"The summer season is ridiculously short," despaired Steven Chew, as our Buquebus ferry bounced across the River Plate towards Montevideo. "Just 15 days starting from 27 December. Blink and you'll miss it. We'll witness the aftermath. Note the air of desperation as the drinks cabinets run dry. Mind you, for anyone uninterested in the new year party scene, Uruguay is a great place to visit right through to May, especially on the back of a trip to Buenos Aires. It's better value, less crowded, less hyped and altogether more relaxing than Argentina."
Chew, 34, from England, is a most agreeable Latin American guide. He has been composing bespoke holidays here for 14 years. Thanks to his connections, doors that ordinarily remain shut fly open, which, in a closed society like Uruguay, is exactly the knack one needs. I hoped to harvest his expertise.
"What exactly does one do in Uruguay?" I asked.
"If you need to ask, you probably shouldn't go," he winced. "It is a source of pride among Uruguayans that their country lacks any world-class attractions. No Iguaçu Falls. No Patagonia. No Andes. But there is something wonderfully old-fashioned about Uruguay, and so beautifully uncomplicated."
Uruguayans and Argentines are close River Plate cousins. They look and speak the same, but differ widely in outlook. Uruguayans are so conservative, patient, low-key and unconventionally Latino, that they could almost be Scandinavian. Argentines, on the other hand, are self-conscious and fashion-conscious sophisticates. "Argentines look down on Uruguayans like the British denigrated the Spanish in the 1970s," said Chew. "They consider Uruguayans slow, dithering and backward in every sense."
First impressions of Montevideo: craggy, tumbledown, faded, crumbling, leafy and reminiscent of the eastern bloc circa 1965. The clocks are one hour ahead of Buenos Aires, but in every other respect this city is 50 years behind, basking in the glories of its shipping and offshore-banking heyday. Hillman Imps with 500,000 kilometres on the clock jostle with Austin Healeys.
Having thrown cursory glances at Montevideo's cultural gems (the Mercado del Puerto, the dilapidated Beaux-Arts architecture, the magnificently restored Teatro Solis and the museum dedicated to Joaquin Torres Garcia - the painter and sculptor who introduced Constructivism to Latin America), we set off by non-Imp car eastwards along the River Plate to take possession of the Uruguayan Riviera.
Uruguay is easy driving country. It has a population of around three million, most of whom inhabit Montevideo, leaving the countryside virtually empty. Yet I found it hard to believe, as we sped past concrete shacks with heavily cannibalised motors standing on bricks in front gardens, that Uruguay has won the soccer World Cup twice.
Two hours later, the new-build river-view apartment blocks of Punta del Este came into sight. Reputedly a hedonistic sandpit for rich Porteños (natives of Buenos Aires) and Brazilians with millions who come here for the beaches, the security and the friendly welcome, this former resort was once favoured by the Rat Pack, Brigitte Bardot, Gina Lollabrigida, Yul Brynner and Che Guevara. Today it is the gentrified holiday/weekend spot for well-scrubbed nuclear families. It's worth crossing the River Plate for, but not the Atlantic. What has spun off from "Punta" to the east, however, at the villages of La Barra and José Ignacio which overlook that point where the River Plate turns into the Atlantic, is far more compelling and sophisticated.
One point of interest in Punta del Este, however, lies moored in the marina. Seven identical yachts there belong to Carlos Pedro Blaquier, the Argentine millionaire industrialist and art collector who translates Bertrand Russell in his spare time. An insomniac, Blaquier often stays aboard his yachts, which rock him to sleep. Each yacht serves a different purpose, cooking, eating, sleeping, etc. On the rare occasions that he goes out to sea, he usually takes three yachts. The first breaks the water, the second is for Blaquier in person, and the third is the kitchen.
Half a kilometre of scrubland beyond Punta, you arrive at the suburb of * *Hollywood. It resembles an architectural beach-villa competition that got out of hand. There's a wildly eclectic anthology of clashing architectural styles: adobe huts, mock Tudor, Cape Dutch, thatched, contemporary hacienda, Victorian gothic revival, art deco, Bauhaus, clapboard, Cotswold stone, and so on. Some villas look not so much designed as congealed; others are simply glazed boxes for exhibitionists and people who want to check up on how rich their neighbours are. Faced with so many architectural moments, moods and mutually exclusive mission statements, I almost thought we'd veered off-piste and taken a detour via Wentworth. Was that really a Kent-style oast house? "Controlled architectural mayhem," tut-tutted Chew.
