Uruguay’s Making Waves

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La Vigna lies between Colonia and Montevideo, the country’s capital that sprawls along the wide River Plate. It is a safe, walkable city with a long promenade by the water and a historic quarter whose important sites include the Torres Garcia Art Museum, honoring the country’s leading modern artist; the neo-classical Teatro Solis and the Cathedral, as well as the Cabildo and the beautiful Club Uruguay. Add to those the remarkable Palacio Taranco mansion and the Decorative Arts Museum.

New to the capital’s attractions are the delightful Carnival Museum and the Gaucho and Coin Museum, and drop in at the Mercado de los Artesanos (Handicrafts Market) and the Mercado del Puerto (Port Market), housed in a cast-iron Victorian structure, and home to little cafes and food stalls. Other attractions include two traditional outdoor markets: Mercado de la Abundancia in downtown and the Tristan Narvaja Street Market, open only on Sundays.

Who knew Uruguay has some 300 wineries? Or that Tannant grape is the specialty that distinguished Uruguayan wines? Consider the Juanico Estates, offering wine lovers an excellent survey of its wine production, complete with historical buildings, grand vineyards, a winery, cellar, and tastings.

From Montevideo, it’s a 2-hour drive to Punta del Este, a world-famous beach resort serving as the Hamptons of Latin America, a January and February playground for a mix of international personalities, beautiful people and wealthy South Americans. Locally called “La Punta,” the resort sits on a peninsula separating the Atlantic Ocean (surfers head here) and the River Plate estuary (sun-and-sand territory). Special interest accents are on yacht racing, deep-sea fishing, tennis, golf, beauty pageants and gambling.

Leave time for the excellent Ralli Museum in the exclusive Beverly Hills neighborhood; Fundacion Pablo Atchugarry Foundation, the museum and sculpture park of the beloved Uruguayan sculptor; and sunset cocktails at Casapueblo, the cliffside hotel and museum dedicated to the work of owner Carlos Paez Vilaro.

One of the new properties here is the Awa Boutique + Design Hotel, a 48-room property in a leafy residential area, convenient to downtown. The property offers a tasteful minimalist decor such as white walls displaying colorful works by local artists. The poolside spa has a sauna and whirlpool, and hot stone and shiatsu massages. Rooms run from $110.

Thirty-five miles up the coast is Jose Ignacio, once a sleepy fishing village and surfer outpost, now the “go-to” place on the coast. Today the passion for kitesurfing is year-round, but during the “official” high-season (Dec. 25-Jan. 10), the town is less sleepy when the very rich and glamorous residents and guests arrive, staying in private mansions and beach houses, or at one of a few incredibly charming boutique hotels, informally scattered down sandy lanes with no names.

One of our favorites is the Casa Suaya, a boutique hotel facing Brava Beach, which has 16 stonewall suites and three thatched-roof bungalows with water views, fireplaces and open kitchenettes. It’s home to the Butia restaurant, opening onto an infinity pool with ocean views. Suites range from $150-$1,000; bungalows from $250-$650, including breakfast.

Still another is La Posada del Faro, stylish and friendly, and a bit like a Mediterranean getaway. Its 15 beautifully appointed rooms surround a pool with swim-up bar and views of Jose Ignacio bay. High-season rates start at $380, low-season from $180, with breakfast.

Playa Vik is the newest boutique hotel and calling it a unique work of art is just the beginning. Designed by Montevideo-born architect Carlos Ott (best known for Paris’ Opera Bastille), this super-modern hotel occupies a sculptural glass-and-titanium main building with a cantilevered pool jutting out toward the ocean, surrounded by six grass-roofed casitas, that are divided into 2- and 3-bedroom units. Other over-the-top features range from a 40-ft. wine cellar to a parillero dining pit on deck for barbecues. This is the beachside sister hotel to Estancia Vik, a nearby luxurious ranch on 4,000 inland acres, and as at the estancia, Uruguayan artists were given free rein at Playa Vik. Priced from $800 in low season, from $1,500 in high.

The scene has also been enlivened by new art galleries and upscale dining such as La Huella, sitting in the dunes and the place to dine on fried calamari and white sangria. It’s open year-round, while others—Marismo, for al fresco dining on slow-braised lamb, and Namm for sushi and grilled meats—have a December-February season.