The glitter is back at the Uruguayan peninsula long known as South America's summer playground for the rich and famous ÃÂ¢€” a Latin version of Monaco or the Hamptons of New York.
Multimillion-dollar yachts bob in the downtown harbour. Private jets are landing in record numbers. And real estate prices ÃÂ¢€" in a place already home to the region's highest concentration of million-dollar houses ÃÂ¢€" are spiralling. Punta del Este, known simply as "Punta," has fully recovered its status as the southernmost hot spot for the international jet set during January and February, the summertime peak in the Southern Hemisphere. The buzz this year was a visit by fashion designer Ralph Lauren. Benetton Group founder and Chairman Luciano Benetton was also spotted, along with models Eva Herzigova and Naomi Campbell, a Punta regular. "The glamour has returned," crowed Alfredo Etchegaray, a top party organizer. For a century, beaches of this wealthy vacation refuge were awash in beautiful people, business tycoons and socialites ÃÂ¢€" many of them from neighbouring Argentina. But the resort fell out of favour after Argentina's 2001-2002 economic meltdown threatened to convert the resort into something more downscale. Now, with South America's economies roaring again, the wealthy, who started drifting back last year, are returning in droves, and Punta is again attracting global personalities and players from the media and fashion set. "This year there are less middle-class people and more multimillionaires," said Margarita Palatnik, co-owner of MarAbierto, a leading interior design stores. "It's at levels it's never been before. Until last year it was still a secret, but this year is proving to be the big breakout." The rediscovery has set off a construction boom not seen since here the 1980s, when capital flight by Argentines seeking shelter from political and economic turmoil fueled a flurry of building. Construction cranes dot the landscape and developers are rolling out a dizzying array of luxury apartments and oceanfront villas, some at a fraction of prices in Europe or the United States, drawing the attention of European and American buyers. The draw? Punta's miles of pristine beaches surrounded by rural countryside. Many newly-built high-end properties are coming equipped with luxurious amenities like spas, home cinemas and even heliports. One top-end new development is even offering ocean-view apartments with pool terraces. The price tag: US$5 million each. Chic hoteliers are joining in too. A Punta branch of The Setai Club, the Miami-based ultra-luxury resort whose founding members include rock stars Lenny Kravitz and Sheryl Crow, is expected to open later this year. This year, Punta del Este was again a whirl of beauty contests and fashion shows. Insiders talked about the season's hottest restaurants ÃÂ¢€" one, tucked away in a forest, refuses to publish its address and relies on word-of-mouth to keep the crowd exclusive. The epicentre of the Bohemian jet set scene is focused around Jose Ignacio, a neighbourhood about 40 kms east of Punta, where beach houses made of stone and wood and painted in vibrant colors sheltered some of the season's high rollers. Some business owners say they hope Punta's regained global profile will help it decouple from its longtime reliance on crisis-prone Argentina. The boom has some recalling Punta's previous heyday in the 1960's when stars like Brigitte Bardot, Gina Lollobrigida, Yul Brynner graced its beaches. "But that's not comparable in scale to what's going on now," said Palatnik. "Now all these glamorous people are buying property and coming back every year and bringing more people." (Reuters)