Jose Ignacio (Harper’s Bazaar)

‘We can’t make it, we’re off to Punta del Este that weekend’. For all those close to casual announcements that one hears over supper in London, New York and Madrid these days, you’d imagine it’d be a damn sight easier to get to get that aforementioned seaside than it is. Hah! Ease be damned… but then, ease and convenience would make the journey to Jose Ignacio, the most exclusive pearl in the string of Uruguay’s seaside towns that run along the peninsula of Punta, too easy to access, too… hoi-palloiable. As it is, there’s something of the globe trotting Now Voyager fable woven into Jose Ignacio: Chablis in the Air France Affaires lounge at CDG to Buenos Aires, Argentine Chandon on the Buquebus across the Rio de la Plata to Montevideo, then a breezy drive along the Rambla out of town in something convertible. All that’s missing is a dashing stranger and a particularly fetching hat.

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The hardcore regulars arrive in Jose Ignacio by Lear or private yacht from Buenos Aires. Forget the logistics and the actual geography of Uruguay, this is an Argentine colony through and through – the Argentine swish don’t have their own beaches across the river so they’ve decided to have these ones. No one comes here for a slice of Uruguayan culture and if they did they wouldn’t find a shred of it – this is la dolce vita porteno style where every other restaurant seems to be far east fusion and where instead of shops selling beach balls and ice cream there are boutiques full of contemporary garden furniture for your new beach house, cashmere blankets and hand blended fragrances. You’d have to drive for miles and miles just to find a chivito (the otherwise omnipresent Uruguayan national breakfast sandwich and grease fest of egg, steak, bacon, mayo, olive and tomato). Hell, the place is so stubbornly insular that you have to drive for over half an hour just to get some pesos out of a hole in the wall.

Jose Ignacio is the kind of seasonal town that isn’t so much an idyll or escape, more a de rigeur calendar fixture – just as summering in the Hamptons requires early planning on the part of Manhattan’s modern day Astors, so it is with Jose Ignacio and an increasingly international set – with just a handful of teeny tiny luxury posadas with rooms for rent, it’s all about in which outlandishly modern beach house, and with whom, you’ll be staying from the end of December onwards. Once that’s established, it’s which assados you’ll be invited to and which table you’ll be getting at Garzon, Marismo or Nam and who’ll be dining there that night. Yes, that is Ralph Lauren across from Naomi Campbell, Shakira and Mr Abromavich, but then no one stares in anyone else’s direction over dulce du leche crepes here – in Jose Ignacio everyone’s a star.

It wasn’t always like this and it won’t always be. Fifteen years ago no one had heard of Jose Ignacio, even though Punta had been a-swinging for decades. It wasn’t so much a one-horse town, as a town which depended on its horses to deliver the drinking water. It was the end of the Earth – a tiny fishing village with a lighthouse and some sand dunes on the frequently inhospitable South Atlantic. Though multi-million dollar picture-windowed villas are breeding fast, visually, in the centre of town at least, little else has changed. Jose Ignacio itself is nothing more than a few criss-crossed streets with bungalows on a narrow blonde sand peninsula; a sleepy whitewashed town with a lovely beach that can be placid and blue sky scorching in summer and swirling with drama and black cloud stormy in winter.  It’s what goes on there that’s changed. The fishing industry has given way to pitchers of cocktails and sashimi down at La Huella and long afternoons at the private beach club Caracola, Huella’s sister operation.

There’s no signage at Caracola and you need an invite from head honchos Peter or Guzman at Huella to be able to book for the day. When you eventually find it, you gesture across the lagoon (or rather you wave your arms wildly above your head) and they send a rowboat for you – then you sip rosé, eat parilla and hang out with your own private tent channelling sheer I-am-fabulousness on the beach until sundown. It’s the platinum door syndrome in full, shameless, effect: Competition for the best table to eat the  grilled catch of the day at barefoot-in-the-sand restaurant Marismo, which itself has a notorious and near invisible entrance, may be fierce, but once you’ve achieved silver status in Jose Ignacio, you want gold, and then more… and you don’t want everyone else to be having it either. Locals talk in hushed, paranoid tones about plans for bridge construction to the east that would make the town more accessible to the wrong kind of people – not so much tunnel types maybe, but definitely bridge…

Last season some of the best parties were held in the temporary Setai pavilion; Adrian Zecha is bringing a branch of his hyper-luxe Miami hotel to the coast, in itself enough reason to sound the bells of change. While the likes of Lenny Kravitz play guitar in the skyscraping penthouses of the Setai Miami, this will be a distinctly Jose Ignacio adaptation – low rise, with less than 20 hotel rooms.

Invitations are one thing, but determination is another – and you have to be determined to drive for half an hour on perilous dust roads to get Garzon, Francis Mallmann’s unhinged but wonderful project in the ghost town of the same name. Mallmann is South America’s most glam, most notorious chef. Jean Paul Bondoux may famously cook up a storm with his exquisite, refined contemporary French fare along the coast at La Bourgogne but Mallmann has long since torn up the rulebook for what it takes to create a haute dining room. He takes simple comfort food concepts and waves a Fantasia-like wand across them with an insane cackle – something as prosaic as steak and chips is instantly fashioned into something sensuous and revelatory. His Garzon hotel and restaurant project is fabulously arrogant: Five rooms and a kitchen in the middle of nowhere. It’s actually further out than nowhere – this is a dustbowl of a town that shut down entirely when the railway stopped running through it some years back. Now Mallmann is opening luxury tents in the nearby hills, each with their own chef, and has his eye on the derelict Gustave Eiffel railway bridge, overgrown with weeds and forestation, with a view to creating a cocktail bar. He’s also reopening his defunct Jose Ignacio restaurant, Los Negros, on a new site in the town. ‘It’s going to my most expensive restaurant so far!’, is the promise, as is the exclusivity that fewer than 20 covers a night will offer. Already Mallmann’s glamour magnet is pulling together the desired effect – London art dealer Martin Summers has a vast house here, and many of Garzon’s crumbling buildings are being snapped up by Europeans to be converted into unlikely facaded, ultra sleek, Italia B&B-stuffed homes.

