On approach, the odor of bird guano failed to offset our delight at seeing hundreds of sea lions, shiny and wet, sunning on the rocks. On land the sea lions—which the Uruguayans call "sea wolves"—galumphed across the rocks, but in the water they flashed by our boat like jet planes buzzing a dirigible.

Despite Uruguay's reputation as a nation of beef eaters, chefs in Punta del Este also turn out excellent seafood cuisine. Some of the best is the simplest: fresh fish (particularly brotola, which is similar to sole) filleted a few minutes before it is grilled to order and served at a sidewalk table. At Lo de Tere, a busy restaurant across the street from the docks, Janice and I shared tender baby shrimp tossed with oranges and pumpkin. We finished with parfaits made from dulce de leche, a milk-based sweet found in many Uruguayan desserts, and dawdled over miniature cappuccinos. It was a relaxed Saturday brunch, with a lot of laughter and glass clinking among the families sprawled around nearby tables.

Like Spaniards, Uruguayans typically eat dinner late; the equivalent of the "early bird" special expires at 9 p.m. We had dinner one night in the heart of town at La Pasiva, a big, noisy chain restaurant, and were served by middle-aged guys whose names—Oscar, Elbio, Fabian—were stitched on their white smocks. They'd dash to the grill with orders and dash off again carrying chivitos (steak sandwiches), hot dogs, tall ice cream desserts and mugs of Pilsen chopp (Uruguayan draft beer). We painted our chivitos with earthy, homemade mustard, concluded that Philly cheesesteak vendors ought to fear the competition and finished our meal with caramel-bathed flan.

We discovered that maté (pronounced mah-tay), not coffee, is the national caffeinated drink. Many Uruguayans carry around their own cups, usually made from gourds. They also tote a metal or wood straw (a "bombilla") with a spoon-shaped filter on the lower end that keeps the yerba maté leaves, which look like dried oregano, in the water and out of your mouth. The resulting brew recalls Japanese green tea, but with a smoky overtone. Although its paraphernalia call to mind certain illicit activities, maté drinking is perfectly legal.

Gambling also is permitted in Punta del Este. The Conrad, a 17-floor retro spaceship-style hotel and casino on Playa Mansa, replicates a Las Vegas atmosphere with a lavish array of ways to challenge your bank account. (Mantra's casino, by contrast, is more under the radar; I didn't even notice it until we had stayed in the hotel two days.) A mural by local artist Carlos Páez Vilaró, illustrating the history of Uruguay decorates a swath of the Conrad's lobby.

We visited the artist's atelier on a cliff at Punta Ballena, a few miles west of town. Casa Pueblo's whitewashed architecture is a combination of Charles Addams and Dr. Seuss and Beetlejuice. Cupolas sprout little horns; exterior walls seem to melt and droop. The villa, which also serves as a 70-room hotel, incorporates galleries filled with ceramics, scrap metal sculptures and paintings. Striking in its colors and patterns, Vilaró's work melds African and South American themes in much the same way as the candombe music he favors.

A tape of Vilaró reading a farewell poem in Spanish was being played in the background as we stood on an upper-level balcony gallery. We looked down on a pair of seabirds skimming the river, which the wind had teased into the texture of billowing burlap. Vilaró thanked the sun on our behalf, saying that although we were sorry to see it leave, we knew it would be back. Meanwhile, it would bring light to other people. The reading ended just as the top rim of the sun disappeared under the water. Everyone applauded.

And that's sort of how we feel about Punta del Este now. We're sorry that we had to leave, we look forward to seeing it again, and we know that others will enjoy it in the meantime. I still don't know that I've satisfied my desire to fit Punta del Este neatly into a category. Trendy, exotic or innocent? St. Bart's, Italy or Minnesota? All the more reason to come back.



Sampling All the Charms of Punta del Este

Telephone numbers and prices: The country code for Uruguay is 598. All prices are in U.S. dollars and have been converted at an exchange rate of 25 pesos to a dollar. Room rates, which can go up in high season (December through February) are for a double for one night. Meal prices are for dinner entrees unless otherwise noted.

Getting there: From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) is offered on American, Delta and United. They connect with Pluna, the Uruguayan national airline, which flies into Punta del Este.

Where to stay: Mantra Punta del Este Resort, Spa & Casino, Ruta 10 at kilometer 162, Calle Publica, La Barra de Maldonado; 42-771-000, fax 42-770-302, http://www.mantraresort.com . The new darling of the beach is northeast of Punta del Este about half a mile from the ocean. The restaurant's Mediterranean cuisine pushes no gastronomic envelopes, but is competently executed and moderately priced. Doubles start at $250.

Conrad Punta del Este Resort & Casino, Parada 4 Playa Mansa, Punta del Este; 42-491-111, fax 42-489-999, http://www.conrad.com.uy . You can't miss Conrad's silhouette on the Playa Mansa skyline. If you like Las Vegas hotel-casinos, you'll find the Conrad to be a miniature version. Doubles start at $180.

Hotel Amsterdam Punta del Este, 759 Calle el Foque, Punta del Este; 42-444-170, fax 42-441-211, http://www.hotelamsterdampunta.com . Just off the beach near the tip of the peninsula's Atlantic side. Nice views. Doubles start at $80.

Where to eat: La Pasiva, 840 Avenida Juan Gorlero, Punta del Este; 42-441-843. Part of a chain of sandwich shops in Uruguay, this is an inexpensive way in which to experience a national favorite, the chivito, a steak sandwich. Beer, a sandwich and dessert, about $7.50.

Lo de Tere, Rambla del Puerto at Calle 21, Punta del Este; 42-440-492. Good seafood and other Uruguayan dishes near the marina. $15-$20.

La Tuttie, corner of Calle 9 and Calle 8, Punta del Este; 42-447-236. Seafood in a quiet residential neighborhood in the lower peninsula. Some outdoor seating. $5-$11.

For more information: Los Angeles office of the consulate general of Uruguay, (310) 394-5777. Ministerio de Turismo del Uruguay, http://www.turismo.gub.uy .