Just a few minutes from the seaside towns of Punte del Este in Uruguay, Estancia Vik José Ignacio hotel sits on a stunning landscape of plains that seem to go on forever. The building – a sprawling, low-level, white-walled, South American ranch-style compound – is the dream home of a half-Norwegian half-Uruguayan billionaire with a taste for fine art and contemporary design. Each of the big rooms and bigger suites has been designed and decorated by a different local artist, while the corridors and public areas display the owner’s massive art collection. Soaking up the sun, polo matches and expertly grilled meats and fine wine are all on the agenda.
Entirely flexible – just let the hotel know what time you plan to turn up or depart.
Double rooms from $395.10.
Rates include a buffet breakfast, free minibar and all soft drinks throughout the stay.
Horse-riders and polo players will be in their element: there’s a stable of ponies and playing fields on site. If you’ve never played before, lessons are easy to arrange.
From 1 May to 20 November.
At the hotel
Swimming pool; private beach deck on Playa Vik José Ignacio; polo field; tennis courts; putting green; spa; sauna and steam room; small gym; organic gardens; horse-riding; watersports; DVD library; game room with pool, darts, a ping-pong table, Nintendo Wii and board games; free WiFi throughout. In rooms: flatscreen TV; DVD player; iPod dock; free minibar, bottled water and soft drinks.
Our favourite rooms
Master Suite VIK must be the master of the house’s preferred option when he’s in town – it’s a bold, masculine room with dark wood-panelled walls, a high roof, and an enormous corner terrace. Master Suite Seveso is its feminine counterpart, with floor-length coral curtains, dreamily beachy artworks, lime-washed beams, rafters and floorboards, and wonderful views of the plains. Book the Trujillo Suite if you’re into nudes – that’s all we’re saying.
There’s a black-granite swimming pool in a courtyard at the back, with a grassy lawn on one side and wooden decks lined with loungers on the other. Guests can also swim in the lagoon.
Painted in sultry tones of cerulean and burgundy, and hung with paintings of voluptuous bodies by artist Jose Trujillo, the spa and gym are rather sophisticated. There's a sauna and steam room too.
Chills do come at night, so be prepared to layer up for sunset strolls. Bring your iPod so you can make musical use of the in-room docking stations.
Pets and smokers are allowed throughout the hotel. There’s a four-night minimum stay over Easter, seven nights over Christmas.
Very welcome. One child under age of three can stay for free; after that, extra beds cost US$150 apiece. Babysitting can be arranged, with three days' notice. There’s a wealth of activities for adventurous littl'uns.
Very welcome. Cots are free for babies; extra beds for kids 12 and over cost US$150. Babysitting can be arranged, with three days notice. There’s a wealth of activities for adventurous littl'uns.
Kids of any age will find plenty to distract them, but adventurous naturalists are especially well catered for.
Opt for one of the suites on the ground floor if you’ve tottersome toddlers in tow.
There’s an exhaustive list of junior entertainments. There’s a Wii, board games, Fimo clay and pool and table tennis in the games room, but with horse-riding, mountain-biking, nature-walking and all manner of other outdoorsy fun to be had (the beach is just down the road), there’s no need to be cooped up indoors.
There’s a shallow end in the main pool, and assorted inflatables to play with, but no lifeguard on duty, so keep an eye on little ones.
Children are welcome at all times in the restaurant; there are high chairs for babies, and a kids' menu for young palates. The kitchen is happy to prepare packed lunches, and heat babyfood or milk.
Local nannies can be arranged (with 72 hours’ notice); costs vary.
No need to pack
Ask ahead, and cots can be provided for free. Extra beds for older children are US$150, depending on the season.
Built from locally sourced materials, Estancia Vik José Ignacio makes use of solar and geothermic energy, composts and recycles waste.
It’s a communal dining-table arrangement, but get in early for the chairs by the fireplace. In summer, take a table on the terrace.
The atmosphere’s relaxed, but the dining-room decor is elegant, so laid-back eveningwear may be in order.
