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SOUTH AMERICAN HOT SPOT
THE BEACH RESORT WHERE
THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE PARTY

On a clear day you can see Antonio Bandaras. Or maybe not. If he happens to be elsewhere shooting a film with Madonna, you may have to make do with Julio Iglesias, Melanie Griffith or Robert De Niro. They've all been here at one time or another.

But if the celebrities are guarding their privacy, never mind. There's no dearth of beautiful people in Punta del Este, Uruguay.

Catherine Cava is one of the tens of thousands of Argentines who descend on Punta del Este during the summer months of December, January and February. (Yes, their seasons are backward.)

An 8-year-old who speaks almost perfect English, she is staying at her grandfather's house near the Point.

"What is there to do here?" I ask.

"You can go to the beach," she says. "You can run." She shrugs her shoulders as if to say, "Isn't that enough?"

I hate to tell her. During the season Punta is concerts, festivals, dances, parties, gambling, shopping and eating, eating, eating. And this is only at night.

During the day string bikinis saunter cheek to cheek on La Brava Beach, the rough one, and La Mansa, the calm one. Children race by the edge of the ocean, surfers sit poised on their boards, Old World gentlemen in straw hats and summer jackets stroll the ramblas, taking care not to lean on their canes.

What is it that draws residents of Buenos Aires, surely one of the world's great cities, to tiny Uruguay and the even tinier coast of Maldonado? Part of it is access. Buenos Aires is only a couple hundred miles away. But there's more to it.

"A certain Madame Piteaux came by chance from France to Punta del Este," says Ana Maria Bozzo de Moya. "She opened a hotel and drew the aristocracy of Europe and Argentina with her fabulous cuisine. Even sheiks from Arabia came. With their camels! That is how Punta was born."

We are gathered in Ana Maria's hotel, La Posta del Cangrejo in the wealthy summer community of La Barra. "In the '40s," she says, "a Uruguayan created a great club with private bungalows and had fabulous parties with Hollywood stars. It was the golden age of Punta. It acquired a bit of an intimidating atmosphere because of the lifestyle: champagne on the beach, partying all night. He was a visionary."

A friend of hers disagrees. "This man had only two ideas," he says. "First, he thought of money. Second, money."

It will take more than this to faze Ana Maria. A renowned chef, she has created banquets for the president of France and the king and queen of Spain. George Bush has stayed at her hotel, as his photo on the wall attests.

"The Secret Service came two weeks before and examined everything," Ana Maria says. "My God," I thought. "They must think someone is going to kill him in my hotel!"

In addition to owning Dona Flor, one of the finest restaurants in Montevideo, and La Posta del Cangrejo, Ana Maria Bozzo de Moya is president of the Corporacion Hotelera and Gastronomica of Punta del Este. As such, she is determined that not just Argentines but the world will know what her country has to offer.

Such as La Bourgogne, a Relais and Chateau French restaurant with only a slight Spanish accent. After admiring sumptuous bouquets of roses, we are offered champagne with a drop of cassis. A waiter enters carrying a huge basket of homemade breads and rolls. The amuse bouche is a single mussel on a tiny triangle of toast with a hint of -- not mint -- basil. Then the thinnest of smoked salmon garnished with slices of lime accompanied by an excellent Uruguayan Sauvignon Blanc.

Fish mousse in dill cream is followed by an entree of lamb medallions and chops au jus flavored with sage. Finally, peach sorbet, chocolate mousse and apple and red raspberry tarts.

A distinguishing feature of La Bourgogne is the promptness of the service. Traditionally, Uruguayans dine out around nine or 10. Drink orders are quickly taken and filled. The waiter then retires for a day or two to allow time for toasts, jokes, gossip. To establish the all-important ambience.

The waiter does eventually return and food does arrive. No one complains. They like it that way. "Is usual," they say. Of course it is.

There are several methods of approaching Punta del Este. If not fortunate enough to be the guest of a resident, a walk around the peninsula is in order. Starting at the very tip, this most desirable location is a neighborhood of the more modest homes -- in Punta terms. Two to three thousand square feet is the norm, white the color and roofs of orange tile.

Here and there a Moorish fantasy raises round stucco towers above free-form balconies. Rarer are New England style clapboard bungalows, remnants of Punta before it became a fashion statement.

