That is, Punta del Este. Just call it “Punta” to be cool and in the know like all the Argentines, Uruguayans, Chileans, Brazilians, and international jetsetters who flock there each summer from December to February.
It’s the glamour puss coast where the elite come to play with their toys: shiny yachts, Miami-style luxury high-rises overlooking the azure sea, manicured gardens with European-style mansions, and hot, bronzed beauties gracing the sands. Akin to the St. Tropez on the (real) Riviera and the Hamptons in the States, while you can chill with supermodels like Naomi Campbell in José Ignacio or stock up on Gucci, Punta is really all about the beach. Amen.
The golden, fine, sandy beaches, stretching for nearly 40 miles, are the draw. Turquoise waters, some rocks for scenic texture, beautiful homes clinging to the shores, and the green pastures in the background form a vivid beach mosaic. I was seduced by the allure of its beaches (and nearby wineries). One summer I had to get away from the frigid waters of the south Pacific Chilean coast. The thought of swimming in the ocean with no rip tides or limb-numbing temperatures was really becoming foreign to me (Viña del Mar’s ocean is like swimming in Half Moon Bay near San Francisco).
As an American girlfriend told me, “Liz, it’s very east coast style beach”.
“Ahh, east coast like the Jersey shore of my youth?”
“Yes, and,” she continued, “there are lots of awesome restaurants, beautiful people, sand dunes, cute villages.” Add in one boutique hotel and I was in–and to celebrate my birthday in late January I may add.
So after hitting the wine country to drink some Tannat, we headed for several days of R&R in Punta Piedras, between the now very chic fishing village of José Ignacio and La Barra. We slumbered in Posada de Piedra, the most exquisitely decorated boutique hotel we’ve stayed in for ages. We felt like we were crashing with wealthy friends with an oceanside estate tucked away among green pastures and aromatic eucalyptus trees, with the glimmer of the sea in the distance. Only 3 minutes away to being oceanside.
The days in Punta were how I like to spend my vacations: wake up (late, no 6am alarm please); have thick-as-tar coffee and medialunas with dulce de leche in the sun; head for the beach; find a cute lunch spot with grilled fish and cold beer; take long siesta on beach (reapply SPF); come home recover from sun (add tan-enhancing lotion as necessary); dress up and head out for cocktails and dinner. Repeat next day.
We jumped around between José Ignacio with its gorgeous lighthouse and wild, rolling waves; La Barra’s chill family-oriented ambience, and Manantiales Bikini beach scene where massages and pick-up volleyball seemed to be happening simultaneously all the time. When not lounging, people were surfing, jogging, walking, biking, leisure at its best during the day. At night, make reservations for dining, that was the entertainment. However, as popular, crowded, and exclusive as Punta can supposedly be, even in the height of the season, we never thought it was overwhelming. At least where we were in Punta, farther out from the city scene, there was space, sand, relaxation, and enough people to feel like it was summer.
For all of you Punta-bound readers this summer, I’d like to share a teeny preview of our upcoming Eat Wine Guide (Uruguay) slated to debut in 2010. This list is by no means exhaustive and does not cover all the great eats, especially in places like José Ignacio or Punta proper (the idea is buy the new guide!). And if you haven’t been yet, seriously, what are you waiting for? I wish I had discovered its cool beachy vibe years ago. Oh well, I am now back to being an east coast beach goer. Remember though, the action is from December-February to get the real Punta experience.
Cactus & Pescados (Manantiales):
Just across the road from Mar de Verdes, for a more restaurant-y lunch, arrive early to stalk out your spot on their sunny terrace overlooking Bikini Beach and the Emeralds coastline stretching up towards La Barra. Locals swarm here at lunch time to savor the local brótola, a flaky whitefish similar to grouper, brillantly seared and served in creamy sauces with tiny shrimp and mussels. They also serve up finger-linking good chipirones, tiny fried squid, served with a tangy pimiento homemade mayo. Perfect washed down by a cold beer. Slather on the SPF, tanning on the terrace is not optional.
Medialunas Calentitas (La Barra):
Believe me when I tell you to get there early or be prepared for a never-ending line. Crowds form at Punta’s most popular bakery for, what else?!, dozens of sticky sweet medialunas, a type of local croissant. Order a frothy cortado, espresso cut with steamed whole milk and cop-a-squat at the picnic tables. Or take them to go, for the beach or your deck, naturally.
Mar de Verdes (Manantiales):
Yummm! An unassuming whitewashed snack shack on the corner of Route 10 at Bikini Beach in the heart of decor-conscious Manantiales (super cute!). They serve up cappuccinos, sweet treats, and energizing zumos, fresh-squeezed juices like carrot-orange-fresh ginger. Stock up on delicious ciabatta sandwiches like roasted eggplant with goat cheese, sundried tomatoes and arugula or the local sandwich with the works, chivito (steak, cheese, bacon, tomato, egg, roasted peppers, tomato, onion, lettuce, mayo). All the fixin’s for a perfect picnic on the beach.
El Abrazo (Manantiales):
On top of a hill amid a eucalyptus grove, this young couple, Lucía Sosa Dias and Federico Gasparri, constructed this minimalist gem to run a cool yet homey restaurant on the first floor and their home upstairs. Owners of the hipster café, El Beso, in Ciudad Vieja in Montevideo, the only way to sum up their offering is: summery, fresh, creative, and attentive. Unlike most of the meat-heavy menus in Uruguay, here the star ingredients are born from the sea in dishes like ceviche, crab, local fish like brótola or mero, in addition to braised meats. Start with a daiquiri made with fresh fruit and watch the sunset on their oriental style terrace where they build a bon fire every night. Romantic, intimate, be sure to leave room for the dark chocolate “volcano”. Local phone: (042) 774 140, be sure to get good directions. Not on the main road.
Parador La Huella (José Ignacio):
I LOVE this place, in fact, it may be my favorite hang out in Punta/José Ignacio. The location is primo, nestled among the sand dunes and million dollar homes of José Ignacio. Once a rustic fishing village now discovered by the jet set crowd, every day and night there is a scene happening at La Huella. First, don’t think about coming without a reservation–several days in advance. You will want to ensure yourself a piece of this cool, sleek al fresco beach club with the waves crashing nearby. Settle into the cushy couches and order a clericó, sangría-type drink, or killer vodkatini. Tasty sushi and simple, fresh gourmet fare rule. The owners recently launched this year project 2, Parador La Caracola, part of a private island club on Laguna Garzón, La Caracola, only accessible by boat. Sweet!
If you’ve come this far and want to indulge in a foodie orgy, why not head a little farther inland down a scenic dirt road to eat at celebrity chef Francisco Mallmann’s legendary Garzón restaurant (also a boutique hotel). Well appointed in gaucho chic style, tables on the brick patio are set with white linens and sparkling crystal glasses. As you embark on your culinary odyssey, village dogs and kittens scamper under the table and trucks rumble down the dusty roads. Let Mallmann walk you through the bible of grilled meats, sublime gnocchi, succulent braised lamb, and other delectable bites. Ojo, opulence and good taste come at a cost–a meal for two may run US$250.