Jose Ignacio is unashamedly cliquey. The Londoners invariably end up at the blindingly white-on-white Posada del Faro while the Brazilian hippy chic-set hang out at Posada Paradiso. Irene Abadi left a career in fashion in Madrid and a spell in the Balearics to open up Paradiso in 1989 and hasn’t left, or worn shoes at work, since. Her husband and his artist friends have painted murals on every square inch of surface at Paradiso, and Irena’s paella parties by the pool are the stuff of legend. ‘This is really our house, and we’re here to entertain’, she says. ‘We used to close for a period in the winter, but I got depressed when it was empty, so now we stay open all year’.

Alfredo Suaya opened up his home, a typically Punta, Norman Foster-goes-stone-cladding kind of affair, to paying guests just over a year ago and is expanding with more villas – at the peak of the season, in the first week of January, the same crowd that you’ll find at Suaya’s Geisha House hangout in Los Angeles colonise the sunloungers and restaurant. It feels like a Miami pool party, fully charged.

The weekend scene at Tierra Santa, Argentine hotelier Alan Faena’s holiday home, is the very essence of Jose Ignacio. ‘We have parties here all the time’, says Alan while walking along the secluded beach beneath his insanely coloured Bollywood-meets-Starck weekend home. ‘….Not big dance parties though. You know… it’s just friends. It’s low key. We have an assado. It’s just a place for me and the people who are close to me.’ Which sums up this jazzed up fishing village’s raison d’etre – it’s a place which thrives with the most high profile, high fashion set, but does it quietly, with a finesse that’s in direct contrast to the 24 hour diamante-encrusted Eurotrash carnival that rolls out across the rest of Punta del Este. The Argentines love a barbecue as much as the Uruguayans, or indeed any South American, and a chilled out afternoon around the garden grill is the de facto Jose Ignacio pastime. Meanwhile, a forty five minute drive from Jose Ignacio will take you to beaches in Punta central where you’ll need to employ guerrilla tactics to score space on the sand and where sometimes the high rise holiday towerblocks block cast long unwelcome shadows. Punta as a whole may still be expensive, but it’s upmarket Las Vegas casino posh rather than genuinely tasteful or stylish; drop dead nouveau. Jose Ignacio, on the other hand, keeps just enough of that breezy feel-good DNA but filters it down into something positively minimalist. This isn’t the West Indies or the South Pacific – sometimes the sky goes grey, fog rolls in and a storm brews, even in high summer. It can, at times, look and feel more like Dungeness than Rio, but then it’s all the more beautiful for it – Jose Ignacio is a cooler kind of seaside, where less is more, as long as you’ve got more of a beach house to have it in, and more of the right kind of friends to fill it with.

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Air France fly from London to Buenos Aires daily, via Paris. Prices from £610 return. www.airfrance.co.uk. The Buquebus ferry between Buenos Aires and Montevideo and Punta del Este runs throughout the day, from £35 each way. www.buquebus.com

Casa Suaya (00598 486 2750; http://www.casasuaya.com) from £210 for a double room, including breakfast. Adolfo Suaya’s holiday home continues to expand around a white hot poolside scene and the 100% organic romance of fireflies swarming at sundown.

Garzon (00598 410 2811; www.restaurantgarzon.com) from £160 for a double room, all-inclusive. Take the load less travelled to Mallmann’s barmy, fabulous wonderland of baked peach and jamon.

Posada del Faro (00598 486 2110; www.posadadelfaro.com) from £80 for a single room, including breakfast. Immaculate and minimal with a perfectly formed pool and honesty bar, beautiful staff and breakfast ‘wherever and whenever you want it’. The hippest hotel in Jose.

Posada Paradiso (00598 486 2112; www.posadaparadiso.com) from £80 for a double room, including breakfast. Relentless hippy chic but don’t expect George V amenities… it’s all about lack of attitude, late night conversation and friends you haven’t met yet.

Marismo (00598 486 2273; no website) Jose Ignacio’s ‘secret’ restaurant needs not so much directions as GPS and thermal imaging: Look for the blue wooden fish on the Garzon Lagoon road and then take a torch to the bushes… Tip top cocktails and seafood, in the most romantic torch-lit barefoot ambience, await.

La Huella (00598 486 2279; www.paradorlahuella.com) ‘The tower of Babel’ is what locals call it – each table is buzzing with a different language, but local gossip is the common denominator. Good for dinner, unbeatable for lunch, right on the beach.

Haras Godiva (00598 480 6112; www.harasgodiva.com) rides from £32. This ranch plays host to some wonderful parties during each season as well as offering a wide array of fantastic inland-to-beach rides. Sunset on horseback at Jose Ignacio is something to behold.

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One Response to “Jose Ignacio (Harper’s Bazaar)”

  1. Sara Hatchuel Says:

    Fantastic article ! We live in Punta del Este and not Punte del Este!! A type error I am sure…

    Come back and cover some more of this wonderful part of the world.
    With my husband, we emigrated here 4 and a half years ago, bringing up our three kids here and it was the best decision we ever made !

    Take a look at the 100 years of Punta del Este history, very interesting documentary on how Punta del Este was born.

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