Republica de Mexico 6451
Thanks to Sofitel, a once grand luxury palace has been restored to glory and is now an elegant beach resort next to a capital city.
At the height of its heyday—nearly a century ago—the glamorous Hotel Carrasco was nicknamed un palacio en la arena (palace in the sand.) When the fashionable set started vacationing in Punta del Este instead of Carrasco, however, the old hotel fell on hard times, and the towering landmark was shuttered on the sand from the mid–nineties through last year. The French hotel brand Sofitel finally purchased the property. After restoring the elegant hotel to its original luster, and infusing the property with its particular brand of Parisian–inspired luxury, the hotel reopened in early 2013.
Almost immediately upon my arrival, I realize that the hotel is one of those rare places where I can't decide whether I'd rather be inside or outside. From the vantage point of the beach, it's a grand and isolated castle rising up, mirage–like, from the sand, the romantic turrets silhouetted dramatically against the pale blue sky. Stepping into the opulent lobby, with its smooth white marble surfaces, radiant stained glass ceiling and shimmering chandeliers, is like walking into a larger–than–life jewel box.
The ambiance is elegant and hushed, save for the quiet ministrations of a pair of perfectly coiffed women behind the reception desk — not staff members, mind you, but "ambassadors," like all of Sofitel's employees. "Bonsoir," they say as we approach, "Bienvenue à l'hôtel Sofitel." Despite the fact that we're English speakers in Spanish–speaking Uruguay, the ambassadors will address us in the French language all weekend. In a short while we'll be in the restaurant, choosing cheese from the chariot de fromage; upstairs in our suite, Hermès bath products line the ledge of a deep soaking tub. It's all part of the la vie magnifique—the French experience, if you will—that the Sofitel brand is selling.
The hotel's interiors mix antique and contemporary, Uruguayan and French. "The ceiling is original," one manager tells me as we stroll through the lobby. "These, on the other hand," he says with a smile, gesturing towards an eye–catching pair of life–size horse statues with lamps whimsically positioned atop their stately heads, "are not."
We toast our arrival in this unique French–Uruguayan getaway with aperitifs in Thays Bar, my favorite spot in the hotel — and considering the hotel's range of lovely rooms and venues, that's really saying something. The circular bar and lounge, accessible from the guest wings by two grand staircases, is located in the hotel's original entryway. While much of the original design has been preserved, today's striking centerpiece is the round, vintage–inspired cocktail bar, ringed with minimalist white leather bar stools. The barman sizes me up in a quick moment and offers to make me something he's sure I'll like. A few minutes later, alongside an elaborate board of picadas featuring the artisanal cheese of Uruguay, he serves me, with a flourish, a festive ruby–hued aperitif made of Campari, Cointreau, and champagne.
It's the same color we're about to see through the windows of our upstairs suite. It's sunset, and the sky is glowing, deep orange and vermilion, over the Rio de la Plata, a river that's so wide and far–reaching that it looks like the sea. A wide promenade snakes along the coast for miles in both directions, south towards Montevideo and north towards Punta del Este.
Our suite, like others in the hotel, is not a standard boxy guestroom. Instead, the sleeping area is around the corner from the entry, bathroom, and dressing area, the irregularly shaped layout defined by the building's original contours. The beds are as plush, and the white linens as finely woven, as one would expect, particularly inviting after a careful turndown service. But it's the bathroom, with its walk–in rain shower, soft lighting, oversized tub, and smooth marble surfaces that's the real standout.
When you have a room such as this one for the weekend, it's tempting to stay put. As I pour Hermés bubble bath into the tub, it occurs to me that my upcoming spa appointment at the hotel's brand–new SoSpa is probably unnecessary. I change my mind pretty quickly once I'm face–down on the massage table for the 90–minute amethyst exfoliation treatment, followed by a stop in the sauna, both facing the indoor–outdoor swimming pool.
Breakfast and dinner are served in the 1921 restaurant. At night, the dark wood, fine silver, candlelight, and formal service create an air of sober elegance that's suited to the traditional French cuisine. There's an extensive wine list, of course, and a knowledgeable sommelier who helps us choose a bottle of Tannat—an underappreciated Uruguayan varietal. The next morning, the same restaurant is hardly recognizable, transformed into a relaxed but elegant brunch space. We help ourselves to the ample spread of fresh fruits, crepes, and delicate petits fours, kicking back on a white divan with our café au lait.
Sunday's WE Brunch is significantly more lavish, attracting plenty of well–to–do Uruguayans taking their families out for a special occasion. During the course of our weekend here, we've seen several brides passing through, a parade of photo ops and special events; it's clear that this newly restored landmark is as much a point of national pride as it is a destination for international travelers.
It's a fact that becomes clear to me when I return from my spa treatment and find one of the housekeepers tidying up my room. "I'll come back later," she says.
"No, stay," I say, and we start talking as she finishes her work. I ask her what she thinks about the historic hotel having finally reopened.
"We are so proud," she says. "Uruguayan people have been looking at this palace, closed, just sitting here, for so many years. It might be the most beautiful example of architecture in the whole country. And now it's open again. We're very proud."
Web Address: www.sofitel.com
Total Number of Rooms: 116
Published rates: $275 – $549 per night double
Review by Bridget Gleeson.