I am in the most romantic place in the world. ALONE Vines thick with fat purple grapes hang above my head. The lavender sky stretching out over the province of Mendoza already shows off a perfect crescent moon and Venus shining bright. In my hand is a glass of Malbec, garnet red, with aromas of leather and blackberries. Below the stone steps where I’m perched, a violinist plays Argentine love songs. Beside me? No one. Except the British couple holding hands, the newlyweds from California and various other hotel guests sipping wine and canoodling.
Nestled in the foothills of the Andes, Mendoza is in the heart of Argentine wine country, and famous for its Malbecs. It is also the starting point for those crazy enough to climb Mount Aconcagua, at 23,000 feet the tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. My husband, Lorne, is one of those crazy people. He arrived here three weeks ago with a pickax and piles of microfiber clothing to add Aconcagua to his growing list of climbs: Rainier, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus. I left our Rhode Island home this morning, having packed sunscreen, cute summer dresses and a pair of flip-flops. The plan was for him to complete his climb, then rendezvous with me here at the Cavas Wine Lodge, after which we would visit vineyards and then continue on to Buenos Aires for a few days of city life.
I know he made it down the mountain; he called me two days ago, giddy and exhausted. But since arriving at the lodge, I’ve sat on the gorgeous rooftop terrace and gazed at the distant snowcapped Andes and the sweeping vista of vineyards by myself. I’ve nibbled the salmon mousse the hotel staff is passing around and sipped a few glasses of wine, all alone in my new strapless purple dress, my husband nowhere in sight. When the violin music ends, I make my way solo to our table for two. Midway through my appetizer of empanadas and still more Malbec, I look beyond the flickering candles, and there he is: bearded and beautiful, my mountain man, my husband, my beloved.
THE first time I met Lorne 17 years ago, as we shared life stories late into the night, he regaled me with tales of trekking in Nepal and climbing mountains all over the U.S. “I would never do that,” I told him. And I meant it. A fear of heights combined with a lack of interest made me certain that mountain climbing was not for me. Rather than being turned off, Lorne loved that I knew my own mind. Besides, we shared enough interests to keep this difference from getting in the way—until five years ago, when Lorne decided to climb more serious mountains around the world and I suddenly found myself left behind for four weeks every year.
When he scheduled his trip to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, I imagined the two of us on a safari, but the idea held no appeal for him. Two years later, Lorne headed for Russia’s Mount Elbrus, and my visions of roaming the Hermitage Museum and sipping vodka at the ballet proved uninspiring to him as well. But Mount Aconcagua, rising above all those vineyards in Mendoza, seemed like the perfect place for a couple who, while passionate for each other, were passionate for different leisure pursuits, and Lorne happily agreed.
The Cavas Wine Lodge has 14 casitas scattered around its vineyards. Each “little house” has a small private pool and a rooftop terrace with a fireplace and cushions for stargazing and lovemaking. After our steak dinner, Lorne and I run beneath those grape-laden vines, pausing only for kisses. Argentine summers are hot, but the light rain that falls on us that night brings cool temperatures. I listen as Lorne describes traversing a river, getting altitude sickness, hiking 18 miles before renting a car to meet me here. I can’t help but think of my own leisurely, albeit solo, evening with both relief and pleasure. Sure, I married a guy who likes to climb mountains, but after 17 years together, I’m even more convinced that I belong on terra firma. As Lorne sinks into the king-size bed, he sighs. “From sleeping on rocks to sleeping on this,” he says. I snuggle close, but my own Grizzly Adams is already snoring.
THE next morning, I don’t mention the hotel’s brochure that lists zip lines and mountain bikes. Instead, I show Lorne our itinerary: visits to three wineries, with lunch at the second one. The roads here are unpaved and unmarked, so we let the hotel arrange a driver for us. Emilio takes us to the Mendel winery, where a longhaired beauty named Cecelia greets us. The estate produces a relatively small quantity of very fine wine, all made in a 1915 adobe building. Cecelia tells us that Mendel wine is made in a traditional way: The grapes are picked by hand, not machines, and aged in French oak barrels. “It’s much more romantic,” she says, offering us a glass of a 2007 Malbec. “The aroma will make you fall in love.”
Love is the most important ingredient in winemaking, says Cecelia. I am happily sampling a 2004 Malbec, doing a vertical tasting (sampling the same wine from different years). When Cecelia hears me moan with delight, she laughs. “Malbec is a wine for women. Elegant. Romantic. You come home from work, open a bottle and have a glass as you sit alone and imagine the night ahead.”