A set menu with two options is served beneath gigantic candle chandeliers in the brick-vaulted dining room and the kitchen is happy to cater to special requests. The star of the culinary show, however, is the parillero, a barbecue room walled with graffiti-daubed corrugated tin and housing a colossal fire pit: a temple to chargrilled meat.
Not as such: it’s a what you want, when you want, where you want kind of place. Glass panels in the dining room offer a glimpse of the 5,000-bottle wine cellar.
Breakfast is available from 7am to 11am, lunch from noon to 4pm, and dinner from 7pm until midnight.
Sandwiches and salads can be brought to your room from 7am to midnight.
Punta del Este’s Capitán de Corbeta Carlos A Curbelo airport is the nearest, a 45-minute drive away. The little airport mainly handles flights around South America, so if you’re travelling internationally, it’s best to fly into Buenos Aires and grab a connection (less than an hour).
José Ignacio town is a short drive away, and Punta del Este itself is 15 minutes by car. Transfers are free and there's parking at the hotel.
The hotel has a helipad – charter choppers are available at the airport.
Worth getting out of bed for
Estancia Vik José Ignacio has 1,500 hectares to play with, and horses and mountain bikes to play on. Stables and a polo field on site mean riding and polo lessons are possible, and the José Ignacio lagoon is ideal for canoeists, windsurfers, birdwatchers and swimmers. The ‘experience managers’ assigned to all guests can organise all activities. In José Ignacio, 15 minutes away, there’s a surf school and plenty of seaside sand to sprawl on. Haras Godiva can arrange full-moon horseback rides on the beach. From December to March, the beach deck at Playa Vik José Ignacio is a lively spot with a cantilevered swimming pool, sauna, spa treatments and a gym, and mountain-biking, kayaking and a games room to entertain guests.
The Club 55 of Punta del Este, Parador la Huella (+598 (0)42 9422 3015), is José Ignacio’s see-and-be-seen beachside dining spot, where the food is fresh and the waiting list long. In high season, you can row over to its sister establishment Parador la Caracola. In a surreally quiet town of the same name, 25 minutes’ drive from Estancia Vik, is Garzón (+598 (0)42 4410 2811) – the Uruguayan outpost of Argentine superchef Francis Mallman. Superb South American dishes are cooked on iron griddles between two wooden fires.
For a sandwich on the hoof, pop into Carnicera Manolo in the centre of José Ignacio, and ask them to whip you up a Milanesa (breadcrumbed steak) at the butcher’s counter.
Marismo is José Ignacio’s nightlife hotspot. Located at the end of a winding forest road, the romance-fuelled restaurant (the lamb is renowned) becomes the centre of the party scene after hours, with bonfires, lashings of Malbec, and live DJs. Bring plenty of cash, credit cards are a no-no and it’s a hike to the nearest ATM (+598 (0)42 486 2273).
Uruguay – the England of South America? Really? So I’d been told in terms of scenery at least. Our car turns into the simple entrance of Estancia Vik and a couple of gauchos start cantering alongside us, berets at jaunty angles, giving flight to a flock of wild doves as they disappear into the balmy early March sunset. It’s hard to match this to the green and pleasant land I’m familiar with.
We’re greeted at the Estancia, not with the usual welcome-drink fruit punch, but by a trio of extremely friendly resident dogs. Checked in, we pad through courtyards and up the stairs into our Carlos Seveso, a master suite. Each room is specially designed – down to the beds and doorknobs in some cases – by a famous home-grown artist. Maritime is the theme of Seveso’s paintings and this comes through in his figurative flourishes of blue and yellow – with the odd boat and lighthouse thrown in so we don't waste too much time stroking our chins. This leaves us to focus on the matter in point: the massive suite, which I would happily swap my flat in London for.
