Despite the fame of Rio’s hedonistic culture and the country’s more than 4,500 miles of mostly tropical coastline, Brazil has surprisingly few beach resorts of an international caliber. When the wealthy citizens of Leblon and Ipanema vacation by the sea, they generally head to the Angra dos Reis archipelago, a local version of the Hamptons, three hours’ drive (30 minutes by helicopter) south of the city. There, the environment is pristine, and the water, unlike that of Guanabara Bay or Copacabana, is spectacularly clear and unpolluted.
When not sailing or cruising among the hundreds of jungle-covered islands, they stay in private homes or lavish rented villas. There are no resorts of note, just a few small guesthouses and pousadas. (Those wishing to explore this area of the country may choose to try the nine-room Casa Turquesa in the picturesque 17th-century colonial port of Paraty, 90 minutes south of Angra dos Reis. I have not personally stayed at the hotel, but I am told by Brazilians whose opinions I respect that it is extremely attractive and comfortable.)
Close to Rio, the beach town best known to the outside world is Búzios, located a two-and-a-half-hour drive (110 miles) to the northeast. In 1964, it was an obscure fishing village set on a beach-rimmed peninsula and hence an ideal place for Brigitte Bardot, then at the height of her fame, to hide away from the paparazzi. Her visit prompted a trickle, then a flood, of visitors, with the result that it is now a sizeable place of around 25,000 inhabitants. When I mentioned to acquaintances in Rio that I planned to visit Búzios, I was surprised to see quizzical glances exchanged. It didn’t take me long to find out why: Today, it has become a midmarket destination with few remaining pretensions to glamour.
Despite my initial disappointment, I sustained hopes for Insólito, a 20-room boutique hotel that is often the subject of laudatory reviews. Alas, Insólito proved one of those properties that is all style and no substance. Although the resort’s public areas have been decorated with considerable sophistication, my room turned out to be small, stark and rather gloomy; a faucet in the bath was broken; and the shower declined to produce hot water for at least 10 minutes after my arrival. (Perhaps it had been diverted to the swimming pool, which I soon discovered was heated to a temperature sufficient to slow-cook a lobster.) Worst of all, my accommodations stank of insecticide. Indeed, the smell was so overpowering that it was rather like arriving on the scene of an industrial accident just moments after the calamity. Although it seemed probable that a couple of lungfuls would take years off my life, perversely, the chemicals seemed to have no effect on the mosquitoes, which zoomed noisily about the room.
I was not exactly heartbroken to leave Insólito. True to form, reception was deserted at the appointed time to check out, and when I finally did track down a member of staff, I discovered that no one had remembered to reserve my car back to Rio.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Striking interior design; numerous quiet corners to relax with a book; pretty views over the bay.
DISLIKE: Our small, poorly maintained room; an overheated swimming pool; the noisy public beach nearby; omnipresent mosquitoes; lack of on-site exercise facilities; disorganized reception staff.
GOOD TO KNOW: Life is complete without a visit to Búzios, so spend your money elsewhere.
Insólito 84 Deluxe Room, $563; Junior Suite, $675. Praia da Ferrardura - Rua E1, Buzios. Tel. (55) 22-2623-2172.
Florianópolis, the capital of the state of Santa Catarina, is situated nearly two hours by plane (750 miles) south of Rio de Janeiro. An easy 45-minute transfer from the airport brings you to the municipality of Governador Celso Ramos, a collection of small fishing and mussel-farming settlements. The resort of Ponta dos Ganchos is secluded on a private wooded peninsula and comprises 25 bungalows and villas of varying sizes and degrees of opulence.
Southern Brazil is subtropical, with a hot, wet summer during which the temperature averages 77 degrees. Winters are much cooler than those in Rio, however, with June and July seeing averages close to 60 degrees. Few American travelers are likely to want to cozy up to a log fire in southern Brazil, so foreign visitors tend to arrive in November and to depart by April.
We had reserved a split-level bungalow, which offered a comfortable bedroom with a balcony overlooking a quiet bay, plus a downstairs living room with a wine fridge and a second balcony (with hammock). In most respects, it provided an ideal place in which to relax. Indeed, the only significant drawback was the smallish bath, which lacked a tub. Subsequently, I discovered that Ponta dos Ganchos offers a number of considerably more luxurious villas, some with plunge pools, Jacuzzis, even private gymnasiums. The most lavish of all is Villa #25, where, my guide informed me, Paul McCartney had once enjoyed an extended stay.
