Bahia: Brazil’s coolest coast

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From high on a hilltop, the coast of Bahia shines with the colours of the Brazilian flag. The sea, the sky, blue on blue; the lush green of the Atlantic rainforest; long beaches that run like a fissure of gold between the two.

Bahia has 1,000km of coastline, and most of it looks like this. There are wild, empty bays and desert islands; and though not private — no beach in Brazil is private — its beaches may as well be, because you can walk along them for hours and not see another soul. All along the coast you can find bright-eyed marmosets in the jungle, turtles on the sand, whales in the sea.

And if other souls are what you seek, it has surf villages, candy-coloured colonial towns, chic resorts and beach bars where Hollywood stars and Brazilian models sip from coconuts. Bahia is where Brazilians go on holiday, and it is easy to see why. But for the rest of us, much of it is uncharted territory, its best beaches and places to stay still well-kept secrets, hidden gems amid tropical greenery. You just have to know where to look.

  • Bahia: Brazils coolest coast

    TRANCOSO

    On landing at this spot in the year 1500, the Portuguese marvelled first not at the sweeping bays of golden sand, nor at the bountiful forest beyond, but at the women.

    ‘So well built and so well curved,’ wrote a chronicler of Pedro Alvares Cabral’s armada to the King of Portugal, ‘and her privy part (what a one she had) was so gracious that women of our country, on seeing such charms, would be ashamed that theirs were not like hers.’ My husband must have thought much the same when we got there. During carnival season, beautiful Brazilians flock here. They sashay along the beach in bikinis tucked between buttocks as round and firm as mangoes.

    Desirable though it has become, Trancoso retains an element of its 1970s hippy origins. On a hill above the beach, the village is unshowy: a quad lined with colourful casitas and a sweet, squat church, all shuttered up against the noonday sun when we arrive. Under a tree, three dreadlocked boys, rake-thin, pass a joint around.

  • Bahia: Brazils coolest coast

    Our driver knocks at an unmarked door. When eventually it creaks open, we are astonished: these unassuming casitas turn out to be portals to other, entirely fabulous worlds; and staying in one elevates you from day-tripper to insider, while those who arrive by coach are left out in the heat, wondering where all the film stars are.

    In the evening, the quad becomes a football pitch. As the lengthening shadows become indistinguishable from dusk, other casitas open as restaurants, tables set beneath trees strung with lanterns. People emerge to eat, drink, flirt. Strains of Bob Marley and Bebel Gilberto mingle in the air with grilled food, jasmine and marijuana.

    As we walk back to our pousada, Jacaré do Brasil, two horses burst out of the darkness, racing each other into the night, leaving behind their sweet, horsey smell. Trancoso may be chic, but there is still something untamed about it, something wild and free.

  • Bahia: Brazils coolest coast

    The best hotels in Trancoso

    Jacaré do Brasil Casas On a clifftop off the quad, this five-suite B&B has the best views in Trancoso. Walls roll back to let the jungle and sea breeze into big, airy rooms of polished concrete, contemporary yet weather-worn; with gabled ceilings and artfully thrown-together pieces: terrariums, oversized urns, an antique crocskin suitcase underneath the TV. Number 5 may very well be one of the loveliest rooms on earth. You’re left to yourself; service is minimal and there’s no restaurant. A magnificent breakfast is prepared in your outdoor kitchen and served on the terrace or by the pool, which appears to fall off the edge of the world. Gardens bloom with hibiscus, and a path leads through jungle to the beach below. Suites from about £180. For more information or to book, visit www.jacaredobrasilcasas.com.br[/i]

    Uxua Casa Hotel & Spa A ramshackle façade disguises this utterly fabulous hotel. Ten beautiful houses, built by local craftsmen, are set among high-growing gardens. Bathrooms have living walls of ferns, orchids and jasmine, with basins hollowed out of tree trunks. There’s a spa and a pool lined with green aventurine stones, where guests recline with their iPads by the open-air bar (pictured). They may or may not be rock stars and models; either way, they are greeted by name and privacy is assured. Houses from about £470. For more information or to book, visit www.uxua.com

