Jose Ignacio (The Observer)

‘Sussudio’!?’ Oh dear. Surely not. The erstwhile Genesis drummer’s solo efforts seem even more incongruous than usual, filtering as they are from the poolside speakers here at Casa Suaya, the latest oh-so-stylish digs to open up in Jose Ignacio on the chicest, furthest outreach of Uruguay’s Punta del Este peninsula. Sun, surf and sand seldom come with more attitude: Welcome to a world where Naomi Campbell nibbles nigiri opposite Ralph Lauren at lunchtime, and  a town which sent muffin baskets round to Shakira to welcome her to her new home just as it bade farewell to Martin Amis and Isobel Fonseca. A world in which, I had assumed, there’d be no place for Phil Collins.

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The generously spaced line of incredibly designed beach front properties that you pass as you drive away from the high rises of Punte towards the old fishing village of Jose Ignacio are bricks and mortar shorthand for the psychology of the towns newcomers. This may be an unspoilt idyll that offers refuge from the craziness of Punte’s charged up hedonism, but it’s an unspoilit idyll that is being colonised fast by millionaires and the most modern of seasonal homes – elongated, cubist, minimalist, one or two storey structures with immense picture windows, like so many rustic Moonbases. Many are adorned with exterior surfaces of what is effectively posh stone cladding – something you really need a swank beach house in Uruguay to pull off. Jose Ignacio is where the beau monde of South America come to hang out until the end of April before flying off to Europe or the States to chase the sun. High profile Argentine Portenos come here in droves in Special Class (not First, perish the thought) on the Buquebus ferry across the River Plate from Buenos Aires, or via a short hop flight. ‘The Hamptons of South America’ is what they say, and I’d say it too – this is where the tastemakers of Palermo Soho come for a long weekend.

‘I created the idea for my hotel here, says Alan Faena, a man as famed for his white Stetson and celebrity filled address book as he is for his Starck designed Faena Hotel + Universe in Buenos Aires. I took a walk with him through his Jose Ignacio beach house, all brightly coloured ethnic ecletica and Murano glass, out into the Alice in Wonderland garden. ‘I always have friends staying here and I like the drama of the winter as much as the beauty of the summer’. Right on cue, a group of cherubic children in hippie skirts run toward us from the guest house with a couple of Faena’s dog, like extras from a Bruce Weber photoshoot.

Another one of the town’s glitzy South American snow birds is Adolfo Suaya, the L.A restaurant mogul, who is adding satellite chalets to his private home with lashings of that posh stone cladding. He was already playing host to Lear-loads of visiting friends, so he decided to turn it into a commercial proposition. Casa Suaya is a good signpost for the way the rest of Jose Ignacio is going.

Jose Garcia Arocena is the owner of La Posada del Faro, a 14 room hotel with bright white paint on whitewashed artisanal bedrooms similar in style to one of Martin Margiela’s conceptual clothing stores, and just as stylish – a lot of thought has gone into making del Faro this simple. Jose has seen a lot of changes since he first set up the Posada in 1991: ‘When I first came, Punte del Este had already been glamorous since the 40s, but Jose Ignacio didn’t even have running water.’ A decade later Jose’s hotel was put on the map by Herbert Ypma’s benediction of Hip Hotel status, bringing its existence, and indeed Jose Ignacio’s, to the attention of a whole new kind of traveller. ‘About three or four years ago we saw a big change,’ recalls Jose. ‘We started seeing people from New York and London coming. Now about 12 of the 14 rooms are always occupied by people from outside South America.’

Though Jose Ignacio is a playground for the very independently wealthy, this isn’t an Indian Ocean resort or South of France beach club – there are no extravagant infinity pools or luxury hotels with corps of uniformed cocktail wallahs. The beach itself undergoes an attitude and population profile adjustment according to the season – from aggressively high fashion and hands on hips with clamped on Chanel shades at New Year to photogenic Argentine Brady Bunches pulling up in shiny four by fours as the credits roll on the summer sometime after the Easter weekend. The beach itself is a long and fine one, with South Atlantic breezes cooling the heels of groups of novice surfers in wetsuits and ladies being massaged in the thatched treatment hut close to the lighthouse.

Jose Ignacio is low key and discreet, thought relentlessly and shamelessly snobby with the odd outbreak of Latin bling. Want a lunchtime table at the sole seafront restaurant La Huella? Haven’t booked? Then go beg the lady with the clipboard on its steps, while others swan past to join the cocktail swilling vacationers swathed in white linen on the porch. For even more exclusivity, ask the staff at about their sister property, Caracola – a tiny all-inclusive $130 a day beachclub on the Garzon lagoon accessible only by rowboat and for those with an invitation and reservation. Smile, be nice and look the part: If they like you, they’ll give you the number. If you’re lucky they’ll give you directions too. Even here, in VIP Jose Ignacio, there are levels of exclusivity, with an invitation to one of the more extravagant private beach houses (like Faena’s) for an assado, the ultimate goal for the Punte arriviste.