Transportation around the resort is by golf cart, many of the roads being extremely steep. So having summoned a driver, we headed down to the restaurant overlooking a small crescent of golden sand and an expanse of tranquil water. There, we enjoyed arroz de polvo (octopus with rice), followed by a fine selection of grilled seafood. Throughout our stay at Ponta dos Ganchos, the cuisine was excellent, though I found the multicourse tasting menu at breakfast to be rather pretentious. Personally, I prefer culinary creativity to begin at lunch. Dinners are also served on a small island linked to the resort by a causeway. This sounded appealing, but it soon became apparent that the experience was intended primarily for the young and romantically inclined. Amenities at the resort include an indoor pool and a gymnasium, plus spa pavilions overlooking the sea.
Overall, however, it is primarily a peaceful place in which to do nothing much except read and gaze at the ocean.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Comfortable and spacious accommodations; privacy and seclusion; charming staff; delicious seafood.
DISLIKE: The single small beach; the lack of a view in the fitness center.
GOOD TO KNOW: It is worth spending the extra money on one of the lavish villas.
Ponta dos Gancho 94 Super Luxury Bungalow, $985; Villa Bungalow, $1,700. Street Eupideo Alves do Nascimento 104, Governador Celso Ramos. Tel. (55) 48-3262-5000.
Although on this trip I confined myself to the southern coastline of Brazil, I recommend two other areas for beach vacations. Trancoso lies approximately 500 miles northeast of Rio in the state of Bahia. Here, the weather is reliably warm year-round, with the wettest months being November-December and March-April.
Trancoso itself is a laid-back village set around a square ringed by a handful of excellent restaurants. Although a Fasano hotel is likely to open at some yet-to-be-determined date, I currently recommend just Etnia Pousada & Boutique. This alluring hideaway is set in a tranquil forest grove, with an excellent Italian restaurant and eight comfortable bungalows. All of the accommodations offer ample living rooms, large baths with separate showers, and private verandas. Aside from lounging by the pool, guests spend their time relaxing on one of the beaches nearby or riding, sea kayaking and windsurfing. (If you want to be actually on the beach, you may wish to consider the new Etnia Clube de Mar, an enclave of five houses under the same management that opened in 2011.)
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Stylish accommodations; leafy and secluded setting; excellent Italian food; wonderful beach excursions and horseback riding.
DISLIKE: Difficult to get to; as with many places in Brazil, the air connections are inconvenient.
GOOD TO KNOW: The hotel is set back from the beach, so it is not ideal for families.
Etnia Pousada & Boutique 92 Suite, from $310. Rua Principal 25, Trancoso. Tel. (55) 73-3668-1137.
Located some 220 miles off Brazil’s northeast coast and accessible by air from the city of Recife, the island of Fernando de Noronha is an isolated speck just six miles long set in an archipelago of some 21 islands and islets. The surrounding marine reserve is a key breeding ground for sea turtles and home to a group of around 600 spinner dolphins.
Set on a hillside overlooking the placid waters of Baía do Sueste, Maravilha comprises a main lodge and eight freestanding bungalows, all of which offer unobstructed sea views and private decks with Japanese hot tubs. Their air-conditioned interiors are simple but stylish and come with white walls, beamed ceilings, four-poster beds, expanses of Brazilian wood and well-equipped baths. The lodge itself is an attractive open pavilion furnished with white-cotton couches and wicker bucket chairs. There, the dining room serves an inventive menu displaying both Italian and Brazilian influences, accompanied by a short but interesting wine list. Activities at the resort include world-class scuba diving, kayaking and windsurfing.
Despite being somewhat arduous to reach, Fernando de Noronha is a special place that amply rewards visitors for their effort.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Pristine natural setting; helpful young staff; excellent food.
DISLIKE: The long journey to reach the island.
GOOD TO KNOW: The scuba diving and snorkeling are world-class.
Maravilha 93 Luxury Apartment, $640; Bungalow, $750. Vila Do Vai Quem Sabe - BR 363 - Baia Do Sueste, Fernando de Noronha. Tel. (55) 81-3619-0028.