(Updated November 2020 to reflect the COVID situation. It is best to check in advance if places are open and the paso level of the area before you visit.)
In Chile we are truly spoiled for choice when it comes to vineyards. An hour west of Santiago you arrive in Casablanca, nestled between the ocean on the left, mountains to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with a glass of white. But my favourite region is two and a half hours south west of Santiago in the Colchagua Valley and the region of Santa Cruz. Known for reds — my favourite being the Carmenere grape — it offers the perfect combination of small town, warm sun, hills overlooking vineyards where you can sip wine from your quaint boutique hotel. There are so many places to enjoy so I have divided it by where you can eat, taste, sleep and activities. We have only been a few times, but many of our friends go often so if we haven’t tried it, and it’s listed, it’s a tried and true favourite of our friends.
Carmenere is a grape originally from the Bordeaux region, where it was a tricky one to grow and prone to mildew and a nasty little North American louse called phylloxera, which feasted on the vineyards across Europe. The French replanted with vines that could resist the louse and they decided Carmenere was too much trouble and so they abandoned it.
In the mid-19th Century wealthy Chileans had a great l’amour with France and started importing vines from France, mostly the Bordeaux vines. But the vines were a jumble and a mix of reds — cabernet, merlot and other odd plants mixed in. That is how the Carmenere grape ended up being confused with Merlot. Since the Europeans hadn’t replanted it, most growers didn’t know that it even existed until 1994 when it was discovered it wasn’t actually Merlot they had, but Carmenere vines. You will find Carmenere growing in the warmth of the Colchagua Valley, making up 10 per cent of Chilean red vines. But since Carmenere barely exists outside of Chile, Santa Cruz makes a perfect spot to try it for yourself.
I was talking about wine with a friend who is a sommelier and she said that enjoying wine is so personal. It depends on the wine and the food but also the moment, the company, the day, the conversation — it really takes on the character of so many factors. We have gone back to restaurants in Santa Cruz, where the first time it was really phenomenal and the next time we thought it was just really good. All dependent on so many things. Like children. Always the children and how well they are behaving!
So how do you go to wine country with three munchkins who are bored silly by it all? We have gone three times for long weekends with our children. Once with another family with three children our kids ages and the other two times with couples without kids. Here is how we structure our time so everyone has fun.
I pre-book accommodation and I make lunch reservations for the weekend. There are so many choices, I send out a list to our visitors and let them choose. Then I start slotting in the times. We find if we leave mid-day on a Friday we can arrive in time for supper and then we have two late (1 or 2 p.m.) long lunches on the Saturday and the Sunday. We find if we have a long lunch we can fit in a mid morning or noon tasting as well. For supper I bring picnic style food and we just eat light suppers at our hotel and do our own tasting if we feel like it. The town of Santa Cruz has a Jumbo grocery store and you can buy olives and different things along the roadside as well. We also bring a lot of table games for the kids — uno, memory, travel connect 4 — to keep them occupied. Most vineyards also have playgrounds, hammocks or horse drawn carriages which is also very helpful.
Santa Cruz is about 2.5 hours from Santiago and you will need just under $10,000 in cash for tolls each way. Once in Santa Cruz you can stay at places within walking distance of vineyards, but it can get tricky as the vineyards are so huge! There are also taxis and uber in town. Or we alternate drivers.
(Sadly, Famiglia is currently closed as of Nov. 2020) If we leave on a Friday we like to head straight for our first supper at Famiglia which is in a white-washed adobe building just off the main square in Santa Cruz. Honestly, it is some of the best pasta I have ever had. When the pesto gnocchi arrived it was so light and small I thought they had accidentally served me a bowl of peas! The children love watching them make pasta through the window into the kitchen. The service is incredible, waiters asked if the children wanted to be served first before adults, “were they really hungry?” And the waiters came back and asked if we needed anything, they were really attentive without being in your face. This can be rare in Chile so we really enjoyed our time here and they were wonderful with the kids.
I recommend making reservations well in advance. We booked more than a week in advance for one supper and two lunches over the weekend and had limited options from all the restaurants due to COVID measures and fewer tables.
