Plaza e Iglesia del Pueblo Garzon, Garzon, Uruguay
For hedonists who value a bit of downtime, downtime–artists who value a bit of hedonism, and anyone who just likes the idea of a luxury lodging whose library is as well stocked as its wine cellar, El Garzón fits the (fairly sizable) bill. Inland from Punta del Este, it's still only 30 minutes by dirt track from au courant beach resort José Ignacio. So pack those designer sungas and Gucci 1827s just the same.
El Garzón is part owned, and fully overseen, by Francis Mallmann, who is Argentina's most famous chef but half Uruguayan on his mother's side. In his urbane way, Mallmann was to José Ignacio what Bugsy Siegel was to Las Vegas. His legendary restaurant and social hub, Los Negros, helped turn what was once an off–the–map fishing enclave into one of Latin America's most exclusive resort areas.
Perhaps slightly appalled at what he'd created, Mallmann decided to scale down his operation; to move inland; to add room expertise to his considerable board skills, and open a small luxury guesthouse that would keep the aura of high–end exclusivity established by Los Negros while thinning down the crowds and losing the paparazzi. After revisiting a sleepy railway village named Garzón that had charmed him some years before, Mallmann started snapping up properties and plots there. Flagship El Garzón (if you can call a country guesthouse with five rooms a 'flagship') opened in 2002; other projects are in varying stages of development. (Most are earmarked to be luxury holiday homes.)
Nice back–story—but what about the hotel?
First impressions are good. In place of the Spanish–colonial–by–numbers approach (slap a bit of pink stucco on the walls, stick a palm tree in the tiled patio and hope for the best) all too common in these parts, Garzón evinces good, original, and occasionally quirky taste throughout, from the exposed red brickwork of the V–shaped facade to the specially commissioned neo–Gothic ceramic pieces—from knobby ashtrays to elaborate friezes—to the above–mentioned poetry library. Mallmann is obviously the kind of person who can't walk past a flea market or a secondhand–book store—and it shows.
The guestrooms are less idiosyncratic, though the supersized ornamental candelabras clinging to the high ceilings are strange, and beautiful. Everything else, from the arched fireplaces—lit in winter—to the freestanding bathtubs, is straight out of the rustic luxury playbook. The king–size mattresses are top quality: a good litmus test for any hotel that wants to relieve you of 400 dollars plus per night. Fresh fruit from the hotel's own farm is placed in the rooms; cable TV, efficient room service, and fancy toiletries are the only signs of the times.
None of the five rooms is large but the quality of the hotel's shared spaces is such that this barely counts as a negative. You'll fall in love with the patio garden, with its fragrant herb patches, Italianate trellises and bean rows; its hardwood tables (where all meals can be taken), and the sun–trapping swimming pool. At the center is a large brazier, filled with wood and left burning for most of the evening, providing both hot embers for the kitchen and a focal point around which guests can cluster. (There are probably better things in life than snuggling up with a loved one around an open fire, large glass of Malbec in hand, fresh herbs perfuming the warm night air, stars twinkling down on you … but it's hard to think of many.) Inside, the living–cum–dining room has capacious sofas, made for sprawling out on while sipping a pre–supper G&T.
Which brings us to the food: for many guests it's why they're here. Though you're unlikely to see the maestro sweating over the pans himself, Mallmann's award–winning chow rarely disappoints. Since the room rate covers full board and wine (courtesy of boutique bodega Finca La Anita), you'll be working your way through plenty of it. Each day, fresh products are brought in from the coastal fisheries and the hotel's farm: everything from black cod to free–range eggs to organic runner beans. Most Argentine/Uruguayan estancias and ranches promise guests 'homely', 'traditional' cuisine; all too often this means tinned rice pudding and instant coffee. It's a safe guess that Mallmann would rather chew off his own leg than offer a guest instant coffee.
Those of a less epicurean bent will still find much to enjoy here. The town, with its 200 friendly inhabitants, whitewashed church, derelict railway station, flowery central plaza, and vibrant stray dog scene, is a pueblito straight out of central casting. Beyond are the khaki–colored, gently undulating hills of the Uruguayan interior—like Tuscany, but much emptier. El Garzón's young and friendly staff will happily commandeer you a bike or a horse so that you can explore this underappreciated region at your own speed. Or ask them to pack you a picnic and head for the beach. Just be sure to be back in time for supper…
Web Address: Hotel & Restaurant Garzon
Total Number of Rooms: 5
Published rates: $590 plus taxes.
Review by Matt Chesterton, photos courtesy of El Garzón