Ten kilometres further on, you reach La Barra. Here, things quieten down, architecturally speaking, but they heat up from a social point of view. The very smartest villas are concealed from view, and in the majority of cases are designed by Mario Connio, a Porteño architect and designer who returned to South America after 36 years in Madrid. Connio is now riding the wave of the development of the Uruguayan Riviera. A few kilometres beyond La Barra, you reach José Ignacio, a settlement of beach huts in clapboard and stone, frivolously painted blush pink, apple green and turquoise. José Ignacio is the epicentre of the Uruguayan Riviera. It's always hot here, regardless of the weather.
During summer's brief fling, La Barra and José Ignacio turn into a fortnight's trade fair for the cosmetic surgery industry, the psychotherapy industry, the movie industry and the fashion industry. The population seems to consist of a Bohemian jet set of actors, models, model agents, sundry Uru-trash, social moths and los ricos y famosos of Argentina who spend their summer holidays in Gente (People) magazine, the Argentine social glossy. Among the luminaries are Naomi Campbell, Gisele Bündchen and Mario Testino, the fashion photographer. You could almost forget St Tropez existed. Plastic, hysterical, Miami-on-acid, it is a deliberately glitzy scene whose core is hermetically sealed to outsiders.
"Each season gets more and more international," yawned Chew. "Media and lifestyle brands are 'discovering' Uruguay." Last season, in the enclave of La Pedrera just outside La Barra, Microsoft rented a $110,000-a-month villa for the summer; Google surpassed this with an even costlier house nearby. There is already a Bhudda Bar in José Ignacio, and the Miami-based Setai Club is due to open here in 2007. Anyone of a faintly neurotic disposition would go mad worrying whether they'd been invited to the right parties. If you make the beach before 2pm the next day, then you didn't. "This may explain why February is when all the Buenos Aires shrinks come here on holiday," said Chew, "so that they can squeeze in a bit of creative ambulance-chasing on the side. Didn't you know? Everyone has a shrink in Buenos Aires. If you don't, you must be mad.
"But if you just want a laugh and to be part of a glamorous whirligig," continued Chew, "the Uruguayan Riviera is a classic, unsentimental what-makes-the-world-go-round mix. It is a meat market of stop-watched shelf-lives, diminished fruit-fly attention spans, broken-off conversations and prioritised social agendas."
"Of course, this hedonism is most un-Uruguayan," said Rosie May Carter, Edinburgh-born Uruguay-based creator of www.uruguay24-7.com. "While catwalk models sashay along the beach in bikinis, one kilometre inland gauchos herd cattle and silently play out the rituals of maté drinking." The very fact that the real Uruguay is not like this hysterical beach scene is the very reason why the beach scene alights here at all. Uruguay is the safest, most tolerant Latin American country to visit in style. You can flaunt jewels, designer clothes, fast cars, homosexuality and even American passports with impunity. "And depending on the season, Uruguay is a wonderful place to show off or recover from cosmetic surgery," one woman told me.
A pioneer of the Uruguayan Riviera is Francis Mallmann, 50. An Argentino-Uruguayan restaurateur, Mallmann operates in Buenos Aires, Mendoza and José Ignacio. Chef, poet, designer, musician, Mallmann has transformed Los Negros, his rustic beachside restaurant in José Ignacio, into a literary Aladdin's cave. Every inch of wall is inscribed with poetry by Rupert Brooke, WH Auden, ee cummings, Erasmus, Plath and Hughes, and passages from Pericles and Borges. Customers are often puzzled to trip over Mallmann seated alone at a small table, cigar and wine to hand, lost in a book of English verse, wearing a towelling robe with the ocean still dripping off him.
"The Riviera has three levels of visitor," he said over grilled beef with chimichurri sauce (olive oil, parsley, oregano, garlic). "The very rich; the medium rich that own those coloured villas; and the people who own flats in Punta del Este who sometimes outspend the rich to be in on the scene."
Mallmann sketched out a typical high summer's day: get up at the crack of noon and hit the beach for a hard afternoon's relaxation. Lunch from 4 to 6pm, then home for a nap. Shower at 11pm, and then dine at midnight. Besides Los Negros, the most fashionable restaurants are La Huella, another oceanfront fixture which serves reliable seafood, with beach service in high season, backgammon and cocktails; and Marismo, an insider's "secret" located down a track en route to Laguna Garzon, which consists of a huge bonfire built on a sand dune surrounded by low-lying tables. "Most of the action takes place at private parties," said Mallmann. "In the 1980s, the biggest party giver was a Brazilian name of Scarpa. Dom Pérignon flowed and everyone dressed in red or white. He went bankrupt."
A possible heir to Scarpa's socialite crown is Alan Faena, owner of the "Faena Hotel + Universe" in Buenos Aires. Tierra Santa, his oceanfront estancia 35 kilometres north of Punta, is the setting of exclusive private parties attended by the likes of Charly Garcia, the Argentine rock musician, and socialites like Brooke and Emilio de Ocampo among the usual cast of Brazilian models.
