Imagine Tuscany, but more rustic, more relaxed and far less touristy: rolling hills, palm and lemon trees, flocks of sheep, vineyards, vintage cars and cheery, pastel-hued houses. That’s Uruguay, the small, prosperous South American country of European immigrants just next to Argentina.
We didn’t really know what to expect when we made the short launch ride across the Río de la Plata river from Buenos Aires, Argentina to the sleepy village of Carmelo. What we found was utter family bliss at the bucolic Four Seasons Resort Carmelo, Uruguay.
Sabrina, 11, and Duncan, nine, spent hours building forts on the sugary-sand river beach, and strolling barefoot along the boardwalks. Then there was the gargantuan pool—on a vast terrace fronting the elegant stone-and-wood lodge. The aesthetic is Bali: teak woods, giant ornate carved doors, thatched pitched roofs and Southeast Asian art and statues. Laidback and cozy, this place made us think of Northern California with its fragrant eucalyptus trees, pampas grass and pine forests, dunes and vineyards. Alluring.
*Town-and-Country? Four Seasons Hotel Buenos Aires is just a 15-minute flight to Carmelo, or a one-hour catamaran ride* across the river. Make yours a South American Town-and-Country family vacation. We recommend first diving into the electric streetlife of BA, then recovering with R&R at Carmelo. (*Guests get a complimentary upgrade when they book the Buquebus through Four Seasons.)
*The wine. Malbec is to Argentina as Tannat is to Uruguay. This red is worth getting to know. The area also produces quality Viognier, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and a Tannat Rosé, the perfect accompaniment to an al fresco pasta lunch.
*New family casitas. Originally designed as a couple’s retreat, the Carmelo resort has morphed into a South American vacationing families hot spot. To accommodate, Four Seasons is adding family casitas to the 44-room property: currently four-unit, stand-alone split-level bungalows in gray rock, black slate, ruby-colored marble and dark woods. These are stylish and comfortable. A cushioned window seat beckons for your early-AM coffee (or mate?) and newspaper. And just try to get up early out of that king-sized bed!
The new casitas will include a 30-square-foot patio, living space with kitchen and separate upstairs/downstairs format so mom and dad can continue on with the evening after the kids go to bed.
*The beef. Like Argentina, you’ll eat some of the best beef (always grass-fed, always free-range) you’ve ever tasted. Just surrender. You can catch up on veggies when you get back home.
*The community. You go to Carmelo to be enveloped in the local community. It’s low-key and friendly. Everything is cycle-able. One owner has the entire 44-hectare property, so it’s all interconnected. There’s a pretty little river port about 20 minutes away (one mile) on beachcomber bikes. There’s a winery (Narbona) a short drive away; a championship golf course (one of South America’s finest); and a stable. Everyone will know your name. It’s easy and safe—ideal for kids.
*Make it a whole South American tour: Coming online soon are more Four Seasons properties to Latin America. Stay tuned.
*The pool. This one will top the list! Under the rustling eucalyptus and overlooking the boardwalked vineyards, the enormous, three-tired cobalt-blue pool steps down the central terrace. The challenge will be getting the children out again. Just set up camp on a cushioned chaise lounge and prepare to stay a while.
*Parakeets. Look up. Parakeets in greens, blues and yellows nest in the towering trees. They make a lovely racket. We were serenaded by “budgies” at our garden luncheon at Narbona wine lodge. The kids rolled down the sloping lawn and bird-watched while we waited for our five-star, from-scratch meal to arrive.
*The beach. Snuggle onto a riverbank cabana and wiggle your toes in the sand. Stroll the boardwalk-lined vineyards. It’s river vs. the ocean, but just as soothing: very still and pastoral. We loved the tranquil sounds of the water flowing, the tall grasses rustling and the doves cooing. We watched a goofy green duck-like bird sprint back and forth to its nest. Walking on the golden sand, dotted with gleaming agates, was like a foot massage. The kids played happily for hours while a giddy young couple smooched and belted out ballads in Spanish.
*Helado (ice cream). It’s housemade, like every luscious treat here; plus other local indulgences: Dulce de Leche, Alfajores… Despite all these, Sabrina and Duncan’s absolute fave was the “apple tea.” They were offered fragrant, steaming mugs of what is essentially hot apple cider when we arrived, and continued to request their special tea throughout our stay.
*Stargazing. The stars are different in the Southern Hemisphere. Ask the concierge to have an astronomer give a short talk about the constellations.
