Cowboys and Surfers in Uruguay

Dear Caroline,

I’m writing en route home from my second trip to the coast of Uruguay in two months, and I’m happy to report that it was just as wonderful in early fall (late March) with my husband and three daughters as it was in high summer with three great girlfriends.  This is a special place!

The Vik properties — Estancia Vik and Playa Vik — are what make the trip.  Guests of the impossibly elegant 12-room Estancia share 4,400 acres of rolling green fields and serpentine blue estuary streams with 1,500 cows, a couple dozen horses and several adorable dogs – one of whom let us play with her weeks-old puppies, eyes still unopened!  From the third floor Estancia viewing towers one can just see the Atlantic Ocean, into which the streams flow, just seven miles by dirt road to the town of Jose Ignacio.  And there, right on the beach just a short walk from town, sits Playa Vik.  Playa is just as intimate with 19 rooms (most of them easily combined into two- and three-bedroom suites), but its cutting-edge architecture and chic cantilevered pool set a hipper tone.  Both properties are filled with incredible and varied art and furnishings, much of it South American, a great deal of it museum quality (to wit, two enormous Anselm Keifer paintings at the entrance to the pool lounge at Playa Vik) and a quick “art tour” will convince you there is no place quite like the Vik properties of Uruguay.

I prefer the Estancia.  Its architecture and feel are South American, its sublime silence is a perfect antidote to my New York City life, and its homey atmosphere makes me feel like I own the place.  Estancia Vik has more beautiful places to curl up with a book than perhaps any place I have ever stayed.  But the Playa is heaven in its own way:  lazy breakfasts overlooking the ocean, afternoons sipping cocktails and people-watching by the pool, long walks down the nearly-deserted beach, after-dinner drinks around the “fire pit” – and it’s all a short stroll from the center of Jose Ignacio, best described as “Montauk 50 years ago” — in other words, a shabby chic surf town with an artsy, sophisticated clientele.  Many guests seem to spend a few nights at each property – recipe for a fantastic vacation.

From either property there is plenty to do.  Lunch at what is indisputably the social hub of the area, La Huella, followed by a swim in the ocean just outside, makes for a perfect and complete day if you want it to.  The weather is a little cool and often breezy in March but the water is swimmable, and surfable even for beginners.   One day the surfers shared gently rolling waves with five dancing porpoises.  Both golf and dove-shooting can be arranged, though we never found time for either.  There is a fantastic grass tennis court at the Estancia, abutting the gorgeous polo field.  I’ve never played tennis among cows and horses before, and it was a kick.  My daughters rode horses with Augustin nearly every day, and he proved an exceptional teacher, coaxing my nervous seven-year-old along while teaching the older girls (nine and 13) to trot and gallop.  We took a canoe out on the bright blue waterways that meander around the property and saw tons of interesting birds, and we hired a tiny fishing boat to take us just offshore where we caught 59 fish and skate in little more than an hour.  We kept a few and walked them right up the beach to La Huella, where they were grilled to perfection for our lunch.

Other wildlife we saw or heard included armadillos, nocturnal frogs whose cacophonous song must be heard to be believed, birds whose name I’ve forgotten that look like miniature ostriches, a huge hare, and a large seal our boat driver called a “sea wolf”, swimming around in the ocean far from land.  Somewhat less picturesque but equally fascinating, we also saw a huge beached whale and a dead penguin bobbing in the ocean.  Friends saw an extremely large rodent (they swear it was 100 pounds) called a capybara emerge from his home under the wooden bridge on the Estancia driveway, but he eluded our dogged quest.

The Vik staff is truly unique; more like hosts than mere staff, they will do absolutely anything to ensure everyone’s good time. Saying good-bye was truly like leaving good friends.

I would absolutely recommend this vacation to any adventurous family.  It is hard to think of a caveat, but if there is one it is that it is not a resort beach vacation – if what you really want to do is plop on a beach chair, relax in the sand and not move or make any decisions for a week, this might not be the place – it’s much better if you feel like moving around and exploring the area a bit.  Also, don’t count on encountering a lot of South American fellow guests – the week we were just there (granted, New York private school spring break), almost everyone was from either the Upper East Side or the Upper West Side of Manhattan!  Apparently the word is out.  But for good reason:  I can think of no place that offers quite this combination of culture, natural beauty, adventure and relaxation.  It definitely made the all-time great list for our family.

Cheers!

Lisa

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