Before I was born, my family lived in Brazil, and, for as long as I can remember, my five older siblings have taunted me with stories of swimming pools in the back garden and lazy weekends on Copacabana beach. Having grown up in a distinctly unglamorous village near Wales, this land of sun and micro-bikinis took on a mythical status for me, fuelled by wildly exaggerated family folklore. Such as that raucous football match that turned into an all-night party on a beach. Or the time my parents left the kids with the neighbours and headed west from São Paulo for a week-long train ride. So, when the chance came to visit Rio de Janeiro, then boutique eco-resort Ponta dos Ganchos, I almost fell over with excitement.
Why It's Hot
It couldn’t be a better time to tread Brazil’s golden shores. It has always enjoyed an exotic, decadent (and slightly edgy) reputation and in 2012 it overtook the UK as the world’s sixth largest economy. Tourism is in its element as the country prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics in 2016.
My first foray on to Rio’s Avenida Atlântica, a strip of coastline flanking Copacabana beach, was an eye-opener. I felt like had stepped into an advert starring a chorus line of ridiculously happy and healthy-looking people. The boulevard was thronged with joggers, skaters and groups of beach-goers playing volleyball. Men in tiny swim shorts sauntered casually by, causing me to pay undue attention to shop windows while they passed, and down on the beach, families gathered to sunbathe and eat queijo coalho, a genius snack of fried cheese on a stick. It’s a place that breeds extroverts; out on the sea, the young and beautiful balanced on stand-up canoes and overhead, hang-gliders appeared like hawks from Rio’s dramatic mountains.
My time in Rio was limited to a day, so I just had time to stop at Zaza (zazabistro.com.br), a bohemian bistro in Ipanema with abstract art and dulce de leche cheesecake to die for, before heading to Rio Scenarium (rioscenarium.com.br), a live samba bar in a warehouse filled with antiques and vintage movie props.
My next stop was Ponta dos Ganchos. This exclusive boutique resort is based on a private peninsula near the southern city of Florianópolis, renowned for luring in the moneyed and genetically blessed. Proof? Well, it counts Beyoncé and Naomi Campbell among its guests. It prides itself on its ecocredentials and has just 25 rooms, each of which are designed to blend in with the tropical-forest environment.
The untamed landscape, combined with the odd glimpse of a hammock and a pristine beach, conjured up an air of quiet, understated glamour. This only increased as I arrived at my ‘bungalow’, a sleek wooden cabin roughly the size of my London flat. It came with a private sauna and a giant ocean-facing hot tub. But my favourite spot was the outdoor deck, with lanterns, a giant sofa and an infinity pool overlooking the sea.
Eating & Drinking
It’s wise to come to Brazil armed with a large appetite, as the country is overflowing with moreish, but not altogether healthy, snacks. Take pastels, flaky parcels of fried pastry filled with cheese, pork or shrimp, often served with chope (draught beer). Or bolinho de arroz, fried balls of rice, and coxinhas, crispy chicken croquettes.
Brazil’s national cocktail, Caipirinha, is made from lime and a sugarcane liquor called cachaça, and comes with a kick. Ponta dos Ganchos offered a rainbow selection of fresh-fruit Caipirinha flavours, such as passion fruit, kiwi, lychee and strawberry. But the highlight for me was the nine-course tasting-menu breakfast, which includes treats such as goat’s cheese omelettes, kale and pineapple smoothies and a hefty slice of chocolate cake with sticky caramel sauce. And, best of all, it was served all day.
If you had room for more (weirdly, I often did), the lunchtime barbecues in the beach-side kitchen garden were also worth indulging in. We flambéed freshly caught shrimps in cachaça, and steaks were accompanied by home-grown organic vegetables such as asparagus and artichokes. Evening meals brought more elaborate dishes such as octopus and quinoa salad and tapenadecrusted sea bass.
If You Do One Thing
Ponta dos Ganchos is located in Brazil’s biggest oysterproducing region and a boat trip out to the beds is a strangely exotic experience. We jumped aboard a local fishing boat an hour before sunset and meandered around the local villages with their picturesque pink and yellow houses set against a dramatic forest backdrop. As the night drew in, our guides brought out fresh trays of oysters and cracked open a bottle of Amadeu Rosé Brut, an award-winning local sparkling wine.
It’s worth taking three weeks to explore the whole of Brazil by plane with a budget airline like TAM (tam.com.br). Head up to Bahia for beautiful beaches and delicious, African-inspired food. Or pop by Brasília, the capital, for stunning architecture by Oscar Niemeyer. Then there’s São Paulo, the New York of Brazil, for great bars and nightlife. Don’t go anywhere without insect repellent to ward off mosquitos, and pack light – the heat means you won’t need many clothes. Naturally, the annual carnival in February is a riot but be prepared for extra expense and complicated logistics.