*Narbona. Bodega Finca Narbona, a “wine lodge” just down the road from Four Seasons, is a charming 19th century boutique winery and farm set on 15 hectares in the rolling hills—like the kind you’d find on the back roads of California’s Sonoma County—with a slavish commitment to producing the highest quality ingredients, and wine. You feel like you’re in the hands of a Master.
Geraniums, orange trees, chandeliers and red velvet drapes set the scene. Rustic and tranquil, the place has been immaculately restored, preserving its historic elegance, with gorgeous period antiques and whimsical design elements. You can lodge here (check out the Vista Viñedo, “Vineyard View,” suites) at the inn, dine at the restaurant, tour the property or set up a special vintner’s dinner in the candleabra-lit cava.
“Nacho” the manager showed us the new private party spaces below the hangar-like wine cellar—spectacularly cool. We’re wracking our brains to figure out what family event we can plan there. In addition to award-winning vintages, grappa and cognac, the granja (farm) produces artisan cheese, yogurt, pasta, olive oil, Dulce de Leche and preserves. Take some home as souvenirs.
*Family dinner: a Four Seasons-catered private family dinner on the beach in the Gazebo.
*The pool. (See above.) You will want to lounge here for hours. Don’t resist.
*The asado. Every weekend, Uruguayan families have a barbecue (asado) traditional-style in the home parrilla (an outdoor kitchen with wood-burning grill). Four Seasons puts on a similar asado so you and the kids can try it. Your family can choose from juicy flank steak, rib eye, chorizo and blood sausage served at your table in a brasero, a metal box with hot wood coals on the bottom.
*The spa. Stop in for a massage or facial (also teen treatments). The resort puts on complimentary adult yoga classes in the beachside Gazebo, too. After your massage, take a dip in the indoor pool—encased in glass on two sides, so you feel like you’re nestled in the woods.
*A wine tour. With or without the kids, you decide. Include locally crafted cheese and olive oil.
Cars for sale. According to our Colonia del Sacramento day trip guide, Fernando, when Uruguayans have an auto to sell, they put a paint can on the roof to indicate it’s up for grabs. The kids got a kick out of spotting these around town.
While you’re in Uruguay, be sure to sample some local specialties: steak with salsa criolla, pastries with Dulce de Leche, barbecued chorizo and Chivito, a traditional sandwich with thin-sliced veal and ham, plus bacon, fried egg, lettuce, tomato and mayo (hello, cholesterol). We found portions to be generous everywhere, so consider sharing.
Dine in—At the resort, you can dine in the signature restaurant Pura; Mandara Restaurant and Bar, at the pool (Dulce de Leche martini?); and Río Bar—all three have just been renovated. Or indulge in a lavish afternoon tea in the lobby by the huge stone fireplace and piano. The lobby is very grand: soaring and dramatic, all arranged around the central pool, with outdoor sofas and conversation spaces. In winter, the scent of burning espinillo, the local hard wood, invites you to sit and linger.
Take your time at Pura’s breakfast buffet and watch the sun coming up over the eucalyptus, illuminating that giant pool. It’s a spread worth savoring: moist scrambled eggs, fluffy sourdough toast, fresh pineapple, nicely herbed sausages, apple muffins, crispy bacon, picture-perfect eggs to order such as Benedict, fresh-squeezed juices like melon and tangerine. The drinkable Narbona yogurt is a standout: kids’ choice = strawberry.
At dinnertime, the place is seductive. Toney club music, mood lighting, glowing votives and shimmering metal cages encasing a single open flame set the mood. The space is dark mahogany with a pitched exposed ceiling. Sabrina and Duncan felt very grown up here. Prepare to stay for hours. (We brought our journals and colored pencils.)
The seasonal menu is about local, top-quality ingredients prepared South American-style, including in the indoor barbecue pit and wood-burning clay oven. There’s also a weekly traditional Uruguayan asado (BBQ) in the Pura parrilla (see above). Lots of gluten-free options as well.
No surprises here: our two gravitated towards the kids’ menu gooey cheese quesadilla, thick-‘n-crispy fries and Banana Split with homemade helado and dollops of Dulce de Leche. Though Duncan devoured a large portion of my husband James’ stand-out Ojo de Bife RANCHO, juicy and flavorful, plus buttery potato gratin with a nice Parmesan bite and tangy chimicurri sauce to add just the tiniest spice. Duncan says he has a special offer: Four Seasons can host a competition for the best beef in South America, and he can be a judge.