    Etnia & Etnia Clube de Mar A key to a room at Etnia is a key to Trancoso’s behind-the-scenes VIP glamour. Eight unique rooms have been home to stars from all over (model Alice Dellal loves ‘Gypsy’). When the party’s over, it’s a tranquil place; the dress code, suggests owner André Zanonato: ‘Sandals, kaftan, a diamond as big as the Ritz.’ Etnia Clube de Mar is the newer, child-friendly version down on the beach: five thatched wood-and-glass houses and a restaurant. Matthew McConaughey and family were the first to stay. Doubles from about £205. For more information or to book, visit www.etniabrasil.com.br

  • Bahia: Brazils coolest coast

    Bahia’s Cocoa Coast

    The beach stretches as far as the eye can see, until it is lost to the sky in a haze of heat and sea spray. In the late-afternoon sun, towering palm trees cast zebra stripes of shadow across the sand.

    The Costa do Cacau is pretty much one long beach. It runs for 200km from the surfer town of Itacaré down to sleepy Canavieiras, via the city of Ilhéus, founded by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Then, the going rate for a slave was six cacao beans; in Ilhéus market today, some enterprising soul rents out a loudspeaker: one man uses it to sell homemade cheese, the next appeals for a good and faithful wife, aged anywhere between 16 and 60.

    On the endless beach at Canavieiras, tattooed surfers ride the breakers and turn capoeira cartwheels. They stick out in this tranquil, pastel town where the ice-cream van is a man with a coolbox on his bicycle and the local cab firm is a group of boys on mopeds, who hand us helmets and speed us to a café, and the waiter happily takes our table down to the cool riverside.

    There are few tourists. There is not a lot to do. It is the kind of town where, as Bahians say, folk need a cushion on their windowsills, to make it easier on the elbows. Bahia’s favourite novelist, Jorge Amado, was born on this coast, and he set his folklorish tales in places like Canavieiras, tales where the buildings are as colourful as the casts of balladeering lotharios and seductresses with legendary bottoms, and where even the dead do not sleep in their own beds.

    Pictured: dancing at Canavieiras Beach Bar, Bahia, Brazil

  • Bahia: Brazils coolest coast

    The best beach house in Canavieiras, Bahia

    Casa Beija Flor The only way to stay in luxury in Canavieiras is to rent a beach house — and what a beach house! Boughs of bougainvillaea part to reveal what I first take for three buildings, but which turns out to be one huge, lovely house that feels miles from anywhere. ‘Hummingbird House’ is built among the palms at the back of a beach that guests rarely have to share with anybody. It is grand yet comfortable, simply but beautifully designed in wood and stone. Indoor-outdoor living areas — open to the outside, all the time — welcome in birds and breezes. There is a tremendous feeling of space. The sea can be seen from everywhere. Four en-suite bedrooms open onto terraces; the master suite has a whole floor to itself and a hidden veranda. On the pool terrace, with steps onto the dunes, there are contemporary loungers in sun or shade, a wood-burning oven and a canopied dining area. It feels as though the owners have just popped to the beach, leaving a make-yourself-at-home note along with supplies of sunhats and sunscreens, surfboards and cigars, shelves of holiday reading and a full staff to cook supper, set out fresh towels before your morning dip or arrange a marlin-fishing trip. At night, a security guard and a mosquito net keep out undesirables, so you can sleep with the doors open to the rush and the hush of the Atlantic. Casa Beija Flor, from about £3,950 per week. Sleeps 10. For more information or to book, contact www.brazilianbeachhouse.com

