“Vacation is having nothing to do and all day to do it in.”
– Robert Orben, magician and comedy writer
Carmelo, Uruguay – So those of you who follow along things like our Twitter feed and Facebook page know that Henry and I slipped away last weekend for my birthday. It was some much needed time away from it all – the last time we went anywhere together, really, if we stop to think about it, was our three weeks in Peru almost two years ago now. And while he took off to visit family back there the following December for a couple of weeks with his sister and niece, and me a couple of short visits to the States, the last trip either of us took more than an hour from Buenos Aires is now coming up on a year. And come to think of it, Carmelo, Uruguay, isn’t really much more than an hour away, though it feels like a world apart.
Back in the day, one made friends in various parts of the world either by actually visiting (not all that common for many of us) other countries, or, penpals. I suppose, in some ways, the modern equivalent, with far less effort, is the online social network, though it doesn’t have the same feel. Still, I’ve become online “friends” with a variety of people in many places, and one is the lovely and talented Karen Vandergrift, who splits her year between San Francisco and Carmelo, the latter being where she runs a little luxury get-away estancía (ranch), Tierra Santa. The holy land moniker comes from the early colonial era, when not only her property, but a vast tract of some tens of thousands of acres was a Jesuit community. They were expelled from Uruguay at one point and the land divided up into much smaller tracts – Karen and her husband picked up their property back in 2002 and rebuilt the original building and extended it to include more facilities. It’s a working ranch, of a sort – I mean, no cattle drives or anything, but they raise cows and pigs and sheep and chickens and geese and… well, pretty much everything they need. And that doesn’t even get into the vegetable garden and orchard.
All this, by way of getting to the point, Karen graciously invited Henry and I to come over and spend a couple of days, and my birthday weekend seemed like the perfect time to get away and do so. It turned out that we were the only guests last weekend, we’d just missed another couple who left the morning we arrived, and no one due in for a couple of days, but that gave us some real time to just be by ourselves when we wanted to, and hang out with Karen more than we might otherwise have gotten to. It was a fantastic weekend, completely relaxing, and I highly recommend it – tell her we sent you! On to the photos….
A view of the Tierra Santa’s buildings from down by the creek.
Henry playing with Karen’s dogs – very friendly, though if you’re not a dog person, you might find them a bit more playful than you’d want. Still, easy to ignore when we weren’t interested in playing, and they would wander off after a minute or so.
A few of the horses on the estate.
Our room – pretty spectacular – did I mention Karen is a designer as well? Working fireplace in the corner. Free wi-fi if you want it (I didn’t bring computer, and after my folks called for my birthday turned the phone off, Henry on the other hand, pretty much real time updated on his Facebook account throughout the weekend). Big comfy, feather filled mattress….
The bathroom is bigger than our living room. Actually, I think the accomodations are probably almost as big as our entire apartment!
And having a terrace with this sort of view doesn’t suck, you know?
After we had some time to settle in and relax (we’d taken the noon Buquebus to Colonia and then Karen picked us up for the 45 minute drive up to the estancía – I think I’d recommend taking the other ferry service across from Tigre – shorter trip, and then only a very short trip to the ranch. Taxis/remises are very, very expensive in Uruguay – the trip from Colonia, is a US$60 one), Karen drove us in towards Carmelo and dropped us off at Irurtia, a winery I’d visited before on a press trip – but a first for Henry, who’d not visited a winery before – he was fascinated by the whole process and we had a lovely tour and tasting (which Irurtia normally charges for, not sure how much since they did this as a favor to Karen this time, and/or because they knew I’d written about them).
Took a taxi back to the estancia – a quick 20 minute trip ran up a 750 Uruguayos bill, which should translate to about 130 Argentine pesos at the 5.65-5.7 official exchange rate, but the taxis, like many of the restaurants, will only give you a 5:1 exchange, so it came out to 150 pesos, or $40. Back at the ranch we dropped in on the main building, which has a huge living room with fireplace, dining room, Karen’s living quarters, and this stunning kitchen, where I want to just move in, Casa SaltShaker and all!
And, after a bit of a rest and wander around the property, we headed into the dining room, where Karen put on a feast for my birthday – a deliciously creamy squash soup followed by this Moroccan spiced roasted lamb, vegetables, and side dishes – just wonderful – I think we may have failed to do justice to it, though we both dove in for seconds.
She even baked me a birthday cake, with about seven different layers of various chocolates and vanillas and coconut – spectacular!
We returned to the room to find a roaring fire in the fireplace, where we had a nice romantic evening with a little wine, a soak in the huge tub, then off to a dreamy, beautiful night’s sleep. We don’t normally eat breakfast, mine consists of coffee and Henry usually doesn’t eat anything until lunchtime, but it was hard to pass up the spread of toast, cereal, fruit, yogurt, jams and dulce de leche, and coffee cake that was laid out in the kitchen, so we packed in a bit and then headed off for a horseback ride with the ranch’s manager, Roberto – two hours on horseback along the back roads… now, Henry hasn’t ridden since he was a teen, and the last time I was on a horse was probably at the tender age of about six. We had a great time! A little sore later in the day….
And, off to a day at the local cheesemaker, the fabrica not open on a Sunday, but we were able to get a look into the aging cellars and a tour of the grounds. They’re justifiably famous for their parmigiano style cheese.
They have a little restaurant onsite, part indoor and part out – it was such a gorgeous day, we sat out on the veranda and had a little lunch.
We started off with a cheese plate – a sextet of those made on the property – all quite good, though the standout is, indeed, the parmigiano.
I couldn’t pass up the cheese sauce on homemade fettucini, quite good, though, like here in Argentina, the pasta tends to be cooked a little softer than I like.
Henry opted for the polenta with bolognese sauce – I love the presentation, though I’m envisioning serving either polenta or pasta with a trio of sauces in those little side ramekins….
It was back to the ranch (the same taxi driver’s wife one direction, then him on the return – this could have been really expensive – the meter ran up to 675 uruguayos each way on the half hour drive – 1350 of those would have been 270 pesos at the 5:1 rate they give, or around $75 – as it was, he gave us a discount on the round trip to 900 uruguayos, 180 pesos/$50). We spent the afternoon relaxing – Henry had some schoolwork to do and wanted to listen to music, I sat outside and read most of my way through Jim Harrison’s Dalva, a book that’s been on my reading stack for awhile. Quite good. Then, dinner, this time, at our request, in that fantastic kitchen rather than the dining room, and we started off with roasted marrowbones – oh boy it’s been awhile, and these were perfectly cooked – just slathered that all over some homemade sourdough bread!
Beef rolled around a garlic and greens filling, accompanied by herb-roasted potatoes. I know it’s my birthday/vacation weekend, but I’m feeling my cholesterol level rising…. but worth it. And then, Karen baked another cake which we had with homemade ice cream…. really, we could have just set to work on the 3/4 of the birthday cake that remained.
I realize that I don’t have any photos of us with Karen, and that’s a shame, so you’ll just have to friend her on Facebook and then head to Carmelo to stay at Tierra Santa in order to get to know her!