Those who can not only find South America’s best-kept secret on a map but also get down there are in for an extremely pleasant surprise, says Josh Spero
THE ATLANTIC IS a pleasant partner to wake up next to. As the Nespresso gave its brief gurgle in the kitchen, I wandered out on to the balcony of my apartment in Punta del Este and looked out across the lawn and the beach to the ocean, which was readying itself for a busy day of roiling and crashing. Beyond the horizon, on the same latitude, lay Cape Town and, further beyond, Canberra. Any further south and there would be penguins.
But no penguins on this morning in Punta. No, just the prospect of brunch and the beach and a museum on this peninsula of Uruguay which has become a magnet for the world’s high-net-worths, a wintering spot to avoid the malaise induced by short days, long nights and frozen breath.
It is the Cap d’Antibes of South America, highly sociable and garlanded with good restaurants and down the coast from hideaway towns for the wealthy, with Miami-esque apartment blocks thrown in towards the tip for the population which swells in the season — Christmas to mid-January.
Having said that, my apartment could probably have accommodated most of those who arrive for the season, with room for a complete set of Swaine Adeney luggage, too. The apartment, in the Acqua complex sited a peaceful distance up the coast from the bustle of Punta, could usefully employ the sort of buggy that runs over the nearby golf course, or perhaps a telescope to see who is at the other end of the room.
The main room runs on white marble from an oak dining table to cream leather sofas and a white coffee table, past a chaise longue cleverly positioned to look on to the balcony and thus to the ocean, and on to a second seating area, the grey jacquard silk sofas facing white wingback chairs. Between here and the four bedrooms are the kitchen, with its double fridges and concierge button, and a television room where you can catch Uruguay’s equivalent of Deal or No Deal.
Acqua has pedigree: the architect of its L-shape is Uruguayan Rafael Viñoly, who designed the Tokyo International Forum, many Ivy League university buildings and the new terminal for Montevideo’s Carrasco airport. It was his first project in Uruguay, and he wanted it to be different from everything else around it.
In this he has succeeded: too many other apartment buildings in Punta reach for the sky and have no intention of subtlety, whereas Acqua is distinguished by its Jura Stone manufacture and calmness and quiet beauty. (The other popular choice for HNWs is a private villa further up the coast, on which more below.) To emphasise quite what a rarefied location Acqua occupies, the estate it overlooks belongs to the Argentinian cement billionairess Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat, once a subject for Warhol.
There are 34 apartments, spreading out up to 1,600sq m, some including terrace and pool, and costing up to £5.3 million. Twenty-two have gone, mostly to Europeans (including one gentleman who brought his cousin over to look at an apartment when I was there), but also to Argentinians and a couple recently to surgent Brazilians. The one unsold penthouse has servants’ quarters with two bedrooms, and other apartments have wine cellars and home cinemas; all have year-round housekeeping. There is also a gym in the building, and a beach club and restaurant across from Acqua.
BRUNCH BECKONED AT L’Auberge, next door to Acqua. Dominated by an enormous red-brick tower, this hotel is based around a lush garden, on to which the Mock Tudor-faced bedrooms look out. At the table next to me, a young woman was being harassed by her prospective mother-in-law about arrangements for her wedding, which was going to take place in a transparent marquee then being erected in the garden. It was a society wedding, to judge by the mother-in-law’s handbag and facelift, and the bride was gaining one of Uruguay’s prize bachelors, as she was constantly being reminded.
Later that day, I found myself on a stretch of the beach which wraps itself around the coast of Punta and thence for 25 miles in either direction. On the Atlantic side of Punta the beaches are brava, meaning the sea is rough and windblown, whereas on the sheltered side they are mansa, gentle but not so good for watersports. Since these can become rather crowded in the season — and there are no private beaches, only ones near better or more exclusive areas — the clever either head a short distance westwards to Punta Ballena or eastwards to La Barra.
My beach near Punta Ballena was mansa, meaning there was less sea-going traffic to distract from a heroic tanning effort. Although you had to travel through a beaten-up neighbourhood to get there, the beach was quiet and without the distractions of bleating socialites fetching frozen cocktails from a bar (though they can be found in a plenitude elsewhere round the coast if you so desire).
A nearby landmark is Casapueblo, once the private residence of Carlos Páez Vilaró, Uruguay’s most famous artist —a Cubist who never quite got over meeting Picasso — now a hotel, restaurant and museum. The house-village has expanded across an entire hillside, its whitewashed cement facade clinging to it like a lichen. In the Seventies, Vilaró’s home was open to all the great artists and musicians of South America, and it played an important role in the development of bossa nova.
Though not at all obvious from the preponderance of flip-flop shops and bookstores, there are some excellent restaurants in Punta. Il Baretto is perfect for romantic dinners — or so I am given to understand — while La Bourgogne specialises in French cuisine and the Yacht Club (as the crusty name implies) is where the old money hangs out, observing their own super-yachts docked nearby.
During the season, there are beach parties and private parties, and both are easy to sniff out once you know a few people. One can also shop to a certain degree — on Calle 20 there are sufficient designer stores, but the key is to be low-key.
The next day, I set out to explore the coast east of Punta, where there are several small towns and not a high-rise building for miles. These towns — principally La Barra and José Ignacio, both accessible in less than an hour’s drive along Ruta 10 — are home to the villas of Uruguayan, Argentinian and further-flung HNWs. Many of these are designed by Martin Gomez, whose stone-wall and tabebuia-wood style immediately points out those with sufficient taste and funds.