  • Bahia: Brazils coolest coast

    WHERE TO STAY IN ITACARE, BAHIA

    Txai Once known as the best place to stay in Bahia, Txai now has some competition, but it still does much to earn its reputation for laid-on luxury. The resort is on 93 hectares, most of it forest, outside Itacaré. Everything is well groomed, from the service to the flowerbeds. Golf carts zip guests around the place, laid out like an affluent suburb, and indeed the beach houses can be bought by those who never want to leave. Suites are cool, white, TV-free, and deluxe enough to please even the most demanding world leaders, who can slip into Havaianas and anonymity while still being treated like VIPs. The four-kilometre beach, Itacarézinho, is one of the most stunning on the coast, and that’s saying something: dazzlingly blue sea, white-gold sand. There are several cool pools, three excellent restaurants, and a hilltop spa with open-sided salas past which, every afternoon, hundreds of parakeets come whooshing out of the jungle in a blur of green. Doubles from about £290, half board. To book or for more information, contact www.txai.com.br

  • Bahia: Brazils coolest coast

    Barra Grande, Bahia

    Time and tide wait for no one, and nowhere is this more apparent than the bay of Camamu. It has been called the Polynesia of Brazil, with all its islands and tangles of swampy, vegetal mangrove and calm, green waters. Life is governed by tides. The only way to get around is by boat — families do the school run in rudimentary canoes, scooped-out logs worn smooth by the sea — and the roads are underwater channels that disappear at low tide. Luckily, our host Daniel knows them well.

    We are staying in his fabulous beach house near Barra Grande, as remote a seaside town as can be, and pretty, with a traveller vibe. Our days are spent puttering around the bay: there are lagoons to swim in, desert islands to explore. We clamber through a cave into gardens full of white rabbits. On tiny Sapinho, we eat at tables made from tillers, and a parakeet lands on my shoulder, Robinson Crusoe-style. I could happily be shipwrecked here, and live on lobster and sunset Caipirinhas.

  • Bahia: Brazils coolest coast

    One evening we linger too long, and sure enough the tide has not waited; our boat is listing on the shore. A beachful of young men help push us off, and it turns out one of them is having a party, and everyone is invited.

    Out in the bay the boat runs aground. There is nothing for it. We will have to wade. We bundle our clothes onto our heads as if returning from market, and slip blindly into the water, waist-deep and black as oil on this moonless night. I try not to think about what might be lurking round my toes. ‘Look!’ says Daniel. ‘The plankton lights up!’

    Our feet leave luminescent footprints, tiny neon lights swirling in our wake. I look around, all danger forgotten. Overhead are more stars than I have ever seen, and sweeping through the middle of them all, the Milky Way. What a curious experience, to be immersed in stars and darkness! It is like floating in space.

  • Bahia: Brazils coolest coast

    WHERE TO STAY IN BARRA GRANDE

    Villa Barra Grande If ever a villa was made for parties, this is it. A collaboration between Swiss and Brazilian architects turned out to be a match made in heaven: the result is a modern house sustainably built from natural local materials — salvaged timber and stone — with dramatic verticals and horizontals more reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe than a rustic beach villa. The building is U-shaped, dissected by a pool to cool the interior (so no need for air-con). Plate-glass walls around the courtyard slide back to open up the indoor-outdoor space. One wing houses four big ensuite bedrooms, the other an organic, free-flowing living area decorated with contemporary Brazilian art, a living wall and cantilevered stairs leading up to a games room and a vast roof terrace. Bespoke furniture is made from recycled materials, heating is solar-powered, water reused. Outside there’s a fire pit, cabana, outdoor tub, hammocks and massage beds among tropical gardens. The nearest neighbour (the German ambassador) is miles away. There are maids’ quarters (many guests bring their own), and a speedboat with white leather seats; waterproof bag advisable. From about £10,860 per week. Sleeps 8. For more information or to book, contact www.brazilianbeachhouse.com[/i]

  • Boipeba island

    A mile out to sea, a man walks on water. Presently a woman joins him, and another; in a pool of pale green, they stand together like the last survivors of a drowned world. These shallows are made by the moon; they appear at low tide, off the coast of Boipeba island.

