Punta del Este, Uruguay

   text and photography by: Robert Ragaini

  On a clear day you can see Antonio Banderas. Or maybe not. If he happens to be elsewhere   shooting a film with Madonna, you may have to make do with Julio Iglesias, Melanie Griffith or Robert Di Niro. They've all been here at one time or another. But if the celebs are guarding their privacy, never mind. There's no dearth of beautiful people in Punta. Punta del Este, that is.
  Catherine Cava is one of the tens of thousands of Argentines who descend on Punta del Este during the summer months of December, January and February. (Yes, their seasons are backwards.) An 8 year old who speaks almost perfect English, she is staying at her grandfather's house near the Point. "What is there to do here?" I ask.
  "You can go to the beach," she says. "You can run." She shrugs her shoulders as if to say, Isn't that enough?"
  I hate to tell her. During the season, Punta is concerts, festivals, dances, arties, gambling, shopping and eating, eating, eating. And that's only at night. During the day string bikinis saunter cheek to cheek on La Brava Beach, the rough one, and La Mansa, the calm. Children race along the edge of the ocean, surfers sit poised on their boards, Old-World gentlemen in straw hats and summer jackets stroll the ramblas taking care not to lean on their canes.
  What is it that draws Latins from Buenos Aires  surely one of the world's most flavorful cities to tiny Uruguay and the even-tinier coast of Maldonado?
  "A certain Madame Piteaux came by chance from France to Punta del Este," says Ana Maria Bozzo de Moya. "She opened a hotel and drew the aristocracy of Europe and Argentina with her fabulous cuisine. Even sheiks from Arabia came. With their camels! That is how Punta was born."
  We are gathered in Ana Maria's hotel, La Posta del Cangrejo, in the wealthy summer community of La Barra. "In the '40s," she says, "a Uruguayan created a great club with private bungalows and had fabulous parties with Hollywood stars. It was the golden age of Punta. It acquired a bit of an intimidating atmosphere because of the lifestyle: champagne on the beach, partying all night. He was a visionary."
  A friend of hers disagrees. "This man had only two ideas," he says. "First, he thought of oney. Second, money."
  It will take more than opinions to faze Ana Maria. A renowned chef, she has created banquets for the president of France and the king and queen of Spain. George Bush has stayed at her hotel, as his photo on the wall attests. "The secret service came two weeks before and examined everything," Ana Maria says. "'My God,' I thought. 'They must think someone is going to kill him in my hotel!'"
  In addition to owning Dona Flor, one of the finest restaurants in Montevideo, and La Posta del Cangrejo, Ana Maria is president of the Corporacion Hotelera and Gastronomica of Punta del Este. As such, she is determined that not just Argentines but the world will know what her country has to offer. Such as La Bourgogne, a Relais & Chateau French restaurant with only a slight Spanish accent. After admiring sumptuous bouquets of roses, we are offered champagne with a drop of cassis. A waiter enters carrying a huge basket of homemade breads and rolls. He also brings an amuse bouche, a single mussel on a tiny triangle of toast and a hint of mint, not basil  and the thinnest of smoked salmon garnished with slices of lime accompanied by an excellent Uruguayan Sauvignon Blanc.
  Fish mousse in dill cream is followed by an entree of lamb medallions and chops au jus flavored with sage. Finally, peach sorbet, oeuf  la neige, chocolate mousse and apple and red-raspberry tarts.
  A distinguishing feature of La Bourgogne is the promptness of the service. Traditionally, Uruguayans dine out around 9 or 10. Drink orders are quickly taken and filled. The waiter then retires for a day or two, allowing time for toasts, jokes, gossip. To establish the all-important ambiance.  He does eventually return, and food does arrive. No one complains. They like it that way. "Es usual," they say. Of course it is.
  There are several methods of approaching Punta del Este. If you are not fortunate enough to be the guest of a resident, a walk around the peninsula is in order. Starting at the very tip, this most desirable location is a neighborhood of the more modest homes  in Punta terms. Two- to three-thousand sq. ft. is the norm. The predominant home color is white, and roofs are covered in orange tile. Here and there, a Moorish fantasy raises round stucco towers above free-form balconies. Rarer are New England-style clapboard bungalows, remnants of Punta before it became a fashion statement. Along the rugged eastern coast, fishermen toss lines into the sea. On the west side, small restaurants face a marina where bright-red fishing skiffs rub elbows with fiberglass yachts. And always, towering in the background are high-rise condos where Argentines spend the summer.

