Located on the Atlantic Coast of southeastern Uruguay, the once sleepy fishing villages of Punta del Este have become some of the most popular destinations in South America. With miles of beaches and open-air restaurants serving incredible asados under the stars, who can resist La Barra, Mantialies and Jose Ignacio? It’s a mix of low-key, bohemian chic that still feels sophisticated, somehow retaining a relaxed and unassuming vibe even with the arrival of the international jet set. When Carrie and Alexander Vik opened the incredible Estancia Vik back in 2009, it put Jose Ignacio on the traveler's map. With two beachfront properties, Playa Vik and the brand new Bahia Vik, it’s a hotel trifecta, bringing more attention to Jose Ignacio than ever before. Last December, I was lucky to spend a week at Playa Vik, our family’s second Christmas break in Jose Ignacio in the past 3 years.
The staff at Playa can arrange kite surfing or kayaking at Laguna Garzon, 10 minutes away. Waterskiing can also be arranged at Garzon Lagoon but in a private club next to Estancia Vik.
It can get quite breezy at times, especially at night, as Jose Ignacio is surrounded by water. Bring a sweater or wrap for open air dining, though many restaurants have small wool ponchos you can borrow during your meal.
If you can bear to leave the beach it’s a treat to explore the sculpture garden at the Pablo Atchugarry Foundation. The monumental bronze door that graces the “Sculpture” at Playa Vik is his design.
Book my ticket…I can’t wait to visit the newest Vik project…Vina Vik Millahue, a winery and hotel in Chile. It looks, no surprise here, absolutely stunning.
We are so excited - La Huella is opening its second restaurant in Miami in December 2015.
Logistics: Sleep on the overnight flight from Miami to Montevideo, rent a car, and drive about two hours to Jose Ignacio. If you’re coming from Buenos Aires, which makes for a nice first-stop for a few days, you can fly direct to Punta del Este airport; shortening the drive to 60 minutes. Note: flights from the States fly arrive at the international airport in BA, you then have to take a taxi to the domestic airport to get your flight to Punta.
Lay of the Land: Punta del Este has been called the South American Hamptons, an easy way to envision what it’s like. Punta, as locals call it, is the biggest city (to me more Miami-esque then Hamptons) and as you drive down the coast you'll pass through the beachy villages of La Barra and Mantialies before arriving at the tip—Jose Ignacio. To extend the Hamptons analogy, Jose Ignacio is like Montauk—you cant go any father! Its divided by Playa Mansa, the calmer beach to one side and Playa Brava, known for its waves.
Stay: It may have taken a day and a half before we finally pulled up to Playa Vik, but once we arrived it all seemed worth it. Immediately the incredible staff at Playa (Sabrina, Alfonso and Michelle) hugged us, welcoming us back. We felt like we were visiting old friends; granted ones who have the most incredible house!
Lay out: Design is an integral part of the experience at all of the Vik retreats. To say the “Sculpture” at the heart of the hotel is avant-garde is an understatement. The bold titanium and glass building is an exceptional architectural statement, one that houses an extraordinary collection of both contemporary Uruguayan and International art. This is the communal area of Playa—the library, living room and bar/dining area of the hotel. (It’s not every living room that has a James Turell light installation and Zaha Hadid table!) Making the awe factor even bigger, there’s the stunning cantilevered infinity pool jutting out over the beach. At night the lights in the pool resemble twinkling stars—just magical.
Rooms: There are only 10 rooms, making Playa feel more like a private retreat; truly a unique mix of high-end hotel meets friendly guesthouse. Each room has it’s own personality and design. There are 4 suites in the Sculpture, but you’ll really want to stay in one of the 6 more private Casas. By far the best is Casa Mar, with a direct ocean view. It’s the largest casa with 3 bedrooms. We’ve stayed at Blanca, all white and peaceful and the smaller Jose Ignacio, which could work well for a family as the second bedroom has bunk beds.
Wake Up: Breakfast is a casual affair at the Pavilion, directly across from the Sculpture. There is a nice buffet and the kitchen will prepare you eggs any way you like. Sit outside overlooking Playa Mansa. If you’d like to go out, walk into town (5-10 minutes) to Almacen El Palmar the quirky, stylish gourmet market and all day cafe from Punta’s restaurant La Bourgogne’s Chef, Jean Paul Bondoux. Sit on the rooftop enjoying your freshly baked croissant. This is also a great spot for dinner: the French slanted food is a nice change after a week of traditional asados. The Moroccan couscous was a favorite and the kisses and banter from the larger-than-life chef made the night that much more colorful.