    Low tide today is early morning, clear and still. A handful of us, visitors on our little wooden boat, jump down into water full of sunlight. Hushed cries of ‘Fish! Fish!’ and flashes of iridescence. A shoal of sergeant majors flickers through our legs, synchronised swimmers in their yellow stripes. Wading out deeper, I peer beneath the surface in mask and snorkel and join an underwater world. Inky damselfish studded with diamonds peck at the coral; a curious wrasse, rainbow scales flashing in rods of sunlight, swims along with me, guileless and affectionate as the family dog.

    Over the fizz and click of the underwater world comes a roar — an engine. More boats putter in from nowhere, hulls curving up against a blue sky. People pour down ladders, tanned skin oily as seals’, squealing and splashing, suddenly loud in the wake of the stillness. Radios play; trays of drinks bob on the water. In a moment a floating community has sprung up, with more people than I have seen for days; our otherworldly world interrupted.But on Boipeba, it is never very hard to find yourself alone again.

    The island is relatively unheard of, even in Brazil. There are few tourists; those who do come hop off the boat with a swimsuit, a book and little else, and stay in simple beach huts. There are no cars, no roads; its metropolis is a happy, self-contained village whose cobbled lanes converge at a green.

    In the evening this is where the action happens, such as it is. Chairs are brought outside; long-limbed boys shake off the languorousness of the afternoon heat and play football; children take turns in the saddle of a communal bicycle.

    At the other end of the island, the boat drops us off at the nearest beach, Praia do Moreré. It is as utopian a beach as there could be: white sand, frayed palms, limpid sea. There is nobody here except a boy, sitting cross-legged with his guitar beneath a cashew tree, singing reggae which sounds, in his easy lilt, like a Latin love song.

  • Bahia: Brazils coolest coast

    WHERE TO STAY ON BOIPEBA

    Pousada Santa Clara At Santa Clara you wake to an orchestra of birdsong and the sun shining greenly through banana leaves as big as magic carpets outside your open window. The Levitan brothers left New York to create their own jungly paradise, a 12-room pousada down a sandy path off the beach. Charles hosts and Mark cooks, and both do so brilliantly. The rooms are spread out among the gardens, and all are very different (though all cost the same): number 8 is a two-storey chalet with a terrace upstairs and living area downstairs; 2 and 3 are for families; number 7 is most romantic, a treehouse up a spiral staircase. It is simple, cheerful, and very welcoming: woodwork painted shades of primrose and periwinkle, tile mosaics on pathways that converge at a pool of blossoms and koi carp. The outdoor restaurant is widely regarded as the best on the island (so book ahead) with a daily-changing menu. Ingredients are sourced from garden and sea: snapper for supper, the sweet juice of the aserola at breakfast, when hummingbirds sip from the hibiscus flowers hanging overhead. Doubles from R$150 (00 55 75 3653 6085; www.santaclaraboipeba.com)

    Pousada Mangabeiras If plush bathrooms and a pool is what you want, Mangabeiras has both. You’ll have to be fit to stay here, or happy to stay put: it’s on top of the headland at the end of Boipeba beach, and it’s a hot walk up; but the views are grand. The nine bungalows are luxuriantly furnished (flatscreens TVs, deep mattresses; a Jacuzzi in number 5); all have balconies that catch either sunset or, over peaceful Moreré bay, sunrise. Bungalows from R$350 (www.pousadamangabeiras.com.br)

    Pousada A Mangueira A handful of white-and-wood bungalows and a chill-out bar on Moreré beach, just redecorated by its new owners with Ibiza in mind. Bungalows from R$110 (00 55 75 3653 8915; www.pousadamangueira.com)

    Sambura This restaurant on Moreré beach opens only when customers pre-book. The food is sophisticated for such a remote place — robalo fish in thyme, sticky prawn risotto in whisky — and the hosts sweet and smiley (00 55 75 3653 8912)

  • Bahia: Brazils coolest coast

    Salvador, Brazil

    Arriving in Salvador on a Sunday afternoon, we wonder where everyone is. The streets are empty, save a few tourists; the shops and galleries closed. Down on the seafront, we find out: everyone is at the beach.