The lighthouse at José Ignacio
Gomez designs are almost ubiquitous as you tool round these towns. Like Acqua, they do not assert themselves other than in their evident quality. A new trend in home decoration is to adopt a more Mexican colour scheme, thus bright purples and oranges predominate in an effort to engage more with the native cultures of Latin America. (The award-winning Mantra hotel and resort — formerly a Cipriani property — near La Barra is coated in a sickly orange.)
THAT IS, IN fact, one of the striking things about Uruguay: it is so entirely Anglo and Euro. Ten per cent of the population are Afro-Uruguayans and 6 per cent Mestizos (European-Amerindians), but they either live in far-flung rural corners or are submerged in a society which spins around the wealthy. This has been a charm for many generations of Spanish and Italian settlers and European visitors — everyone is just like you. You hardly need engage with a foreign culture at all.
All this was inchoate speculation as I travelled to La Barra, past the continuous run of beach, separated from the road by a scrubland overrun with what looked like pink daisies. The daisies clump and congregate for miles to form a barrier which won’t prevent you steering into the sea should you be distracted by a sunset. A secluded beach outside La Barra gives a partial view of the electric-blue villa Mick Jagger rented a few years ago.
The centre of La Barra — though it’s no centre worth mentioning, only a confluence of three roads — is where the teenaged children of those who have come for the season gather to skateboard and buy churros, long, thin, ridged doughnuts, sprinkled in sugar or covered in chocolate sauce. (I tried one with dulce de leche, the local toffee, and almost went into hyperglycaemic shock.)
For the adults, there is an alarming number of antique shops wherein you can furnish your new Martin Gomez home. A little further along the road through La Barra is Flo, a café where politicians, artists and journalists swap rumours and do beautiful things. If you want to come and scope out a site for your villa, stay at La Posta del Cangrejo.
José Ignacio is the true treat of this coast. Much smaller than La Barra, it still has the same mix of million-pound shacks — expensive homes here are determined not by size or complexity but more often by location — and indeed you are greeted by Christie’s Great Estates as you drive in. The lighthouse (faro) is José Ignacio’s signature, requisite for the coast’s busy port activities, and there is a noted hotel, La Posada del Faro, nearby, but its allure is La Huella, a restaurant beside the beach where HNWs can be found at lunch, gulping down their caipirinhas.
The quality of fish in these towns is outstanding because it is so fresh, so fish tempura is never a bad way to start your meal. (Namm is a good sushi restaurant nearby.) But the steak — that is something else. There is a photo of me taken by my companion (above right): I have a daiquiri in one hand and there is a hunk of steak on a plate in front of me, and though my head is slightly tilted downwards, I remember that I was smiling like a man who has experienced instant enlightenment. You might honestly mistake me for a medieval saint in a Duccio, so beatific is my smile. I can’t — won’t — try to describe the steak, except to say that I have not eaten any since I returned to London.
The following day, I moved inland to Garzón (an hour and a half in a Mercedes) to stay at a friend’s villa. Garzón is the best-kept secret Uruguay has to offer, far from the HNW tourist trail. It is a railway town whose railway stopped running years ago. Its houses are simple one-storey buildings, most of them frankly shacks in quite bad repair, and the roads are dust; there is a central square with climbing frames and some children playing, and that is almost all. Almost.
WHAT EXPLAINS THE private jets landing nearby is the small hotel and restaurant just off the central square. Francis Mallmann, who founded Restaurant Garzon, is the Gordon Ramsay of South America, only without the swearing, attitude or current precipitous decline, and is recognised by the world’s top food critics and magazines as the supreme example of South American rustic cuisine. (His book, Seven Fires, is available in the Spear’s/Amazon bookstore.)
There are only five bedrooms and tables to seat fewer than 15 people. As you enter the hotel, you are immediately in the dining room, panelled with the darkest brown wood, the tables to your left and in front of you a low couch and a coffee table with some of Mallmann’s own library on it; I sat and read Marlowe’s translation of Lucan. On another table, in front of the doors to the outdoor pool, are stacks of The New Yorker going back a decade and more, the perfect accompaniment to solo dining.
The food, from a kitchen glassed-off from the dining room, the grand grill very much visible, was simple yet extraordinary. There were two steaks which have stuck with me (it was a meat-heavy week), and grilled salmon sandwiched in potato rösti with a tingling salsa on the side. In three days I tried most of the menu, since my friend who owned the villa was still in London and thus I took every meal at Restaurant Garzon.
I consequently got through a dozen New Yorkers randomly plucked from the piles, reading about why you should vote for Al Gore, a long article on teenage prodigies’ suicides, an interview with Thomas Adès. In between meals, I would go back to my villa and swim in the pool or sit in the shade under the pergola’s trailing grape vines and read something light, like The Brothers Karamazov or Euripides’ Medea — in Greek. There was utter silence, disturbed only by the occasional bark of a neighbouring dog, and the fields stretched beyond the pool for miles.
I was there just before the season proper started, so it was quiet — I was the only customer until my last evening, when, as if a starting gun had been fired, the HNWs started to descend. One couple were celebrating their engagement; a trio of friends had moved their annual meet-up down south. I sat outside, contemplating the pool and the quiet. There is nothing to do in Garzón, but you don’t come here to do anything.
Travelling back to Carrasco airport to catch my flight to São Paolo and thence to London, I felt tranquil, a planet away from the machinations at home.