Parents will like the healthy kids’ menu options: pumpkin soup, veal Milanesitas, grilled fish fillet, petit beef tenderloin, fruit salad and peach with cream.
Our dinner faves: Sopa de Cebollas, sweet-savory caramelized French Onion Soup with a low-simmered egg and truffle oil; and Solomillo de Cerdo, assertive Portobellos as the meaty foil to tender, mild pork sirloin, plus creamy polenta—rich and subtle. The velvety, classic Malbec (Rutini Cabernet Malbec, Mendoza) and Rutini Chardonnay, recommended by the sommelier, proved ideal companions to the meal. Alas, James and I were too sated for dessert, though had our eye on the Warm Quince Tarte Tatin, Goat Cheese Canoli Brie Ice Cream.
Try the chef’s recipe for the Uruguayan family favorite, whole roasted baby pig, with a twist at home.-
Dine out—Really, you’ll just want to stay at the resort and take it easy. But there are two “out” options that are not-to-be-missed:
1. Narbona – Book a resort sitter and set aside a date night at this seductive spot: on the grass by the little picket-fenced veggie garden, in the understated-elegant restaurant or in the seriously romantic “family wine cellar.” The cave reminded us of a “Phantom of the Opera” Frank Lloyd Weber set, except with prosciutto hams hanging in the background.
If you’ve got teens, book a family wine dinner in the cellar. The artisan, multi-course feast, stewarded by the sommelier and prepared tableside over a vintage, wood-burning potbelly stove, teaches about the joys of savoring Slow Food and wine. Those in-the-know say the kids will be talking about it for years afterwards.
Consider, Mom and Dad, for your luncheon: the sesame-covered Brie with arugula salad, Buffalo Mozzarella or pumpkin soup with ginger and honey to start. Follow with the crispy-creamy homemade spinach ravioli au gratin with tomato and Béchamel sauce or pistachio-crusted pink salmon. Sample the local vintages: we loved the bright Tannat Rosé and the ripe tannins of the 2010 “Best in Uruguay” Luz de Luna red. Although after the delicate flan de campo infused with Dulce de Leche, you may require a nap on the lawn.
For the kids, order the feather-weight house papardelle or tagliarelle tossed lightly with your choice of sauce: butter-sage, Pomodoro or classic pink. The pizza with Buffalo Mozzarella is outstanding. For dessert, we fork-battled over Sabrina’s sticky, spongy, warm brownie drizzled in lemon zest-white chocolate sauce and Duncan’s creamy house strawberry ice cream, some of the best we had (and we had a lot).
2. Puerto Camacho is an easy cycle from the resort. Park your bikes and stop in for lunch. There’s a lovely little chapel, marina and stone buildings along the water. Grab a booth at Basta Pedro for pizza, empanadas, steak, chicken and salad under the dockside pergola. The pizza, brick oven-style, is really noteworthy. Pastas are yummy, too. Narbona wines and dairy products are featured. Rub elbows with the lunching Argentinians; this is the only luxury port close to Buenos Aires.
1. Gaucho horseback ride picnic.
At nearby Tierra de Caballos, Gustavo, a 50ish handsome gaucho with a stable of 80 Criollo horses, will shepherd you and the kids on a gentle ride through the pinecone and pine needle-carpeted forest, and along the gentle countryside, dotted with lagoons and canals—home to capybaras and birds. Like most gauchos, he’s the silent type. So the ride will be quite relaxing. If you like, make it a day with your goal a family picnic at the half-way point. Another option: experienced equestrians can sign up for polo lessons. Ask the concierge.
2. Bike riding.
This is fun and not too strenuous. Check out complimentary bikes at the spa, and pedal along the red-earth dirt roads. Riding to Puerto Camacho for lunch (see No. 2, Dine Out, above) is a great excuse to get out and about. You can lock up the bikes and stroll around. There are also bikes with baby seats on the back available.
Or, take the kids on a guided fishing trip. Play tennis. You can canoe, kayak and windsurf. Or try a Río de la Plata sunset cruise through the Delta Islands. You can sign up for a private family yoga class, too.
3. Family cooking class.
Ask the concierge about a family cooking class. Learn how to prepare a classic Uruguayan dish with the pros in the Four Seasons kitchen. (English translation available.) We baked Alfajor cookies with the pastry chef—almost as delightful as eating them.