  "To really enjoy Punta you must get out of the downtown area," Ana Maria says, "with its fast-food and T-shirt shops. The outlying districts, La Barra, Cantegril. Here it is quieter, more peaceful."
  "In the beginning, there was only La Punta, the peninsula," says Juan Bautista Firpo, an Argentine architect who has designed several great summer mansions. "Twenty years ago this suburb was all meadow."
  One morning Juan drives beside a miles-long beach studded with magnificent houses. "It's very safe here," he says. "I don't know why." A good police force? I suggest. "Oh no. The police ride around on bicycles and carry sticks instead of guns."
  In a neighborhood called Beverly Hills, we visit the Ralli Museum, where works of the best contemporary South American artists are displayed in Spanish-tiled galleries. More fine pieces
  grace an outdoor sculpture garden, works of artists almost unknown in the United States. La Barra is only 10 minutes from downtown, but it's as relaxed as La Punta is energized. Around Ana Maria's hotel, neat white-stucco houses, some with thatch roofs, rise like Chicklets on the hill. Beaches on both sides of the roller coaster Leonel Viera bridge are hidden jewels of soft white sand.
  Approaching La Punta, five- and six-story seaside condominiums begin to appear. As with the great mansions and small villas, they are uniformly handsome. Architecture seems to be an art to which South Americans are born. Less graceful is a strange brick tower that rises above the trees. Once it supplied water to the neighborhood, now it contains the best view rooms of L'Auberge, another fine small hotel. No one would guess that its tranquil lawns and gardens are a short walk from one of Punta's busiest beaches.
  Another day, we continue past the Point and climb to a house on a hilltop. The views are stunning: 270 degrees of ocean, a vast lake hidden from below, and the towers of La Punta are perched like Oz on the horizon. The fantasy of a Croatian businessman, Las Cumbres de la Ballena has only seven rooms but each contains fabulous antiques, huge bathrooms, where every sink is a work of art. Because only a fortunate few can occupy these gems, others willingly settle for equally good Provencal cuisine and, of course, those wonderful views.
  Photographs of the Point from 100 years ago show dirt streets, a few modest structures and the Palace Hotel. It's still there, a refuge from the storm that rages outside. The rooms, small and tidy, are decorated in what can only be called "Maiden Aunt" style. But the glory of the Palace is its inner court  a cool green swath of lawn enclosed by Spanish balconies and planted with majestic palms. Once the Palace's cellar held food stocks and supplies. Now the works of Pedro Figari and Joaquin Torres Garcia, whose oils sell for $200,000 and more, hang in rooms joined by thick stone arches. Galeria Sur is the equal of the finest art galleries in the world. If the gallery's taste is too rich, the perfect antidote is upstairs at La Stampa, a genuine Italian restaurant presided over by a genuine Italian. Felice Ambrosio is a warm and congenial host who concocts some of the best pasta this side of his home town of Napoli.

  The longer I stay in Punta del Este, the longer I want to stay. Brilliant sun on stark white houses. Miles and miles of lovely beaches. Fine restaurants and charming hotels. Especially the sophistication, style and cultured ease with which life is enjoyed. Now I understand why so many come not for a week but a month or more.
  Of the million and a half visitors to Uruguay last year, only 18,000 were from the United States, a statistic Ana Maria is determined to grow. For us it may have to begin by combining a visit to Punta del Este with one to Buenos Aires. Eventually, however, we'll follow the leaders who, given a chance, shout, "I'll take Punta!" A million Argentines can't be wrong.

Paella Passions

      Rosando Ruibal is a contrarian. While chefs on either side
are furiously grilling meats, chicken and sausages, he is making
paella  a traditional Spanish dish. Garbed in white, a chef's toque
perched on his head, he hovers over an enormous round pan in
front of La Pentola restaurant. At his side are dishes of rice, as-
paragus, onions, red peppers, string beans, garlic, chicken and
pork and seafood: shrimp, mussels, clams and squid  ready and
waiting ingredients.
       Slowly, he spoons them into a rich pink stock that steams over a makeshift brazier. The heady aroma draws potential customers like bees to honey. When the liquid has become a thick porridge he creates an edible wheel on top, radiating from an entire octopus plopped right in the middle.
       Though decidedly a headliner, Chef Ruibal is only one of the attractions of Montevideo's port market. Under vaulting wood ceilings and antique iron grillwork, dozens of restaurants stake their claims. In each, blazing log fires heat slanting steel racks on which steaks, ribs, fowl and brightly colored vegetables roast to perfection. Counters ring the restaurants. Sitting on padded diner stools, Montevideans down copious quantities of parrillada, the catchall term for a Uruguayan grilled feast.
       Suddenly around a corner comes the sound of an accordion spinning out a rollicking waltz. From one of the counters a middle-aged, conservatively dressed man and woman rise and face each other. Embracing, they wheel to the music on the flagstone path separating the restaurants. For a magic moment all eating and serving ceases. When the song ends, diners and waiters applaud and the laughingcouple returns to their seats.
       But the paella awaits. How many servings the giant pan holds I don't know. Mine, spilling over my plate, doesn't make a dent. The taste is a multi-flavored composite of all the ingredients, each complementing the other. Fantastic. All, the paella, the parrillada, the music and dancing, are part of the daily ritual of the market at the port of Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay.
       By mid-afternoon fires are banked, chairs have given up their body heat, patrons have gone back to work. In the paella pan a few remnants remain. Enough for a generous doggy bag. I wish I had the courage to ask.

WHEN TO GO: Temperatures are moderate year-round with no rainy season. Seasons are opposite those in North America. The high season - January and February - is crowded and full of activities. November and March are more peaceful. Punta del Este's winter, our summer, is very quiet.
HOW TO GET THERE: Punta del Este is about 90 miles from Uruguay's capital, Montevideo. American Airlines, 800 433-7300, flies nonstop from New York and Miami to Sao Paulo, Brazil, and from there to Montevideo. Local airlines make the 20 minute flight from Buenos Aires. United offers service to Montevideo.
WHERE TO STAY: In La Barra: La Posta del Cangrejo, 011-598-427-0021. In Punta,  L'Auberge, 011-598-428-2601. In La Ballena, Las Cumbres de la Ballena, 011-598-427-8689. In Punta, the Palace Hotel, 011-598-424--1919. To rent a house or condo, contact Magdelena Giuria Real Estate, 011-598-424-1190.
TOUR OPERATORS: Calcos Tours, 800 338-2288. Altura Tours, 800 242-4122. Ladatco Tours, 800 327-6162. Solar Tours, 800 727-7652. Ole Travel, 800 559-5192.
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