(CNN) — Nestled between daunting snow-capped Andean mountains and the shores of the Beagle Channel lies Ushuaia, a busy port and adventure hub that takes full advantage of marketing its end-of-the-world vibe just a three-hour plane ride from Buenos Aires.
The town has been a missionary base, penal colony and naval base for the Argentine navy, but over the last decade or two it has transformed itself (with an admitted lack of urban planning) into a major tourist town complete with casinos, five-star hotels and a good selection of restaurants.
Where to Stay
Tierra del Fuego’s far southern location makes it a popular jumping-off point for trips to Antarctica.
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The clean and modern Fueguino is a solid mid-range option for those who prefer to stay downtown. It’s within easy walking distance to the casinos, tourist pier, and museums, and the hotel provides shuttle services to the ski center about 26 kilometers (16 miles) outside of town and the cruise terminal.
For travelers who want a more natural setting, the tranquil and upscale Los Cauquenes is 15 minutes outside of downtown Ushuaia, heading in the direction of the National Park and Glacier Martial. It is just steps from the coast of the Beagle Channel — book a suite to have a private balcony with gorgeous views of the sea.
But it is definitely Arakur which has set the standard for luxury accommodations in Ushuaia.
This sleek-yet-cozy hotel is located right inside the beech-filled nature reserve Cerro Alarkén, just a few minutes from downtown (hourly shuttles provided). Each of the sensual and modern suites has been designed to showcase local Argentine materials such as copper, marble, stone, woods and leather. Many come here for the toasty warm indoor-outdoor infinity pool that juts daringly out over a ravine, the perfect place to enjoy chilly sunset evenings before a glass or two of Malbec from the onsite La Cravia.
Where to eat
Ushuaia is one of the most expensive cities in Argentina, but food is not where you want to try to skimp. If you’ve made the effort to travel so far, indulge in some of the city’s finest restaurants to get to know the local food at its best. This far south, it’s all about the king crab (centolla), sea bass (merluza negra) and cholgas (large mussels).
If seafood is not your favorite, opt for the slow-cooked fuegian lamb. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you may want to bring some food items with you, as this is not the most veggie-friendly place on earth. One exception is the Viejo Almacen, also known as Ramos Generales. They make a mean veggie sandwich and offer up some creative pasta and risotto dishes.
Kaupé is a classic in the fine-dining scene in town. You’ll be warmly received by the head chef and owner, Ernesto Vivian, and his wife as you enter the high-end dining room overlooking the water with tables covered in crisp white tablecloths. Vivian prefers the king crab devoid of any sauces to show off its natural flavor. Grilled octopus is another specialty of the house.
While Kaupe is all elegance and candlelit romance, Volver has a grittier and more casual ambience, although the food quality remains sky-high. It’s in an antique house which has been declared a historical site on the main road of Maipu and is run by local chef legend and punky character Lino Gomez Adillon, who makes cooking king crab seem downright fun.
If local foods are what you are after, it does not get any more local than Kalma. Hands-down the most artistic and creative restaurant in town, passionate owner Jorge Monopoli plays relentlessly with his menu to accommodate in-season local berries, herbs and algae.
Monopoli’s ceviche could not be more fresh nor each plate more inspired. He also keeps an extensive wine selection on hand to always have the perfect pairing for his clients. Make sure to call ahead for a reservation, as there are only a few tables.
What to do
The Beagle Channel gets its name from Charles Darwin’s boat the HMS Beagle.
Many travelers check out Ushuaia only for a quick day trip as they debark their cruise ship — usually the national park in the morning and some city shopping in the afternoon. But this outdoor paradise deserves much more time for exploration.
Tierra Turismo is the best option for getting you out and about into nature. While they do guided national park trips, their state-of-the-art 4x4s can also get you well off the beaten track. You can book anything from a fairly sedentary trip where you just kick back and see the stunning sights from the ease of the truck, or you can get more active and kayak and hike your way through the region, crab fish, visit penguins at Harberton or explore an old shipwreck at San Pablo.
While Tierra has you covered on the ground, Heli Ushuaia offers helicopter flyovers of the the area, taking you over the Beagle Channel to glacial lakes and lagoons tucked deep into the mountains. They offer a landing or two for photo ops and even bust out the champagne with which to toast the incredible sights.
To explore the Beagle Channel, some do boat tours, but why not scuba with Ushuaia Divers?
There are forests upon forests of lush algae, massive (and not shy) king crabs and even the possibility of spotting a leopard seal. No previous dive experience is required. You just need to dress wisely – a couple of layers layers of long underwear under the dry suit they provide do the job to keep out the iciness.
If you really want to get into the true Patagonian spirit, explore your inner gaucho on horse with Centro Hipico Fin Del Mundo. You can ride for a couple of hours as they take you through the forest to the channel, or more serious horse lovers can ask about a long trip (10 days) of the entire Mitre Peninsula.
Many might hesitate to travel to the end of the world in the middle of winter. But the skiing is rather remarkable and Cerro Castor, about 45 minutes from Ushuaia, offers world-class skiing with some of the best powder around, relatively few people on the slopes, seven restaurants and luxe cabins on-site that are the perfect accommodation choice for families. Dogsledding is also offered in the area.
Cathy Brown (@cathybrown2100 on Instagram) is an adventure, family and luxury travel writer raising her three kids in the Andes of Argentine Patagonia.