The resort also offers a mate class on how to sip, and appreciate, the signature South American tea—really more of a culture than a beverage.
4. Colonia tour.
About an hour’s drive from Carmelo, Colonia del Sacramento is a UNESCO World Heritage town and one of the oldest in South America. Set on the river, this place was the site of many famous battles between the Spanish and Portuguese. And they’ve left their mark: lovely Colonial architecture and a bounty of sunken treasure just offshore. There’s even an abandoned 15,000-spectator bullfighting ring, the only one in South America: test out the astounding acoustics. A highlight for the kids, aside from sitting on the canons and scampering up the stone city walls, was wading through treasures in an antiques store. Sabrina took home a 1630s Portuguese coin. You can take home some lovely textiles.
5. Kid’s club.
Technically for the five to 12 crowd, kids under nine will be thrilled to spend the whole day here. On the Kids For All Seasons* kids’ club roster: tennis, golf, fishing for Mojarras (small river fish), playing on the beach and building sandcastles, arts and crafts, games, puppet making, mask making, decorating cupcakes. During Carnaval and the festive season (December-January), there are special events: for example, Candombe lessons, Afro-Uruguayan folk music with drums; live music and tango shows; and super hero theme days. Very sweet, engaged staff welcome even the most reluctant of niños (children).
Teens will love this: In the works is a new movie theater and kids’ center near the spa building with Wii, Nintendo, pool table and interactive games. The plan is to show new releases on the silver screen.
TIP: If you want to make things simple, ask for the resort’s family itinerary.
*Babies: A river cruise. Pool time with mom and dad. Relaxing in a beach cabana with the sights and sounds. Long walks around the property in a sling or stroller. Onsite babysitting; just ask the concierge.
*Toddlers: Beach time. Pool time. Running along the boardwalks and sand dunes. Riding on the back of the bike for a tour of the resort. Onsite babysitting for parents’ date night out.
*Kids 5-10: The KFAS kids’ club! Cycling around the resort. The riverside beach. Fishing, canoeing, kayaking. Horseback riding. Pool time. A tour of Colonia del Sacramento for older kids. A family cooking class. A film at the new movie theater and kids’ center. Wine touring; most wineries are family-friendly.
*Tweens & teens: Outdoor recreation: biking, polo lessons, canoeing, horseback riding, a sunset river cruise. Lounging by the pool. A tour of Colonia del Sacramento. A special teens’ spa treatment. A family cooking session in the resort kitchen or mate class. A film at the new movie theater and kids’ center. Wine tasting or touring with parents for oldest teens.
*Kids For All Seasons (KFAS) is a Four Seasons complimentary recreational and educational program for children of resort guests. Most KFAS clubs are designed for youth four to 12 years old, and open daily from 9 to 5. (Younger children can often join KFAS with a nanny or parent, or resorts can arrange for babysitting.) But details vary from property to property, so check the resort’s website for more information.
Kids can go all day or just for an hour or two. Activities inside and out include games, sports, music, treasure hunts, swimming, arts and crafts, cultural education, environmental preservation work and yoga.
Not your average camp, the VIP offerings are pretty extraordinary—for example, at Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas in Texas, Kids Night In means parents’ night out! Children get to burn off energy on the playground and get creative with weekly themed crafts and activities, such as Saturday Zumba and Fit for Kids classes. Las Colinas’ kids’ club is fully equipped with a Game Cube, Skee Ball, air hockey, board games, an indoor half-court basketball gym, sports and indoor/outdoor pools.
Read more on Carmelo in Four Seasons Magazine.
Read our “Concierge Recommendations“ for Carmelo in Four Seasons Magazine.
Read “Travel Tips: A Perfect Day in Carmelo“ in Four Seasons Magazine.
Michelle Pentz Glave is the Have Family Will Travel editor. Before diving into communications/PR, she was a journalist for 25 years in the US and Germany including stints with The Wall Street Journal Europe, Gruner+Jahr (Bertelsman) and the Albuquerque Journal. Her work has appeared in Outside, Wired, Travel + Leisure, Sunset and Fortune. She has a Bachelor's in English from Yale and a Master's in Journalism from Columbia University. Michelle is passionate about family, food, farmers, her garden and taekwondo. She lives on Bowen Island, near Vancouver, Canada, with her husband and two kids: Sabrina, 11, and Duncan, nine.
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