I open the third set of glass doors that lead to an L-shaped terrace, in a Dorothy moment I am blown back inside. This part of Uruguay is known for its mistral-type gusts. Not that it’s deterring us from any wind-kissed outdoor pursuits. A delicious pear and pecorino salad in front of the granite-based swimming pool later and we’re galloping towards the stables. The grounds are as impressive as the interiors here: 1,500 hectares of grassland, a snaking lagoon, and 1,400 cows ambling beefily around the plains. There’s a polo field on site, with a stable full of polo ponies, so guests can try their hand with a mallet, or simply hop on a horse and play gaucho amid the pampas.
Mr Smith and his blond Palomino regard one another with suspicion. I try my best horse-whispering techniques on my skewbald pony, and then sink into the armchair saddle with its huge sheepskin seat. Mr Smith manages 100 metres before his horse starts making a sly retreat back home. After much yanking we are all heading through the yellow-green fields past grazing Uruguayan cattle, and white egrets and South American ostriches. I try a gallop, only for my feet to go flying out of the unfamiliar round leather stirrups. Using all reserves of thigh grip I make it back to a serene Mr Smith who is trying in his best syntax and hand movements to enquire about polo moves. ‘Yes, plenty of golf nearby,’ comes the gaucho's reply, to a flummoxed Mr Smith, who thought he had finally hit gold with his Lonely Planet Spanish. To add insult to injury, his horse starts veering back to the stables again.
Later in the ping-pong room, Mr Smith finds less blame can be laid on his bat as he thrashes me against an interesting backdrop: a collage made from leftover building materials. The art-loving Norwegians who own Estancia Vik take their art and their eco-credentials very seriously. And they don’t like doing things by halves. We marvel at the sheer scale of everything: huge quartz fossils stuck onto the wall of the vast sitting room; a towering marble statue by Pablo Atchugerry (whose museum is nearby), all specially commissioned for the Estancia, built from scratch by the Viks. In a room across the courtyard I momentarily ponder whether Apollo 14 has landed, but am told it is a grill, known as a parillero, complete with a street-arty backdrop by one of Uruguay’s edgiest artists, Marcelo Legrand. The grill's fired up several times a week to cook typical asado barbecue food – South Americans love their beef.
Back in our room, I am impressed at how – for once – I have unpacked in a neat and orderly fashion, sorting the items into one of the best dressing rooms I have seen. After a long shower using Estancia Vik’s handmade products, overlooking a field of contentedly grazing horses, it’s time for supper in the cosy, moodily lit dining room. Here the simple menu is in keeping with the informal and relaxed feel of the hotel. Mr Smith is wowed by his huge steak, while my cod with quinoa and mango is delicious and plentiful. After that, puddings seem too much of an indulgence, and sadly the house-special rice pudding remains undeservedly untouched.
The next day, the sprawling dune coastline of José Ignacio, equally suited to surfing and sunbathing, begs to be explored. Just 15 minutes drive away, the resort town's restaurants and chilled-out bars lure jet-setters in their gold gladiator sandals and flowing linen. We dine at Parador La Huella, where simple wooden tables and a chalked-up menu are the unassuming construct for this hip hotspot. My kind of lunch kicks off at 4pm: excellent Argentinean rosé, sushi and octopus carpaccio.
Barefoot, we walk through the sand to the car for the five-minute drive back. Mr Smith takes a post-prandial nap beneath the eaves, on a comfortable sofa under the watchful gaze of the dogs. I sneak in a quick session in the gym, which is decorated in murals by Jose Trujillo celebrating the voluptuous female form (thankfully making me feel a quick pedal is fine), rather than a strict interpretation of the model-like Uruguayan women I have so far spied.
Contemplating a night out in town, we cannot quite bear to drag ourselves from the suite. Instead we stay put and salute a bathroom bigger than my flat and indulge in that stock holiday daydream: how much money would one need to buy an estancia of our own? Thankfully Estancia Vik is here already. The perfect mixture of luxury hotel and the feeling you are in someone’s private designer home. It’s informal and comfortable without any communal dinners that make other ‘home from homes’, well, less like home. We’ll just save our money to splash out on our next trip here. And maybe some riding and Spanish lessons for Mr Smith.
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