It’s starting to feel like spring—in the Southern Hemisphere. Chilly mornings are warming up quickly in Valparaíso in the center of Chile. Wildflowers are blooming along the coast of Petorca, the region’s northernmost province. While Zapallar, the French Riviera of the South American country, looks like its rousing from its winter slumber.
The change of the seasons is most evident along Zapallar’s waterfront. Its golden-sand beach isn’t dotted with sunbathers yet. There are only a few people standing at the edge of the water; others are walking along the stone promenade. Small fishing boats are bobbing in the blue-green water near Caleta de Zapallar. Fishermen, who already unloaded their catch of the day in the marina, are playing dominos alongside huge boulders. A few pelicans are scoping out their boats just in case they missed something. Plus brave diners, wrapped in layers and trying to position their chairs in direct sunlight, sit on the deck of El Chiringuito, the restaurant attached to the little seafood market.
You’re one of the people shifting with the sun. El Chiringuito is the perfect first stop in Zapallar. The little restaurant’s floor is covered with crushed seashells. Wooden chairs and tables were carved by hand. The food—machas a la parmesana (Parmesan razor clams), ostiones (scallops), erizos (sea urchins), and pastel de centolla (king crab casserole)—is simple but delicious. Pours of Sauvignon Blanc are generous. Your attention keeps ping-ponging between the feast in front of you and the crashing waves to the side.
Zapallar lies two hours northwest of Santiago. The seaside village wasn’t supposed to become a summer playground for elite Chileans. But after an extended stay on the south coast of France in the late-19th century, a wealthy landowner decided that Chile’s Central Coast also needed an exclusive enclave. So he built a Mediterranean-style villa—with a water view, of course—in the hills and convinced his rich friends to do the same.
Multimillion-dollar houses, ranging from historic mansions to modern cottages, now dot that hillside overlooking the horseshoe-shaped bay. Winding streets are lined with aromatic cypress and eucalyptus trees. Upscale shops surround Plaza Mar Bravo up the hill from the beach. Zapallar manages to feel both casual and chic, posh and quaint at the same time.
The relaxed vibe may have something to do with what was omitted. High-rise buildings and big hotels were purposely left out of Zapallar. So when you finish your lazy lunch, you drive into the hills to find your small boutique hotel. Casa Zapallar is a striking building that effortlessly blends the modern and the traditional. A fireplace, a leather sofa, and plenty of reading material fill the living room. It overlooks the terrace and the little pool. Seven rooms feature coigue wood floors and hand-woven carpets, king-size beds and goose-feather duvets. While the kitchen is ready to whip up homemade treats, including ice cream, with a bit of notice. It looks like spring isn’t the only thing settling into Zapallar.