Pure shores of Brazil's Bahia
Virgin sands, sexy sounds, pretty towns – Bahia blends the best of Brazil. Get there before it’s fashionable
Domini is running towards me in his swimming shorts, scattering words of broken English, his hands crisscrossing the air. ‘You must have lunch,’ he says, motioning me to a lopsided bench hooded with palm trees. His wife Françoise, dressed in a casual Day-Glo sarong, tries to rub suncream on his nose as he goes.
The pair have reason to be excited – they’ve bought a chunk of paradise, turned it into a petit France and built a boutique hotel on it. Four hours by car and boat from Salvador in northeastern Brazil, their bit of beach on the island of Boipeba is utterly deserted, the kind of place where you are scared to mar snow-white virgin sand with footprints. The sea ebbs and flows cheerfully on their doorstep like a set of bobbing, white-maned carousel ponies. Coconut palms swoop in from the forests beyond. And you could actually hear the brooding, beautiful silence? if Domini would just be quiet for a moment.
But the French and Italians slowly colonising this state at the top of Brazil like to shout about it – and Europe’s in-crowd has been listening. Bahia is about to have a fashion moment: London’s chicest hotelier, Anouska Hempel, is opening a five-star here this year, and the capital, Salvador, just acquired its first design hotel. Get there now, however, and you won’t have to worry about the label in your swimsuit. It’s currently so undeveloped, I found myself navigating the coast on my own – with a compass (‘You’ll need it,’ said the man who’d rented me my car. ‘They don’t do road signs in paradise’).
Though Domini is a middle-aged man from Biarritz with a career in advertising behind him, his hotel, Aliz�e Morere, is bound to be a gold star on the fashion map. It looks like something from Hip Hotels – a collection of glass bungalows gazing out towards the sea but hidden from each other among swathes of rainforest. Two kilometres away, along barely trodden jungle paths, the Pousada Mangabeiras is the only other interruption on the landscape: balanced on a cliff, with a few chic bungalows accessorised simply with views of the beach below. And the only way to access either is to walk along the sand from the sole cafe – seeing nobody, obviously.
Boipeba is so unspoilt that it’s been wired to electricity for just a decade and, at times, it feels as if nobody’s visited since the Tupi Indians left, 600 years ago. But then, between kilometre-stretches of unblemished sand, you stumble across people like Domini and Françoise, setting up home and hotel.
Over a meal of juicy steak barbecued right on the beach, I overhear Domini evangelising to one of his guests: ‘There are no cars here, and most of the boats are just for fishing lobster, crab and clams. You can feel the ghosts of the Indians in the patches of dense rainforest. And you should see the villagers,’ he squeals, with scant regard for political correctness, and flashing shots of unsuspecting residents on his digital camera. ‘They’re straight out of Gauguin!’
Salvador, where I’d started my trip, was equally photogenic: a sugary dollop of faded, wedding-cake buildings, iced in strawberry and lemon, and edged in bright advertisements for politicians. Once the slave capital of Brazil, the city earned its reputation and wealth with sugar, shipping in West Africans to work the plantations, building another colonial confection with each small fortune. When they were finally freed, those slaves stamped their culture on the city with rhythmic ax� music, the balletic martial art Capoeira, and their own lilting accent on the Portuguese language.
Despite the proximity of paradise (Boipeba is only hours away),
I spent a couple of days in Salvador – browsing relics and rosaries in dusty junk shops, and visiting some of the city’s 365 churches. But, from my terrace at the Pousada do Pilar in the old town, the ocean beckoned. In sleeping hours, when the heat rose and my room glowed with the dawn, I fought jet lag by watching a somnambulistic sun crawl from the sea. Ships ferried freight out of the city, sending rippling waves to the shore, and either side of me a hundred neighbours were gazing at the water in silence, too.
The sea, you see, is where the Brazilian soul wants to be. Or perhaps it’s simpler than that, and they just like a nice beach. Either way, once morning hits, Salvador seems to move en masse to Barra – an urban beach 10 minutes from the centre. This sunny stretch has always exerted a siren-like pull – it’s the first place the Europeans settled in Bahia, and Gilberto Gil used to hang out here in the ’60s, when he fancied a break from ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, his annoyingly ubiquitous worldwide hit. Enterprising teens serve fruit juice and fiery cachaça spirit as you bronze. Then, when the sun gets too hot, you can retreat to a beachside cafe for churrascaria – slabs of cooked meat served on skewers. By early afternoon the whole city seems to be there.
Which helps explain why inveterate sunworshippers are already looking beyond, and moving on, to more deserted beaches further south. ‘Morro is where you should go,’ says the young guy who rattles me up a Caipirinha from his makeshift beach bar. ‘It’s a long journey, but I promise you won’t have seen anything like it.’
He’s referring to Morro de São Paulo, capital of the island of Tinhar�. Getting there means a four-hour drive from Salvador along jungle-edged highway, then a choppy dinghy voyage. As I wedged myself between a high-spirited group of middle-agers and a young couple cooing over a baby, the exhilaration was apparent – drinkers getting more boisterous with each cracked-open beer, the jokes and laughter growing dirtier on the blustery night air.