Along the peninsula's rugged eastern coast, fishermen toss lines into the sea. On the west side, small restaurants face a marina where bright red fishing skiffs rub elbows with fiberglass yachts. And always, towering in the background, high rise condos where Argentines spend the summer.

"To really enjoy Punta you must get out of the downtown area," says Ana Maria, "with its fast food and T-shirt shops, to the outlying districts -- La Barra, Cantegril. Here it is quieter, more peaceful."

"In the beginning was only La Punta, the peninsula," says Juan Bautista Firpo, an Argentinean architect who has designed several great summer mansions. "Twenty years ago this suburb was all meadow."

One morning Juan drives beside a miles-long beach studded with magnificent houses. "It's very safe here," he says. "I don't know why." A good police force? I suggest. "Oh, no. The police ride around on bicycles and carry sticks instead of guns."

In a neighborhood called Beverly Hills, we visit the Ralli Museum, where works of the best contemporary South American artists are displayed in Spanish-tiled galleries. More fine pieces grace an outdoor sculpture garden, works of artists almost unknown in the United States.

La Barra is only 10 minutes from downtown but is as relaxed as La Punta is energized. Around Ana Maria's hotel, neat white stucco houses, some with thatched roofs, rise like chicks on the hill. Beaches on both sides of the roller coaster Leonel Viera bridge are hidden jewels of soft white sand.

Approaching La Punta, five- and six-story seaside condominiums begin to appear. As with the great mansions and small villas, they are uniformly handsome. Architecture seems to be an art to which South Americans are born.

Less graceful is a strange brick tower that rises above the trees. Once it supplied water to the neighborhood. Now it contains the best view rooms of L'Auberge, another fine small hotel. No one would guess that its tranquil lawns and gardens are a short walk from one of Punta's busiest beaches.

Another day we continue past the Point and climb to a house on a hilltop. The views are stunning: 270 degrees of ocean, a vast lake hidden from below, and the towers of La Punta perched like Oz on the horizon.

The fantasy of a Croatian businessman, Las Cumbres de la Ballena has only seven rooms, but each contains fabulous antiques, huge bathrooms where every sink in a work of art. Since only a fortunate few can occupy these gems, others willingly settle for equally good Provencal cuisine and, of course, those wonderful views.

Photographs of the Point from 100 years ago show dirt streets, a few modest structures and the Palace Hotel. It's still there, a refuge from the storm that rages outside. The rooms, small and tidy, are decorated in what can only be called Maiden Aunt style. But the glory of the Palace is its inner court, a cool green swath of lawn enclosed by Spanish balconies and planted with majestic palms.

Once the Palace's cellar held food stocks and supplies. Now the works of Pedro Figari and Joaquin Torres Garcia, whose oils sell for $200,000 and more, hang in rooms joined by thick stone arches. Galeria Sur is the equal of the finest art galleries in the world.

If the gallery's taste is too rich, the perfect antidote is upstairs at La Stampa, a genuine Italian restaurant presided over by a genuine Italian. Felice Ambrosia is a warm and congenial host who concocts some of the best pasta this side of his home town of Naples.

The longer I stay in Punta del Este, the longer I want to stay. Brilliant sun on stark white houses. Miles and miles of lovely beaches. Fine restaurants and charming hotels. Especially the sophistication, style and cultured ease with which life is enjoyed. Now I understand why so many come not for a week but a month or more.

Of the million and a half visitors to Uruguay last year, only 18,000 were from the United States, a statistic Ana Maria is determined to change. It may have to begin by combining a visit to Punta del Este with one to Buenos Aires. Eventually, however, we'll follow the leaders who, given a chance, shout, "I'll take Punta!" A million Argentines can't be wrong.

Travel information

When to go: Temperatures are moderate year round with no rainy season. Seasons are opposite those in North America. The high season -- January and February -- is very crowded and full of activities. November and March are more peaceful. Punta del Este's winter, our summer, is very quiet. Prices are as little as half those in Punta's summer.

How to get there: Punta del Este is about 90 miles from Uruguay's capital, Montevideo.

Tour operators to Punta del Este: Calcos Tours (including Montevideo and Buenas Aires), (800) 338-2288. Altura Tours (including Argentina), (800) 242-4122. Ladatco Tours (including a ranch stay), (800) 327-6162. Solar Tours, (800) 727-7652. Ole Travel (golf packages), (800) 559-5192.

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