PUNTA DEL ESTE, Uruguay (
) -- Punta del Este, South America's media darling for the past three years, has emerged as the continent's St. Tropez, with a bustling beach scene, high-end hotels and even South of France prices.
With most hotels priced in U.S. dollars, the once-affordable beach getaway has become all but out of reach for budget-minded travelers. That was until owner Aaron Hojman of the Trading Post, one of Punta del Este's top antique and design stores, opened
along a picturesque bluff above one of La Barra's iconic saltwater lagoons that's become the best luxury-travel deal in town.
Road to La Barra: Punta del Este is a 120-mile drive from Montevideo, Uruguay's capital, or a 50-minute flight form Buenos Aires. A sleepy Atlantic beach town for nine months of the year, Punta del Este awakens every November as the summer getaway of the Brazilian and Argentine elite. A 20-minute drive through the high-rise condo towers and casinos of downtown ends along an undulating bridge and into the sleepy, one-road town of La Barra. Just beyond the bikini boutiques and terrace eateries is the pine-tree hilltop and rolling farmland where Casa Zinc makes its home.
Repurposed materials and furnishings bring green luxury to the rooms of Casa Zinc.
First impressions: The loft-style facade of distressed siding and corrugated aluminum hint that Casa Zinc isn't your usual all-white Punta hotel. Divided by a gravel walkway lined in blooming shrubs and bamboo, the aged, red building is constructed of bricks made by a local manufacturer that still uses actual horses to form the clay. While Punta del Este gives the illusion of a city lost in the future, much of its surrounding towns and communities still work the old-fashioned way -- at least for now. The rambling L-shaped architecture feels like a plantation house or municipal building with a storied past, like so many being uprooted from the coastal towns along South America's Atlantic coast to make room for bigger, flashier resort projects.
Designer reception: The fashionable eye quickly identifies that Casa Zinc isn't your average design hotel of armless chairs and leather-clad loungers. A gravel courtyard with eclectic iron tables and Art Nouveau chairs is illuminated by candlelight and the clink of chunky porcelain plates by nightfall. Through a pair of reclaimed French doors, a find of Hojman's years before in Montevideo, is a cozy dining room surrounded by shelves of vintage books. Along a brick staircase into the main galley of the hotel upstairs, towering brick walls envelop salvaged windows offset by a homey design of checkered floors derived from railroad ties lining a long corridor of more vintage books atop old church pews.
A bedroom view: This isn't the type of property that swipes your room keycard and sends you to your room with map in hand. All the hotel's guest rooms are arranged along a central hallway that flows like the main artery of the property. Six room types offer the amenities of a private posada, each with an individual design aesthetic. With a wink to Elle Decor and a nod to environmental awareness, a standard patio room is lined with thick planks of recycled wood with queen-sized antique beds and ebonized floors with laboratory lamps and desks that look like they were wheeled out of Sigmund Freud's personal office. Bathrooms are all white with repurposed porcelain pedestal sinks and sturdy iron bathtubs shiny from a recent enamel dip.
Little details: The clientele includes well-read fashionistas looking for the latest boutique hotspot as well as family guests and younger relatives of the owner. Guests dine in a quirky, community-style dining room. Meals include lavish Uruguayan breakfasts, included in the room price, as well as late-night dinners with friends on request. Adjacent to the dining room is a working office with glimpses of hugging guests on departure and newcomers arriving with wide-eyed wonderment. Checkout still comes with rubber stamps under fluorescent light bulbs and wooden room mailboxes with actual working keys.
The final bill: With rooms that start at $160 a night, slightly higher during peak holiday weeks between Christmas and New Year's, Casa Zinc is the best deal in town.
-- Reported by Michael Martin of JetSetReport.com in Los Angeles
Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com -- a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in In Style, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine, ITV and BBC.