At the next vineyard, Melipal, we miss the Mendel winery’s small size and homey atmosphere, and the tour reminds me of racing through the Hershey chocolate factory. Still, we love our lunch of chilled tomato-and-apple soup, served with a rosé, followed by three more courses, each served with a different Malbec: wild-mushroom and vegetable ceviche with red-beet bubbles; chicken and fig terrine; and grilled beef tenderloin. Even the strawberry mousse has a Malbec syrup.
By the time we get to Achaval-Ferrer, we are full and tipsy. We fall lazily into plump white cushioned chairs on the stone patio and let lovely Patricia bring us tastings of the winery’s Malbecs, which have won high praise from oenophiles (for good reason, we decide). It is 4 o’clock when we reluctantly finish our tastes of Dolce, this vineyard’s sweet dessert wine, and stagger into the car. After six hours, we have done everything except bathe in wine. So that is precisely what we do next.
THE Cavas Wine Lodge is, as Mary Poppins would say, practically perfect in every way. Bottles of wine await you in your room after a long day of, well, wine tasting. Pools glitter aquamarine in the sun. Employees greet you when you arrive and make sure you have everything you need. And there is a spa that looks as if it belongs in a palace, all white marble and sandalwood incense. This is where Lorne and I take our half-drunken selves to be scrubbed with Malbec grapeseeds before soaking in a hot bubble bath filled with red wine extracts. In side-by-side tubs, we sink into the deep purple water, which, remarkably, leaves no stain on the white towels. I glance over at Lorne, and my heart fills with pride and love. That he enjoyed the past three weeks—the arduous and dangerous climb, the freeze-dried food and the night in a tent while a blizzard raged—is beyond my understanding. But to be here with him afterward, to see him safe and sated, makes me happy. “Hey,” I say, “it’s good to see you, honey.” My husband smiles, then once again begins to snore.
A CLOSE second to Malbec in Argentina is beef. That night, we leave the lodge to join one of Lorne’s climbing guides in the city of Mendoza, at a restaurant called La Barra. Alejo and his wife, Genevieve, an avid climber who was with them on Aconcagua, are from Ecuador. The four of us sit with other diners at long wooden tables under a roof that’s been opened to show off the sky and stars. Grapevines snake around us. The plates are slabs of wood, and as an endless parade of grilled meats—pork, ribs, steak—appears, the three of them relive their moments on the mountain. Genevieve, with all the passion of her 27-year-old self, tells me that I must write about how important it is to climb mountains. “Is that your intention?” she demands. “Not at all,” I explain. “I have no interest in climbing mountains.” She and Alejo stare at me in disbelief. They begin to tell me what I am missing.
For a moment, I feel myself returning to my younger self, the one who, too embarrassed to say no, hiked down cliffs and up steep paths, heart pounding with fear, always the last one in a group. But then I snap out of it. Part of middle age for me is not giving in to such pressures. I don’t want to ski black diamonds, rappel down rocks or climb mountains. “It’s not for me,” I say firmly. I raise my glass of wine in a toast. “But here’s to those who love it.”
LEAVING wine-drenched, laid-back Mendoza is difficult, but the lure of tango and Buenos Aires eases our farewell. After a two-hour flight, we are standing in the neighborhood called Palermo Soho, in our tiny, aptly named Costa Petit Hotel. With only four guest rooms, each decorated with whimsical art and antiques, the hotel is charming and cozy. Hand in hand, we explore the streets around it. One afternoon is spent browsing books and eating empanadas at Boutique del Libro. The next day, after a breakfast in bed of café con leche and croissants, we ride the A line on the subte, the Buenos Aires subway, with the original wooden cars from 1913.
The city is large and sprawling with tree-lined streets, rolling parks dotted with impressive statues and fountains, ice cream shops and cafés everywhere. But my fantasy is to tango with Lorne. I think I fell in love with him all those years ago when he visited me in my New York City apartment and “Build Me Up Buttercup” came on the radio. Without pausing, Lorne took me in his arms and began to dance. After all this time, all those mountains—the literal and figurative ones that, between us, we’ve scaled—is a spontaneous dance still enough to send my heart into overdrive?
The tango, however, proves elusive. From what I’d read before coming here, it sounded as if people tangoed on every street corner. But the famous Sunday milonga in the San Telmo neighborhood is rained out. The lessons at Confitería Ideal are canceled all week because a television commercial is being filmed there. While I keep listening for the sounds of an accordion playing tango, Lorne and I go to one of the professional shows at the Astor Piazzolla Theater. The ornate dinner theater reminds me of Rhode Island’s Chateau de Ville, the magenta and purple wedding cake of a dinner theater from my childhood. But once the dancers appear, the comparisons stop. This is no bad revival of Camelot; this is passionate, heart-wrenching, beautiful tango.
