Buenos Aires, Argentina

It’s winter in the Southern Hemisphere and the crisp, cool breezes off the huge estuary of the Rio de La Plata feel like Mark Twain’s San Francisco in the summer.

For the American traveler – at least for this longtime Montecito Latin America aficionado – Argentina these days is a desirable destination, and it is this city that brings it all together: red wine and meat, good looking people and tango, classic colonial architecture and perhaps best of all for we gringos, terrific prices. Not to mention fabulous French-fries everywhere (they must still use lard).

The dollar may not be doing so well in Europe, but this country’s economic woes – currency devaluation and debt default – make it a superb value for Americans.

The place to stay for the Montecito traveler is the Alvear Palace Hotel, probably the best hotel in South America. Family-owned for 72 years and recently refurbished, in the subdued and luxurious residential section called Recoleta, the 200-room hostelry is the perfect headquarters, snug in its own wealthy enclave but less than a ten-minute taxi ride or a twenty-minute walk from the bustling shopping and historic government buildings of downtown.

Service at the Alvear is as good as it gets, and even the least expensive rooms are rich and comfortable (but ask for good light and a view), and the generous breakfast in Jardin D’Hiver, the class-enclosed courtyard, is a good beginning to a day walking the city streets.

Dinner, Opera, Tango

Out on those those streets, you’d never know the place was an economic basket case. The stores are crowded with well-dressed people from the crowded Florida pedestrian mall downtown to the high-end boutiques of Recoleta and near-by Palermo. Did I say basket case? The parks – and there are many of them – in these neighborhoods are thronged with professional dog walkers, each with a string of eight or ten canine companions. It looks like not quite everyone was devastated by the financial crisis.

Luscious leather goods in the windows, hand-woven women’s garments, hundreds of shoe boutiques and regional crafts shops are fun to look at, but I’m not much of a shopper, though I must confess I did succumb to a new topcoat. My window-shopping is restaurants. I could hardly wait to try the famed Argentina beef, the meat of the legendary pampas. And I did, every day. I ate sirloin at the city’s reputedly very best steak house, Cabana Las Lilas, down at Puerto Nuevo, the gentrified warehouse area on the water. I sat outside at the water’s edge, the usual bottle of red wine in front of me, and enjoyed the meat. Very good, but you know something? It is no better than what you’d get in a good U.S. steak house, although admittedly at a much nicer price.

After dinner, it was time to tango. No, no, not me. I don’t tango. But just off the cobbled streets of the San Telmo neighborhood is the Bar Sur, a small club whose tango show seemed to this uninitiated spectator beautifully spectacular, a drama of romance and beauty and just enough lust.

The next day, the Alvear concierge sent me around the corner to a tiny place called San Juaquino for real regional food. Two hustling, yellow-shirted waiters served half a dozen wooden tables, bringing the always-present Argentine empanadas, tamales and a local stew called locro. But I think my favorite was a late lunch at a classic place called Dora. Businessmen, starched white linen, dark wooden walls, huge portions of fish and meat. I had grilled short ribs, lots more than I could eat. And creamed spinach and a potato au gratin casserole and, of course, French fries.

The last night, before heading out into the pampas, I went to the opera at the French renaissance-faced Teatro Colon. They were doing what I translated to be Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. My fellow enthusiasts were in furs and Levis, and fortunately I was there early enough to muddle through the program, in Spanish of course, and discern the plot. Afterwards I jumped into a cab (you can go nearly anywhere in central Buenos Aires for two or three dollars) and went downtown to eat at Broccolino. Enough meat for a while. This time it was pasta, a putanesca. Not quite as good as what I make at home, perhaps, but still pretty good, with a bottle of red wine. And French fries.

Getting there: American, United or Varig airlines.

Staying There: Alvear Palace Hotel, doubles $410-$440, Tel: 54 11 4808-2960, Fax: 54 11 4808-2423, www.alvearpalace.com