    A day or two in Salvador bookends a holiday in Bahia very well (particularly at the end, when you look less of a gringo). Salvador was the first city in Brazil, and its original capital before the gold rush. Its culture is more mixed up than anywhere else, a vibrant fusion of African and Brazilian that has given birth to new religions, to artists and musicians who led rebellions to a Tropicália soundtrack, to samba and capoeira, danced in the squares and on the beaches all year round and not only during the longest, loudest carnival anywhere in Brazil.

    The bohemian quarter of Rio Vermelho, with its beachfront bars and boutiques, is home to the fattening middle classes. But most visitors stay in the historic quarter, a city-within-a-city of wedding-cake churches and regal houses painted every shade of pastel, a colonial toytown for tourists, protected by UNESCO and, at night, by police on every corner. Though still edgy after dark, these streets are on the up, with tatty townhouses being converted into restaurants, bars and a handful of increasingly stylish hotels.

  • Bahia: Brazils coolest coast

    THE BEST HOTELS IN SALVADOR

    Villa Bahia This big old house on one of the most photogenic squares in the Pelourinho district is colonial in style, from the room names to the decor — ceiling fans, cane chairs, potted palms — and the wide-open lounges that inspire fantasies of a Hemingway lifestyle. Each of the lovely rooms is different; some have antique four-poster beds, some claw-footed baths with original brass hardware, others Juliet balconies onto the square; ‘Goa’ and ‘Madagascar’ are perhaps the loveliest of all. There’s a restaurant and a bar, and out the back is a tiny courtyard and a pool surrounded by plants, the coolest place to be in the neighbourhood come evening. www.lavillabahia.com; doubles from about £175

    Aram Yami Hotel From the street it looks like a modest guesthouse, but the Aram Yami has a few surprises. It is built on a cliff edge in the old city, overlooking the bay of Todos os Santos (All Saints). Its architect/designer owners Lola Amaro and Juan Picon decorated the four-storey hotel themselves, right down to creating the artworks and furniture. The theme is inspired by the views of All Saints: lamps made from statuettes of St George or the Candomblé goddess of the sea, carved Buddhas, confessional-like wardrobes, a barrel-vaulted bathroom with stained-glass windows (originally a tiny in-house chapel). Five beautiful bedrooms are church-spare, with whitewashed walls and details picked out in gold. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable, and can recommend where to eat (there’s no hotel restaurant, though breakfast is a feast of fruit, pastries, crêpes and eggs) and what to do. The view through the glass wall of the two infinity pools defines Salvador: the docks, with their grimy cranes and tankers; the hot and busy city; football games on every patch of wasteland; and beyond it the blue of the sea. www.hotelaramyami.com; doubles from about £155

    Pestana Convento do Carmo A grand, rather impersonal hotel in a remarkable building. Well-heeled guests sunbathe by the circular pool in a beautiful colonnaded courtyard and dine alfresco at night under the arcades, where gilt-framed oils and antique chandeliers hang. Inside, rooms in the nuns’ quarters are stately, the stone corridors dark and thrillingly spooky; despite the maroon carpet, most original features have been retained, along with a lingering air of austerity. www.pestana.com; doubles from about £170

  • Bahia: Brazils coolest coast

    BAHIA: TRAVEL TIPS

    Last Frontiers (www.lastfrontiers.com) arranges bespoke trips to Bahia. A 10-day itinerary including Villa Bahia, Uxua, Convento do Carmo and Pousada Santa Clara costs from £3,470 per person.

    EXPERT GUIDE Conor O’Sullivan (www.tatur.com.br) runs tours of Salvador tailored to travellers’ tastes, whether you love art, food, music or churches. He has lived here for decades, and can give you insider cultural knowledge to help you get a lot more out of your trip to Brazil.

    WHEN TO GO Mardi Gras and New Year’s Eve to party; September and October, when it’s fresher and cooler, for a springtime escape.

    Read our feature on more of the best winter sun destinations






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