Couple bring their laid-back Kiwi style to Uruguayan home
House rules at Casa Marron in Uruguay: everyone’s free to do as they please, says the wife of its Kiwi-born owner.
If it weren't for the pink flamingoes on the lagoon, it could almost be New Zealand. Green fields, rolling hills, a number eight wire fence and what appears to be some sort of campsite among the pine trees and eucalypts.
But this is Uruguay, a five-minute drive from José Ignacio, an old fishing town that has become one of the chicest spots in South America. The property, Casa Marron, is the Hispanic hang-out of New Zealander Geoff Cone and his American wife Sarah.
"We love it because it is the perfect mix of utterly rustic and impossibly glamorous," says Sarah. "Stunning modernist houses on dirt roads, world-class restaurants combined with roadside vegetable stands, and miles and miles of beaches so beautiful that even Brazilians vacation here."
When they bought the 2.5ha property five years ago, they engaged Martin Gomez, an Argentine architect who has designed more than 500 houses in the area, to add to the existing house and develop the site. They gave him free rein. "Our only idea was that we wanted to build separate cabins instead of one big house, for privacy and to be more interspersed with nature," says Sarah.
As a young graduate, Martin spent five years "taking a long walk around the world", including several months in "beautiful Aotearoa", where he biked around both islands and became an aficionado of the Kiwi bach and simple beach house. He admired the way New Zealand architects worked with the landscape and incorporated outdoor spaces in their house designs – verandahs, barbecue areas, wide doors opening onto decks.
It's a style that transfers well to Uruguay, as does the use of timber. "We love working with wood," says Martin, whether natural or stained black. "Black is the best colour to go between the trees and the green farmland."
The Cones' "camp", built around the trees, includes two cabins and three permanent tents on raised wooden platforms.
"Sarah bought some excellent canvas tents from Montana that stand up well to the wild storms you get, even in midsummer," says Geoff. Before that, he had an old Uruguayan army tent. "One day, after lunching well but not wisely, I knocked over a citron candle and woke to find the tent and grass floor on fire."
This was shortly after a memorable barbecue. "We didn't realise how dry the grass gets and our first attempt at cooking chops ended in a near conflagration. There was much beating with shirts and running to and from the kitchen with pots of water."
The most sensible addition, given the heat and Geoff's incendiary tendencies, was the pool. With its bar and infamous rope swing, the pool is at the heart of the complex, physically and socially.
"The locals are very hospitable," says Geoff, who has Uruguayan residency. "If you invite someone they usually bring their friends and family."
Around 9pm, everyone gathers for an asado or Spanish barbecue. Meat, fish and vegetables are cooked on a huge grill or parrilla, which is hoisted on a chain over embers.
"The parties are wild and legendary – and invariably end up in the pool," says Sarah. "One morning, I woke to find the deck furniture, a door and the previously arranged flowers in the pool. 'What happened last night?' I asked at breakfast. 'We were playing Titanic,' our friends said."
They go to Casa Marron to be completely free, says Sarah. Geoff's legal work entails a peripatetic lifestyle ("I have no idea where he lives") while she is an investor based in New York. "Here, everyone is supposed to do exactly as they wish at all times. We have developed rather eccentric habits. Whenever I've completely trashed a ball gown, I 'retire it to Uruguay', so I wear old ball dresses around."
Sarah fills her days reading and writing, or bikes to the Yoga Shack in José Ignacio. She also grows edible flowers and seedlings for the vegetable garden in a timber greenhouse picturesquely set in the forest.
Geoff messes about on the lagoon in his wooden clinker-built boat or takes friends on road trips in Willy, an old and cranky US Army jeep. ("Once I went round a corner and the back wheel rolled past me.")
The local polo club borders the property. "We've become good friends with the owner, who lets us ride his horses," says Geoff, who grew up on a farm in South Canterbury. "Our favourite ride is down to the beach at sunset."
The lagoon forest and the wetlands abound with wildlife – turtles, foxes, deer, small jaguars and a large rodent called a capybara. Flamingoes fly in for spring and South American ostriches, or rhea, sometimes sprint past the house. "Exotic birds perch on a fence outside our porch," says Sarah. "We've practically become birdwatchers. We don't know any of the names, so we make them up – like the 'Louboutin', a copper bird with red under its wings, or 'Angel Cat', a black bird with a long tail."
There are other eye-catching fauna besides. "Handsome men surround our property," says Sarah. "There are no men on earth more gorgeous than polo players, and gauchos [cowboys] wearing red berets often ride past us on their horses. I wave to them while sunbathing."
At dusk, the frogs begin a blood-curdling cacophony that would disturb the deepest siesta. Squadrons of fireflies light the skies and it's time to party.
My decorating style is: Rustic minimalism. (Sarah)
Best decorating tip: Leave it to professionals. There are more important things to spend time on than having a perfect home. It's all about what goes on inside the home, not how it looks. (Sarah)
Best thing we ever did: Pulling down the satellite dish so no one could hook up TV. However we had a terrible internet connection so built a huge mast that goes up over the tree. People come from far and wide to use our connection. (Geoff)
Biggest renovation regret: I wish we had made the pool a bit longer so my lap-swimming was more of a workout. A diving board would be fun too. (Sarah)
we couldn't manage without: Our Colombian major domo Juan Velandia, a photographer (he shot this story) and linguist who knows the ways of Latin America and how to make things work. And Lizel Ibarra, a lovely lawyer who practically runs José Ignacio in the summer. (Both)
Best place to stay in the area: Estancia Vik, which you can see in the distance. It's a traditional Uruguayan ranch with a boutique hotel on it. They grow all their own food and a different artist has designed each room. (Sarah)
Sarah and Geoff Cone
- NZ House & Garden