Get Moving: Hop on one of the bikes at Playa and ride to Estancia Vik, their sister property 5 miles inland. It’s approximately a 30-minute scenic ride through the pampas, mostly easy, with a few small uphill climbs. Like all of the Vik properties, Estancia is absolutely stunning, set on some 4,000 acres. This is the Vik’s version of a cattle ranch experience, and in fact it is a working ranch. If you’re a horseback rider you may want to stay here, rather than at the beach. Be sure to walk around the courtyard, living room and the pool area. The first time I visited Jose Ignacio, it was just before the high season and while Playa Vik was full, Estancia was still quiet. I cajoled the girl who greeted us to show us some of the rooms; each one was a true work of art, all designed site-specific by different Uruguayan artists. Estancia would be an amazing spot for a very special “big number” birthday party, family reunion, or an intimate destination wedding.
Return Trip: If you’re lazy, hitch a ride back with one of the Estancia staff--they will transport your bikes later. But why not go round-trip? There’s no rush, as the sun doesn’t set for hours. This may be my favorite thing about Jose Ignacio—you have a full day and then some as the sun doesn’t set till close to 9 PM. Stop at Santas Negras, a chic, contemporary store with a mix of home design and cool accessories. While you can’t buy much here that will fit in your suitcase, I did manage to buy a great pillow that jazzes up my daughter's bed. The café next door is a stylish space if you need refreshments before finishing your ride.
Lunch: Walk a few blocks to La Huella, where during a week-long stay we ate lunch here almost every day. This is the beach restaurant one dreams of during the cold winter back East. With laid-back style—delicious food, great music and a hip vibe—La Huella deserves its revered status. We love sitting on the back patio where your table is right on the sand, but the inside rooms work as well. Go for the early seating as it gets packed and we learned the hard way that our 3pm reservation may really mean 3:30-4. And I get it; why would you want to leave La Huella once your seated? Everything is good, but you must order the grilled chipirones, the fish of the day, sashimi, and the grilled lamb on the parilla. Is it a crime to say the simple roasted vegetables may even be my favorite? There is no question you need a pitcher, or two, of Clerico (similar to Sangria, but with white wine) to wash it all down.
Quick Bite: If you want a lighter lunch head to Mostrador Santa Teresita from famed Argentine chef Fernando Trocca. Sit at one of the communal tables or take away a mix of the different salads to bring to the beach. I loved the space and presentation, it reminded me of London’s Ottolenghi, and when I mentioned it to the chef he smiled and said yes, it was his inspiration. (Trocca spends a few months of every year in London at his restaurants there.)
Afternoon: Right outside La Huella on Playa Brava you can rent chairs for the afternoon. Sign up for a surfing lesson or simply rent a board. Make sure to take a walk down to the lighthouse, and visit the artisan shops at the end of the boardwalk. You can also just head back and sit at the pool at Playa.
Shop: Jose Ignacio is a sleepy town; it won’t take you very long to walk around. Most of the stores are centered on the square. Favorites include Takkai , Sentido , and Mutate. Right next door to Playa Vik is Canuto, my favorite shop—I barely was able to close my bag after buying one too many of the beautiful Uruguayan wool ponchos and small blankets. They also have a nice collection of South American bags, tops and jewelry. More shopping can be found in La Barra and Mantialies, and in the much larger Punta del Este.
Sweet tooth: One word: Freddo. You must get the Dulce de leche, no question.
Sunset: Jose Ignacio has some of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever experienced. Sitting poolside or around the fire pit as the sun sets over the Atlantic and Playa Mansa is the best way to end the day. A glass of the Vik’s delicious red wine from their Chilean vineyards makes it even better. It may have been at this point when I turned to my husband and stated that one day I’d like to spend the whole winter - every winter - in Jose Ignacio. Don’t head to dinner immediately, the lights in the pool against the night sky cannot be missed. Besides, no one goes to dinner before ten, and that’s early!
Dinner: There are many great restaurants, but if I had to pick one, I’d say go to Marisimo. Don’t get discouraged if you get lost finding it; everyone does at first. Its an enchanting setting, eating alfresco on rustic wood tables in the candle lit garden. Order the slow cooked lamb: the meat is so tender that it’s falling off the bone.
More Dining: So many places, not enough days. In Mantialies, Mistura, La Linda or O’Farrell are all excellent choices. Closer to home in Jose Ignacio go to La Olada or Namm. Tutta in town has good pizza if you want a casual dinner.
Late night: Most of the action is in La Barra and Mantialies. If you're game, go bar hopping. Tequila is the most popular disco/night club in town.
Don’t Miss: Don’t go home without dining at Francis Mallmann’s Garzon the Argentine super chef’s restaurant 30-40 minutes inland from Jose Ignacio.