a private bathroom, or the Inca Lodge, with two sets of bunk beds in a small room with a shared bathroom.
Everyone, however, eats in the same main dining room, which serves four elegant meals a day. So elegant, that a gracious maitre d’ will escort you to your table. The folks at Portillo take meals very seriously and want you to be comfortable. When you come in for lunch, take off your boots and hand your gear to the ski-check guy, who will give you your shoes. Don't worry about the cost. Everything, including lifts, lodging, meals and gear check, is included in the price. As if that was not enough, the resort has a fitness center, a pool that features water aerobics, a cinema, a disco and free Internet access. All for no extra charge. Portillo also schedules special theme weeks, which feature art talks, film, music, cooking and wine tasting. Cost is included
So what about the skiing? Portillo is a family-friendly resort with terrain for all levels. Novices will hone their skills on El Puma, El Corralito, and La Princesa, while advanced beginners and intermediate will have fun on El Conejo, Las Lomas, Canarios and Bajada del Tren. Juncalillo, Portillo's longest run, often serves as a training ground for the U.S. and Austrian ski teams. Along with David's Run, Descenso, Los Zorros, and El Estadio, it suits advanced intermediate skiers and snowboarders.
Adventures in lift riding: The Va et Vient lifts, French for “Come and Go,” are Portillo's most unique feature. The Poma company built them for access to Portillo’s Roca Jack, Condor and Las Vizcachas runs. On these avalanche-prone runs, an avalanche will knock even a well-built lift flat to the ground. The Va et Vients have pulleys, which attach to a point at the top of the mountain. Five skiers at a time ride up the mountain, while “sitting” side-by-side on Poma discs suspended from an overhead bar. It feels a bit like water-skiing, only scarier.
If you're looking for a unique ski and ride experience, you will definitely find it at Portillo.