Eventually a cluster of lights blinked out from the darkness, heralding Morro harbour, white in places below a megawatt moon. It was the sort of first impression the Portuguese must have had back in 1531, when they colonised Tinhar�. In the 16th century, Morro was a fortress town, bristling with grand government buildings. Now it’s defined by beaches: First Beach is full of pousadas; Third Beach has a smattering of restaurants; Fourth Beach is the most beautiful. But Second Beach is the place to be at night – it’s busy with bars and restaurants, but has managed to remain beachshack chic rather than degenerate into a tourist trap.
The old colonial buildings in the town square are crumbling alluringly behind hundreds of restaurant and bar facades. ‘It’s hectic here,’ said the owner of my pousada, as we dodged cosmetically enhanced girls from São Paulo queuing for
drinks at stalls above the harbour. ‘When I came 20 years ago, the weed was good and the living was leisurely. It’s not like that anymore.’
The route to Second Beach teems with girls in tiny dresses and high heels. At Real Pizza – Morro’s most popular restaurant – there’s a rush on chocolate-sauce pizzas as groups descend to try the famous dish (my advice – stick with the Margherita). Most bars have a guitarist, playing Brazilian covers of The Beatles or James Blunt. Some have lazy, drunken sambas seeping from the stereo. But at midnight, nature trounces it all with a light show of shooting stars that everyone watches lying flat out on the beach.
Morro de São Paulo is buzzy, in an enjoyable kind of way. But the next day, when I finally shake off sleep and leave my hotel, it’s a different story. The whole kilometre swathe is utterly deserted. I can move my hands and watch their shadows dance into the distance, uninterrupted on the sand. Rivulets of water run from inland rivers to play in the sea, creating tiny puddles of cool underfoot. The sea is as blue as the sky.
Morro’s charm is that you can do as much or as little as you like. And, after a few days basking in Fourth Beach’s isolation, I was ready to explore again. I enlisted Penir – Morro’s most wanted water chauffeur and (if rumours are to be believed) a bit of a ladykiller – to take me back to Boipeba in his speedboat. It’s the only way to get there, unless you want to wait a few days for the occasional tourist daytrip. As I jumped in, Penir tied a ribbon round my wrist and instructed me to make three wishes – a sign of friendship that had made its way to Morro from the Church of Bonfim in Salvador. You have to be gifted one of these ribbons before you can wear it, and, when it falls, the wishes come true. They’ve become a bit of a fashion statement themselves in Salvador, and Penir had at least 20 tied around his tanned wrist.
As we cruised off into the empty blue expanse, I made my wishes. ‘Please let me stay a bit longer,’ I whispered to myself. ‘Please let me stay a bit longer. Please let me stay a bit longer.’
The only direct flights from the UK to Salvador are with MyTravel (0871 664 7970, www.mytravel.co.uk), from £265pp. For flights via Lisbon, try TAP Portugal (01293 507 100, www.flytap.com), from £650pp, or a consolidator such as www.opodo.co.uk or www.expedia.co.uk .
WHERE TO STAY
In Morro, try Villa das Pedras (00 55 75 3652 1075, www.villadaspedras.com.br; doubles from £57) on Second Beach. With its all-glass bungalows and art books, the Aliz�e Morere on Boipeba is the place for eco-conscious trendies (no phone or website yet!). For a room with a truly unforgettable view, head up the hill to Pousada Mangabeiras (00 55 75 3653 6153; doubles from £100). For resort-style bungalows with five-star amenities, head to sleepy Barra Grande on the mainland and the Kiaroa Resort (00 55 73 3258 6212, www.kiaroa.com.br ; doubles from £250). This place is posh – they’ll even fly you in from Salvador by private plane. Meanwhile in Trancoso, the Txai Resort (00 55 73 2101 5000, www.txai.com.br; bungalows from £400) is like a safari camp in the middle of the rainforest. In Salvador, Pousada do Pilar (00 55 71 3241 2033, www.pousadadopilar.com; doubles from £50) has simple, homely rooms and good breakfasts. For a dose of luxury, the five-star Convento do Carmo (00 55 71 3327 8400, www.pestana.com; doubles from £200) is heavily accessorised with antiques, and has an impressive fountained courtyard. In Praia do Forte, Pousada dos Artistas (www.pousadadosartistas.com.br; doubles from £25) has simple, whitewashed rooms with stable doors opening onto terraces and hammocks by peaceful garden.
Journey Latin America (020 8747 8315, www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk ) can tailor-make trips to Bahia. One week, with time in Salvador at the Posada do Pilar, in Morro de São Paulo at Porto do Zimbo Hotel and in Barra Grande at the Kiaroa Resort, costs from £1,390pp, with flights from Heathrow, via Lisbon. Or try Exsus (020 7292 5060, www.exsus.com) or Steppes (01285 880980, www.steppestravel.co.uk). Sunvil (020 8758 4774, www.sunvil.co.uk) has beach holidays in the resort of Praia do Forte – a once tiny fishing village that’s now filled with impossibly beautiful people from São Paulo and Rio at weekends. One week at the five-star Praia do Forte Eco-Resort costs from £1,100pp.