I arrived in Punta del Este knowing only its reputation as a ritzy beach town where South America's elite converge from January to March -- the summer months for most of the continent -- and its proximity to a year-old winery that has been much talked about in the food and wine world.
After a five-day stay, I'm convinced Punta del Este and its neighbouring towns along the coast of Maldonado, one of the least populated of Uruguay's 19 states, are among the most exceptional places in the world to visit and perhaps also to live.
Far safer than most other locations in South America, the Maldonado coast is comprised of approximately 80 kilometres (50 miles) of immaculate beach the colour of a good tan. During the peak tourist season, Punta del Este's population swells from 10,000 permanent residents to more than 750,000 as sun and surf seekers arrive to chase relaxation and thrills.
Some spread out west to Punta Ballena, home to Uruguay's leading attraction, Casapueblo, a mammoth, Grecian-style complex built by artist Carlos Páez Vilaró. Others head east to the less busy beach towns of La Barra and José Ignacio, where celebrities such as Shakira have homes.
The Maldonado coast is like The Hamptons, where wealthy property owners maintain an exclusive ambience to the region but surfers, working-class locals and artists provide a counterbalance, making the area a getaway for many (if you've budgeted for it).
Now, foodies and oeneophiles have reason to come, too.
In 2016, Bodega Garzon opened on a humongous swath of land about an hour's drive from Punta del Este. Named after the nearest village, Pueblo Garzon, the winery is an $85-million facility with artisanal aspirations.
Uruguay, a country of 3.4 million people, produces more wine than Canada. But before Bodega Garzon, no commercial vineyard was situated in Maldonado. Even owner Alejandro Bulgheroni, the Argentine billionaire who has purchased leading wineries around the world, was unsure whether the land he procured could grow quality grapes. Then he asked Alberto Antonini, one of the world's most esteemed wine makers, to give an opinion. Antonini visited Uruguay in 2006, reported back to Bulgheroni that, yes, his Maldonado estate could not only grow grapes but possessed the potential to produce stellar vinifera not unlike that found in the wine-maker's homeland, Italy.
Antonini was commissioned to oversee the vineyards. Rather than flattening the land that has hills and slopes, he created 220 hectares of vineyards. Each parcel of land is situated where the grapes planted on it is best suited for the micro-climates on the estate.
Albariño and Tannat, two unconventional grapes that flourish in Uruguay, are abundant on the Garzon property. The winery, located 18 kilometres (11 miles) from the Atlantic Ocean, also makes 10 other varieties, including a very good Cabernet Franc. At harvest, grapes are hand-picked and hand-cleaned before entering a high-tech process that includes laboratory testing at intervals in the aging process.
The wines are winning awards and appearing on shelves and in restaurants around the world. To get the full Bodega Garzon experience, however, you must come to the winery. That's because Bulgheroni's other achievement was teaming with Francis Mallmann to launch a food program focused on the celebrity chef's famed use of fire. Mallmann, an Argentinian with a planet-wide following, lives part time in Pueblo Garzon, where he and Bulgheroni co-own a charming restaurant in a town of 100 people. Given free rein of the menu at the winery, Mallmann has delivered ingenious cooking, including steak made from Uruguayan cattle (the same breed as Argentina possesses) and smoked everything, including smoked ice cream that is bewilderingly blissful. The ice cream is placed in a cooled oven used for smoking fish and meat. After 10 minutes, it captures the smokiness while retaining its cold state. The taste is an explosion of sweetness and earthiness unlike anything you've tried.
For such distinctiveness, the winery and its restaurant are attracting more visitors. So, too, is the rest of Maldonado. José Ignacio has a busy, well-regarded beach-side restaurant, La Huella, overlooking a gorgeous sandy stretch. Casapueblo has earned more attention since Páez Vilaró, a contemporary of Pablo Picasso, died in February. And Punta del Este continues to gain notoriety, having been nicknamed the St. Tropez of South America.
I came in late April, though, and the place was thin with tourists. The beaches were nearly empty and the streets vacant. It was hard to believe a place so beautiful, warm and inviting was so void of activity. In this way, it reminded me of The Hamptons, too, which can be desolate in fall and winter.
As more people find out for themselves that the Maldonado coast is rich with art, artisans and activities -- and not just wealthy people -- I imagine more curious travellers will arrive, and not just during summer. Some will even dream of staying year round.
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