When we revisited in November 2020 we headed straight for Vino Bello. Vino Bello checked all temperatures at the door and had an anti-bac gel station. The tables were far apart and we ate outside in the sun. The food was delicious and we all enjoyed our meat and vegetarian dishes. Eating outside and watching the sun go down over the vines was so relaxing.
One of our favourite places to eat is at Fuegos de Apalta which is the restaurant at the Montes vineyard. Montes offers tours in English and Spanish (we have never been because, well, three kids). We have been known to have our own Easter egg hunt with melted chocolates hidden in the vines and also roll down the massive hill (it was so tempting!!) I hope they have us back. In preparation I highly suggest watching the episode on Netflix’s Chef’s Table series about the chef, Francis Mallmann. (season 1, episode 3). A very interesting character. Lunch here is heavy on meat and smoked vegetables which you can see hanging around the wood oven. You sit outside among the vines. The pizzas are really good and children loved them. We have also bought a bottle in the boutique and they will open it and give you wine glasses and then we sat in the courtyard and did our own tasting, so that is another option if you don’t eat lunch here. In 2020 they were taking temperatures and installed a hand washing station at the entrance and the tables were placed widely and outside.
Montes restaurant and vineyard.
Another favourite is The Rayuela Wine & Grill restaurant at Viu Manent. You can have lunch outside (I always request to be outside) as you sit under fig trees and grapevines which is a wonderful relief from the hot sun in Santa Cruz. We have done their horse-drawn carriage through vines with the children and they also have a playground you can see from outside terrace. You can also tour the vineyards by bikes. The restaurant is open Mondays to Sundays at lunch time only from 12:00 to 16:30. Viu Manent is one of the fist vineyards to produce a Malbec wine in Chile and they are known for having good Malbec. The food is delicious. In 2020 they were taking temperatures and had anti-bac gel at the entrance.
Viu Manent restaurant and vineyard.
We have had lunch at Casa Colchagua which serves typical Chilean food in a restaurant made out of adobe and mud, it’s close to the Terra Viña hotel and a 5-minute walk from the Viño Bello restaurant. They serve the Laura Hartwig wines. There is a playground and hammocks you can see from the outside tables so it’s easy to watch the children. It was enjoyable. (We didn’t visit here in 2020.)
On the way home from the weekend, you can have lunch at Casa Silva, which is a vineyard about 40 minutes from Santa Cruz on the way back to Santiago. The buildings are gorgeous — you expect Valdivia to emerge on horseback at any minute! Or at least Zorro! The restaurant is on the polo field where, if lucky, you can watch them practice. Or at least let the kids run around if it’s empty. It’s a nice break and the setting is gorgeous. (We didn’t visit here in 2020.)
What friends say
Ristorante Viño Bello is a good Italian restaurant with a great patio outside where the kids can run around in the vineyards and you can keep an eye on them. At times, there is a gentleman that offers horse carriage rides (from the entrance off the patio) that can take you and the kids through the Laura Hartwig vineyard behind the restaurant’s patio. We can now concur as we enjoyed an amazing meal in 2020 here.
In April when Vendimia is on (the harvest) you can cut and squish grapes with your feet with the children at Montgras followed by a tasting. The tasting served mostly whites. (We didn’t visit here in 2020.)
The host of where we have stayed twice said Viña Neyen is his favourite. We went for a tour of the vineyard (we were the only ones there so it was lovely!) and a tasting. The tasting was pretty incredible. We all really loved the tour and the tasting. A very blurry tasting photo taken by my 9-year-old! (We didn’t visit here in 2020.)
My husband always stops in at Lapostolle and buys a box as they have a nice wine that he loves and knows will always taste great. He has had the tasting there as well.
In 2020 we visited Vina Escondida for something a bit different. A small, boutique winery run by a husband and wife team. My husband enjoyed their rose.
As I have said before, traveling is not made for families of five! You can find hotel rooms with two double beds, or one massive bed and if you have one child you can book one bed and squish them in with you. But five people usually involves two hotel rooms ($$) or Airbnb or boutique hotels.