To show us the real Uruguay, Mallmann invited us to his latest project in the village of Garzon, 35 kilometres inland, folded in rolling green hills and valleys richly covered with grasses, wild, scented flowers and thickly leaved trees - like Tuscany but with cattle instead of Volvos. Garzon is a sleepy hamlet (population 200) of single-storey whitewashed houses twinned with nowhere, camped around an incongruously grand plaza with lawns, palms, hedges and fountains presided over by a bust of José Artigas, Uruguay's national hero. Ever since Garzon's timber mill fell silent for the last time several decades ago, the traffic has consisted of dogs, horses and the occasional chicken. At "Provision Natalia", we called for beer, and drank in the peace while dogs played at our feet, watched by the heads of five wild boar nailed to a post.
Mallmann fell in love with Garzon 10 years ago. He agonised over whether to open a hotel here. In December 2004, he finally did. Hotel Garzon is a converted shop with five chic bedrooms and a dining room hung with watergraphs by Mallmann's friend Martin Summers, the London-based Impressionist dealer. A door leads to Mallmann's poetry library, which Martin Amis sometimes borrows (Amis lives in José Ignacio with Isabel Fonseca, his Uruguayan wife). The hotel overlooks a small garden with potted plants, lawn and pool. The kitchen uses a technique known as infiernillo ("little hell"), a spectacular Incan method involving twin wood fires lit above and below, a health and safety nightmare. The staff are a delight. Adrian, the manager, 30-ish, doubles as the Mayor of Garzon. You won't want to leave.
"Uruguay's biggest asset is the quality of its people," said Mallmann. "They're very warm and friendly. Unlike other South Americans, they pay taxes." I was growing increasingly suspicious of the flawless Uruguayan character, and made a mental note to Google "serial killings Uruguay".
The following morning, I strolled about the village of Garzon taking in the wild flowers that plundered the artist's palette of blues, pinks and yellows. Once your auditory synapses have discounted the enthusiastic dawn chorus of mooing, bleating, barking, neighing, chirping, cock-a-doodle-doing and oinking, a magical stillness hangs over the place. Garzon's streets are as wide as they are long; if you look down any of them, you see aspects of the Uruguayan countryside rolling into the distance, a land where the cows aren't mad and the chickens don't have flu. It is the perfect antidote to the Uruguayan Riviera, and a chance to glimpse the world before it became globalised, rushed, panicky and overcrowded.
Besides Hotel Garzon, Mallmann owns eight buildings here, each one earmarked for development: a cantina here, a shop there, a suite of rentable rooms over there. He plans to restore the plaza and transform the derelict timber mill into a concert hall.
"Why not visit Punta del Diablo," said Mallmann, as he waved us goodbye. Diablo? "Just up the coast. I'm thinking of opening a place there. I've rented a tent on the beach. Stay in it if you like."
Punta del Diablo, near the border with Brazil, forms the centre of three points of land that thrust into the ocean, like the diablo's (devil's) trident. It's a low-budget coastal resort, a jumble of illegal Toy Town beach huts, bars and T-shirt vendors perched on mountainous dunes overlooking superior beaches.
Mallmann's beach tent proved to be a wigwam with a bedroom, shower, kitchen and safari-style viewing deck on a raised platform with commanding views of the Andean topography of the Diablo sandscape and ocean beyond.
"Seafront plots sell from US$35,000 (£18,000)," said Santiago Diaz, the local estate agent. "You can get them for less. A beach house for 12 rents for $300 (£167) a night. Not that people sleep here. No one goes to bed before 5am. There's always time to sleep in winter."
There are no direct flights between the UK and Uruguay. However, Buquebus (00 54 11 4316 6500; www.buquebus.com) operates ferries between Buenos Aires and Colonia in Uruguay with onward connections by road to Punta del Este and up the coast to Punta del Diablo. Buenos Aires is served by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Heathrow with a touch down in São Paulo, Brazil. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Buenos Aires, in economy class, is £25. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.
Most people rent villas rather than stay in hotels. Top-end properties, sleeping 12-16, cost up to US$120,000 (£66,670) per month. New this season are several smaller properties starting at around $12,000 (£6,670) per week, including staff. Cheaper still are small farms. For rentals, contact Steven Chew, at Azul Latin America ( firstname.lastname@example.org; www.azullatinamerica.com). At Hotel Garzón, Pueblo Garzón, Maldonado (00 598 410 2811; www.restaurantgarzon.com), doubles start at US$443 (£246), full board. Punta del Diablo Inmobiliaria (tents), Punta del Diablo ( www.puntadeldiablo.com).