Published: 21st October 2012
Uruguay is not on every traveller’s list, partly because many are hazy about where it might be — in South America, but where exactly? And what is it about the place that could have prompted Martin Amis and his wife to leave England for a life by the beach there?
My curiosity grew when I was in Buenos Aires, in the heat of the Argentine summer. People kept bragging about “going east” across the Uruguayan border to Punta del Este or Jose Ignacio.
“It’s like the Hamptons,” one wealthy local told me. “It’s where we go to the beach when the city gets too hot. Why not take a look for yourself? The journey is less than an hour by plane.”
Why not? I left behind the quiet elegance of my Buenos Aires hotel, surrounded by serene antique shops and dignified gentlemen in dignified jackets, and found myself transported to a startlingly fashionable world where everyone was sexy, slim and immaculately dressed, and where the hotels were stuffed with paintings and sculptures. It felt bracing after a lifetime spent in London, where most of the people I know are a little bookish and not, well, overly groomed.
Punta del Este arrived on the map in the 1950s, when the Rat Pack discovered it and started partying. Models and movie stars still jet in to be photographed on the beaches and stumble out of nightclubs, but the resort has become overdeveloped, with high-rise apartments and crowds in high season. Step forward Jose Ignacio, 20 miles northeast — relaxed, urbane and much, much smarter.
Jose Ignacio is a former fishing village only in the sense that St Tropez is a former fishing village. It’s where De Niro and DiCaprio come to kick back.
For me, its sprinkle of low-rise glass-walled houses gave the place an out-of-the-way feeling, as though they had just wafted in off the sea and might waft back at any moment. The light was ravishing, and everywhere you could hear the ocean.
In the main square, sand blew in from the surfing beaches, and I watched tanned women in flimsy frocks and preposterously high wedge heels walk hand in hand with their beautiful children.
Kids rollerskated by, and a man in green trousers and purple loafers stood outside the village store, looking handsome and happy with himself.
Art was everywhere. At the nearby Punta Ballena, I visited Casapueblo, the Gaudi-esque studio of the abstract painter Carlos Paez Vilaro, a whitewashed citadel of domes and curvy doorways under a blazing blue sky. Then there was the workshop of the magnificent sculptor Pablo Atchugarry, who came surging out among his marble monoliths to greet me, a huge Vulcan of a man covered in white dust. Atchugarry’s work is scattered through the streets of the surrounding towns, capturing the sea light, but also expressing the gaiety and glory of a region in love with style.
The place to dine in Jose Ignacio, so I was told, is La Huella, on Playa Brava, and this too felt temporary and casual, with a welcoming pathway of candles sparkling in the sand. Families eat here, not just the jet set, and the staff were easy-going, without the self-regarding stuffiness of the south of France. I relaxed over a plate of brotola, a white fish, and half listened to the crash of the waves.
Beds aren’t cheap. I checked in at the startling Estancia Vik Jose Ignacio just as the millionaire advertising magnate Martin Sorrell was checking out. It was one of the loveliest places I’ve ever stayed in. The 12 suites are individually designed by different artists and nestle in 4,000 acres — that’s 333 acres each.
The views from my terrace outdazzled any photograph I could take: horses grazed and streams glimmered in a landscape that shone to the horizon.
Back in the village, meanwhile, is its sister property, Playa Vik Jose Ignacio, an avant-garde hotel beside the beach, so stylish that it felt like bedding down in an art gallery. The titanium and glass lobby is called the Sculpture, and it tilts out over the ocean, as though about to take off — its architect, Carlos Ott, also designed Punta del Este’s airport.
For more modest lodgings, there is the sleepy village of Garzon, 10 miles inland. Here lies Casa Anna, home of the British art dealer Martin Summers, where you can rent a flat, swan off to the beach and eat at El Garzon, a sensational restaurant with rooms just down the road. The community here is mostly English-speaking, and little by little its houses are being restored — I spotted a village wreck opposite the restaurant for sale at £50,000.
I flew back to Buenos Aires reinvigorated. The Uruguayan riviera is about much more than starlets and surfers, glamour and glitz. For me, the joy of this coast is the light, and the art it provokes — a place and a people in love with the visual, confidently revelling in their own skin.
Need to Know
Sally Emerson travelled as a guest of The Ultimate Travel Company.
When to go
High season is January and February, but expect sunshine and a party between November and March.
Where to stay
Estancia Vik (00 598-9 460 5212, vikretreats.com) has suites from £400, B&B. Suites at Playa Vik (details as above) start at £775, B&B. Casa Anna (07770 232121, casaannagarzon.com) has doubles from £310, B&B.
Where to eat
The Ultimate Travel Company (020 3051 8098, theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) can tailor-make a nine-day holiday in Argentina and Uruguay, starting with three nights at the Sofitel Buenos Aires, then flying to Punta del Este for four nights at Playa Vik, then two more at Casa Anna. Prices start at £3,717pp, including flights from Heathrow to Buenos Aires and back from Montevideo, transfers and some meals. Other operators include Audley (01993 838650, audleytravel.com) and Journey Latin America (020 3468 0390, journeylatinamerica.co.uk).