Our absolute favourite place to stay is at Quinta Maria. The host, Juan Eduardo, is so warm and friendly and really makes the stay special. He takes the kids off into his small field and gets them to pick fruit to make juice for breakfast, almonds, feed chickens, check out the sheep and play with the dogs. They were off for a whole hour with him! bliss! The boutique hotel is one story and it was his grandfather’s house which collapsed in an earthquake. They re-built it so all the rooms are en suite but big, thick walls mean you are cool in the summer. They have family rooms for five and two connecting rooms which we booked when my in-laws went with us. Breakfast is included and there is usually coffee, tea and juice out in the afternoon. You can sit on the patio after you put the kids to bed and know everyone is safe but the parents can still enjoy some adult time! Outdoor pool and common areas. We usually eat a picnic supper outside. We have stayed here twice. It is located on a busy end of the main road, but once inside it’s an oasis and you don’t hear any road noise.
In 2020 we were the first guests to come back. They cleaned the rooms days in advance to seal them off, they served breakfast outside in front of each room so we all ate separate from other guests, and they wore masks the whole time.
Hotel Quinta Maria
The first time we went we were two families with three children each and we stayed at Hotel Santa Cruz which is conveniently located on the main square. A lot of families like this hotel because it’s a proper hotel, with restaurant, buffet breakfast, spa and indoor/outdoor pools. It also has a kids room with “tias” (babysitters). Bring swim caps if you have them. The breakfast was really good and an abundance of choice. If you go to the museum it’s free as it’s owned by the same person. They have ok wine, but we drank what we bought at the vineyard. The downside is if you put your kids to bed early then they could be on the second floor of the hotel, and there is no nearby common area. This was open in November 2020.
What friends say
Hotel Terraviña — beautiful and good restaurants within walking distance.
Marchigue — an old monestary with a great horseback riding club. They have rooms that sleep five and accept pets.
Noi — part of the Noi luxury hotel collection around Chile.
Hotel Parronales — our friends with two children really liked this hotel
Montes — a friend recently told me you can stay in the vineyard at Montes and my husband is itching to go! Looks incredible and sleeps six.
For when you ditch the kids
La Sara — boutique hotel with four double rooms, no children under 12 years of age.
Colchagua Camp — domes and luxury camping with wood fired hot tubs and horseback riding. No children allowed.
Viña Santa Cruz — known for their views and activities it has a car museum which the dads and children loved! It also has a gondola you can ride up for views from the hill. In November 2020 we visited here and rode the teleferico up the hill. Unfortunately my daughter and I slipped on the gravel (entirely our own fault) and we can attest the management was so kind and helpful as we had to take our seven-year-old to the clinic in Lolol. The teleferico was between $11,000 to $5,000 pesos and free glass of wine was included at the time (though I didn’t take mine as it was 10 a.m.!) and the car museum was $5,000 with free glass of wine and free can of pop for the children.
The next town down from Viña Santa Cruz is Lolol and it is really a sweet town with a playground in front of the village church and nice craft shops. We also stopped en route and bought delicious olive oil direct from the farm.
The Colchagua Museum (attached to Hotel Santa Cruz is free if you stay at the hotel) is interesting and quirky. Once was enough for me, but my 10-year-old is fascinated by it and has been twice!
You could do Santa Cruz for just a weekend, but I think even leaving on the Friday mid-day or at 3 p.m. when school gets out makes it much more relaxed and enjoyable. Of course a long weekend would be even better!
- Santa Cruz makes a great stop off if you are doing a bigger trip down to Puerto Varas or Pucon.
- You could do an extended drive home via the beach — Pichilemu would work.
- Our friends did a loop of Santa Cruz and then a few days in Valparaiso and back to Santaigo, but you almost have to go all the way into Santiago to get to Valpo. It’s not as loopy as it looks.
- A half day stop would be Pomaire for pottery and then carry on the back way (which is beautiful) to Santa Cruz.
There are so many wonderful places to stay and vineyards to visit. Comment below with your favourites!