Tango is a mix of several musical rhythms (African, Cuban and Spanish), originally danced only by men. By 1912, Buenos Aires throbbed with the beat of the tango, and couples danced it with legs intertwined, in a hug-like embrace. The professional dancers we watch are ruffled and sequined and skin baring. As a vocalist sings in Spanish, couples smile at each other, kiss, even climb onto each other’s laps. It is true that there’s something both lusty and lovely about the tango. Lorne leans over and kisses me. “Beautiful,” he murmurs.
AT LAST, on the day before we are set to leave, I arrange a tango lesson for myself at Torquato Tasso in San Telmo. (You have to sign up with a master teacher of the opposite sex, and no female master is available for Lorne during my time slot.) My instructor, Quique, is short and lithe and dressed entirely in black. He does not speak in English except to say, “We practice. That’s all.” Four other people and another instructor are in the class, but Quique is mine, all mine. We start with a simple eight-step tango, which I keep messing up on the sixth beat. “We practice. That’s all,” Quique says.
After an hour, we are dancing across the room almost smoothly, and I have learned to follow Quique’s lead: With a nod of his head and the firm pressure of his hand on my waist, he invites me to stop or turn or do a complicated thing with my feet (I get tangled up here and fall into him every time). “We practice,” he assures me. “That’s all.” Practice we do, my body slowly relaxing into his, my legs finally kicking close to him instead of away.
On my way back to the hotel to meet Lorne, I mull over what I’ve learned about the tango. There is no choreography. Instead, everything is improvisation. The woman understands the man’s intentions. I can’t help but think this describes my marriage to my mountain-climbing husband. Here in Argentina, we have found a place that satisfies us both, where we can do our separate things and still be together. I open the door to our room, and my heart still does that lurch when I lay eyes on Lorne. He smiles at me, steps forward and nods. Understanding his intention, I step into his arms.
ANN HOOD is the author of 11 books. Her latest novel, The Red Thread, has just been released in paperback. Her husband’s next climb will be Mount Denali (formerly McKinley) in Alaska.
Ann Hood’s Argentina
Where to stay
I highly recommend the Cavas Wine Lodge, a 30-minute drive outside the city of Mendoza (cavaswinelodge.com; double rooms from $678 a night, including 21% tax).
In Buenos Aires, try the Costa Petit Hotel (costapetithotel.com). Part of the charm is that it has just four rooms (from $250 a night), but that means it is booked well in advance. Also worth considering: Home (homebuenosaires.com; double rooms from $130 a night), a hip boutique hotel with 1970s-era decor and a terrific spa. If your return flight to the U.S. leaves late in the day, book a Stepping on Clouds preflight treatment: footbath, hand massage and foot and calf pressure-point massage ($70 for 60 minutes).
Where to eat
You cannot have a bad meal in Buenos Aires. Some of our favorite places: Bar 6 Great for breakfast, lunch and people watching. Gran Café Tortoni Although filled with tourists, this 1858 café, which houses tango and literary mem-orabilia in an ornate, lavish building, is a must for café con leche and a steak sandwich. La Caballeriza A lively, informal steak house where you can watch meats sizzle on the grill. Order the classic bife de chorizo. Cabernet For a respite from the delicious but ubiquitous beef menu, try this charming Tuscan restaurant.
Where to watch tango These shows are tourist attractions, but some are more authentic than others. I recommend
Piazzolla Tango (piazzollatangoshow.com; $56 per person, $100 with dinner) and Rojo Tango (rojotango.com; $200 per person, with dinner). For lessons, check out Torquato Tasso (torquatotasso.com.ar) or Confiteria Ideal (confiteriaideal.com; hours and prices vary).
Other sights to see
La Recoleta Cemetery Its most famous attraction is the tomb of Eva Perón, but the grand, oversize memorials throughout are also worth gaping at. The boxer in robe and boxing shoes is my favorite.
The Botanical Gardens It’s easy to spend a couple of hours here in the shade among blooming plants and impressive statues. A great place for a picnic.
Plaza de Mayo The white scarf design painted on the plaza’s stones commemorates the madres, a group of mothers who have protested here every Thursday since 1977, demanding to know the whereabouts of their children who were kidnapped and killed during the 1970s and ’80s. A good place to buy Che coasters, Evita pins, small flags of Argentina and postcards.