I’d heard wonderful stories about Marismo, the ‘secret retaurant’ where you eat barefoot in the sand surrounded by flaming torches. You have to look for a long blue wooden fish on the left as you drive along the dirt road towards the Garzon lagoon and then use a torch to find the entrance. I arrived half an hour late, having accidentally wandered into a private home in the surrounding woodlands. On arrival I expected a little of the legendary South American laissez faire attitude towards tardiness but the hostess was having none of it. I was made to wait another forty minutes and then sat in Marismo Siberia – right by the bar.

There aren’t a plethora of dining options in Jose Ignacio – Apart from Namm, which serves so-so sushi and oriental fusion cuisine in groovy beach huts, and the aforementioned La Huella and Marismo, you have to drive out to celebrity chef Francis Mallmann’s Garzon if you want something spectacular on your plate. Garzon is mad genius Mallmann’s fantastic folly – a hugely expensive (£80 a head) restaurant attached to a tiny boutique hotel fashioned out of an old general store in a genuine ghost town, complete with abandoned railway station and cattle bones scattered in the dirt. You have to endure a thirty minute drive on dirt track to get there, but the food, pared down but revved up and muscular comfort dishes, is to die for. To get the best out of Garzon, stay a couple of nights. The bedrooms are wee but chic, with a monastic meets boho design bent with a few floursishes of knowing, faux vintage chintz. If you’re staying here, all the food and wine is included in the rate, and if you’re here, you may as well stay because it’s a bugger to get back to the coast after dark.

Mallmann’s long term projects for Garzon, including luxury tents with butlers and the conversion of an overgrown Gustaf Eiffel railway bridge into a cocktail bar, are unhinged but inspired. ‘If you build it they will come’? Mallmann thinks so.

Back on the coast, there used to be just a couple of posadas to stay in, but the scene is developing: There is a stretch of coast with Setai flags planted in the sand, announcing the imminent arrival of an outpost of Miami’s most luxe hotel. For now, hotel rooms are few and far between; there’s Suaya, Garzon, Posada del Faro and the bohemian hippy-chic Posada Paradiso, run for 19 years by Irene Abadi, the perennially barefoot Argentine-by-way-of-a-spell-in-the-Balearics landlady and her artist husband Pero. There’s relatively little posing at Paradiso; the main event is Irene’s famous paella evening. It’s an informal, spirited, hair down, lets-make-friends kind of a place. While sharing a plate of tortilla and a glass of vino blanco Irene told me that there were complaints when she opened. ‘Our motif is a palm tree with a serpent’, she said, gesturing to the image on the menu in front of me. ‘Some people complained and suggested an angel would be more appropriate. I think that’s the kind of mentality of some of the visitors coming here. But we’re older and more open minded. A lot of people grew up with the military government so are more closed-minded than my generation’. For Irene, conservative attitudes aside, it’s ‘security and tranquility’ that make Jose Ignacio so magical, and which make her stay.

Despite it’s designer boutiques and mod interior design stores, the village is still very much a backwater, and stubbornly so. The nearest ATM is a solid half hour drive away. Most of the roads aren’t really roads, and one of the best ways to get a feel for the landscape is to go on a sunset horse ride from the middle of the nearby pampas down to the seaside, on one of the Haras Godiva stables group outings. For all its posing and grooming, there are no nightclubs – the only flashing lights along this coast are the glowworms strobing across the grass at dusk. And as for Phil Collins, he is obviously someone’s guilty pleasure moment, because the soundtrack to the rest of my stay was the antithesis of MOR, running a narrow, knowing gamut from Ibiza ambient at Suaya to Sufjan Steven’s estori-folk and Malcolm McLaren’s Paris album at del Faro. After dark, the music was replaced by the sound of crashing waves and a few outbreaks of house-party style chatter by whichever pool I may have been at. This may be one of the most fabulously self conscious seaside resorts in the world right now, but it’s never anything less than impeccably well behaved as well as turned out, and unlike the all-night hedonism to be found a short drive along the coast, it does like it’s peace and quiet. For now, anyway.

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Mark C.O’Flaherty travelled as a guest of Air France. 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 Punte 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.

Garzon (00598 410 2811; www.restaurantgarzon.com) from £160 for a double room, all-inclusive.

Posada del Faro (00598 486 2110; www.posadadelfaro.com) from £80 for a single room, including breakfast.

Posada Paradiso (00598 486 2112; www.posadaparadiso.com) from £80 for a double room, including breakfast.

Haras Godiva (00598 480 6112; www.harasgodiva.com) rides from £32.

Marismo (00598 486 2273; no website)

La Huella (00598 486 2279; www.paradorlahuella.com)

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