Written by Oliver Marshall
Even in Brazil, with no shortage of stunning beaches, islands have an irresistible allure. Whether separated from the mainland by a narrow channel or open ocean, they exude an exclusive feel.
It has to be said that Brazil isn’t, in a traditional sense, an island-hopping destination. Most visitors to the country would be hard-pressed to name – let alone place on a map – a Brazilian island. What’s more, the islands are scattered across vast distances without any direct means of reaching one from another. Island-hopping involves backtracking to the mainland, often followed by lengthy road trips or flights. But the slight inconvenience of access is, as is so typical of island destinations, one of their great attractions.
With islands so widely dispersed along the coast, where should one head? Whether you’re an adrenalin junky set on surfing South Atlantic rollers; in search of an idyllic palm-fringed cove to relax in; seeking a luxurious pousada – a small inn – or merely a notch to sling a hammock; or if you expect a gourmet experience or are happy with simple fishermen’s fare – there’s a Brazilian island to suit. Here are a few ideas…
Perhaps surprisingly, two of the most unspoiled islands are also the most easily accessible to the mega cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Nearest São Paulo is Ilhabela, its densely forested mountainous landscape rising steeply to 1,370m. With most of Ilhabela falling within the boundaries of a state park, its waterfalls, beautiful beaches, and azure seas explain its popularity as a haunt of São Paulo’s rich, who stay either in luxurious pousadas or in their own discreetly located villas, many with mooring facilities for luxury yachts or with helipads. There are plenty of fine, easily accessible beaches to be found, but make the effort to visit the east coast beaches of Castelhanos Bay. Situated 25km across the island and accessed by jeep via a steep mountain road, this long, pristine beach offers surf and safe bathing against a glorious backdrop of rich tropical foliage.
If you’re seeking fine dining and sophisticated accommodation, Ilha Grande, a little farther up the coast towards Rio, should be ruled out. But if the perfect island of your imagination involves a trek through dwindling virgin forest trails that drop vertiginously to palm-fringed beaches and azure seas, then Ilha Grande comes close to perfection. Basic accommodation is found in Vila do Abraão, the only real settlement, but hidden around the coast and accessible only by water taxi are some rustic-chic pousadas, offering remarkable standards of comfort in the most delightful of spots.
Head south of São Paulo and the coast takes on a markedly different character. With a temperate climate, there’s something of a Mediterranean look and feel. Just a couple of hours from Curitiba, the capital of the state of Paraná, is Ilha do Mel, a place attracting the city’s youth and others fleeing the urban bustle. There are no motorised vehicles, accommodation is primitive, and dining is simple, but even the most demanding of travellers will surely be won over by the scenery. Most beautiful is the series of beaches along the mountainous southeast of the island: an area of quiet coves, rocky promontories, and small waterfalls.
For wildly differing levels of sophistication, head farther south to Ilha de Santa Catarina – or ‘Floripa’, as it is more commonly called. The island has multiple identities. Florianópolis, the city on the island’s western shore, is a wealthy metropolis to which high-tech start-ups are increasingly attracted. In marked contrast are quaint fishing villages dotted around the coast, their inhabitants maintaining many of the traditions of their 18th-century forefathers from the mid-Atlantic islands of the Azores. But what draws summer visitors are the varied beaches, each attracting a distinct crowd: families tend to stick to the warm, sheltered waters of the island’s north; Praia Mole, whose beautiful beach is hidden behind enormous sand dunes, is where the young and beautiful head; Joaquina, with its powerful waves, is one of Brazil’s premier spots for surfing.
Returning north, leap-frogging São Paulo and Rio, one reaches the state of Bahia, with its quintessentially Brazilian blend of Amerindian, African, and Portuguese culture. And with a 1,100km coastline, tropical Bahia is speckled with some of Brazil’s most spectacular beaches. Those on Ilha de Boipeba, mid-way along the coast, are quiet and possibly Bahia’s most beautiful. Yet to be ‘discovered’ by mass-tourism, the island, nevertheless, offers low-key comfort and some good snorkelling at nearby coral reefs. But you don’t have to stray far from Salvador, Brazil’s first capital and itself a major tourist draw, to find a lovely island. Clearly visible from Salvador, inhabitants of the city have long flocked to the white sands of low-lying Ilha de Itaparica. In recent years Itaparica has experienced something of a building boom, with holiday villas for Salvador’s wealthy, and luxury hotels and pousadas for visitors from farther afield. It’s best to visit mid-week when the island is at its quietest, but it’s large enough for visitors to always find a calm spot.
Attractive as these islands undoubtedly are, when Brazilians conjure up an image of an island idyll it is Fernando de Noronha that usually springs to mind. Located some 350km off the country’s northeast tip, it is this very isolation – and the fact that, for centuries, the island served as a penal colony – that has saved Noronha from all but minimal development. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Brazilian marine national park, visitor numbers are strictly controlled, so finding a perfect beach is an effortless task. Thanks to the warm, translucent waters, a particular attraction is scuba diving. It’s easy to spot hawksbill turtles, dolphins, colourful fish, and even sharks which, because the food chain is so well preserved, aren’t considered a threat to humans here.
As a developing country more concerned with the pressures of a rising population, production, and consumption, conservation has, until comparatively recently, not been high on the agenda of most Brazilians. But even in this ‘land of the future’, as the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig described Brazil, this view has fast been changing. From the extreme north of the county, in once-wealthy merchant cities such as São Luis and Olinda, to the far south, in the port of Laguna and the Jesuit mission of São Miguel, Brazil’s colonial architectural heritage is being treasured and protected as never before.
In most ways mimicking Portuguese styles, Brazilian colonial architecture includes adaptations demanded by the tropical climate and influences from other parts of the empire, not least those introduced by craftsmen from Macau. The most enduring examples are the churches and monasteries of the older cities. Rio de Janeiro boasts more colonial-era buildings than any other city in the country, but they’re widely dispersed and often almost hidden from view below modern skyscrapers. Much more engaging are towns and villages on the former gold mining route that emerged in the mid-17th century with remarkable concentrations of meticulously restored elegant mansions, baroque churches built for either the wealthy or for slaves, and romantic cobblestone roads. Isolated deep in the interior are the still elegant towns of Goiás Velho and Diamantina, while more easily accessible are the charming village of Tiradentes and the breathtakingly beautiful city of Ouro Preto. At the end of the former gold trail lies the little port of Paraty, one of Brazil’s first planned urban projects and quite possibly the most delightful of small towns anywhere on Brazil’s long coastline.
São Paulo, Brazil
Distance: 11,874 km
Flight Time: 14 hours, 45 minutes