A light mist was blowing over the harbor about 100 miles southwest of Rio de Janeiro as a speedboat approached the dock. After I climbed in and the boat had pulled away from the dock, the burbling of the twin Volvos rose in pitch, the vessel’s nose lifted, and we went racing out over the open water. Except for the mode of transport and the speed, I could have been Amerigo Vespucci, who landed here at Brazil’s Angra dos Reis (Cove of the Kings) in 1501 and proclaimed it "the closest thing to paradise."
Now, as then, Angra is a vast bay with crystal clear waters, pristine beaches, waterfalls, exotic rock formations, dense forests, lakes, small fishing villages, hidden coves, and more than 300 islands. Some of the islands are privately owned hideaways for the people whose yachts are moored in the bay.
"There’s a nice boat," I said, as the speedboat slowed so that we could have a closer look at Spirit of Brazil VIII, a gleaming 115-foot-long Pershing.
My host, Mark Birchall, laughed. "It should be," he said. "It belongs to Eike Batista, the richest man in Brazil."
Nearby a helicopter churned the air as it hovered over an island and then dropped over the horizon. "That’s Pig’s Island," said Birchall, as we motored away from the Pershing. "It belongs to Ivo Pitanguy." Pig’s Islandseems a curious name for a place so closely associated with beauty; the octogenarian Pitanguy is renowned as the cosmetic surgeon to the stars.
A transformation no less profound than the ones that Dr. Pitanguy performs brought me to Angra. Somewhere in the bay lies a small resort, the Pestana Angra Beach Bungalows. However unwieldy its name, the Pestana is emblematic of the change taking place across Brazil, a change that promises to alter the way affluent travelers experience the country.
This was a quiet day on the water, but it is not always so. "The bay is most colorful on January 1," said Birchall, operations manager of the Pestana Angra Beach Bungalows. "There’s a huge event called Maritime Procession, and it attracts boats of all kinds: fishing boats, yachts, speedboats, fireboats, sailboats, and megayachts. There can be over a thousand of them. The boats all get decorated and follow the fireboats as they shoot water from their cannons."
On other holidays and on many weekends, yacht owners converge on a small stretch of sand called Dentist’s Beach. "It’s known in yachting circles around the world. They call it Dentist’s Beach because it belongs to a very wealthy dentist," explained Birchall.
The dentist apparently was not welcoming visitors on this afternoon: A sign on a nearby buoy advised us to stay away. "Nobody pays attention to those signs," said Birchall. "People come here because it has the clearest water and the finest sand in the bay. So some weekends you will see 300 yachts gathered here. It’s see and be seen."
A half hour later the boat’s pilot cut the engines and turned the vessel to shore, where the incoming tide washed around rocks the size of whales. A table, chair, and umbrella were set on one of the rocks, creating the picture of splendid isolation and, said Birchall, a favorite place for his guests to sit and read or simply pass an afternoon looking out over the water.
As the pilot secured the boat I stepped onto the Pestana dock and peered into the jungle. High above, some say, where the hilltop is fringed with palm and banana and coconut trees, jaguars roam the rain forest. It had not been an especially long trip from Rio de Janeiro, but Angra dos Reis seemed a long way from the Copacabana Palace.
When Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced through the Copacabana Palace in the 1933 musical Flying Down to Rio, the hotel was the place to be. For some, it still is. After all, the Copacabana remains the most famous hotel in South America, a gleaming white neoclassical structure with a swimming pool as capacious as some lakes, a poolside buffet, and corridors adorned with photos of past celebrity patrons. Right across the Avenida Atlantica from the hotel, beyond the undulating mosaic pattern of the sidewalks, lies Copacabana beach, a steamy stretch of sand that gave us the string bikini, the tanga, and the thong. So it is easy to imagine visitors to Rio de Janeiro telling folks back home, be it Des Moines or Düsseldorf, that of course they stayed at the Copacabana Palace.
Yet these affectations of swank—the oversize pool, the gluttonous spread of food, the photos of the famous—give the hotel away. Its pomp and pretensions to the contrary, the vaunted Copa is the quintessential mass-market hotel.
Not that there is anything wrong with that. At one time, without travelers from bus tours and charter flights filling the Copa’s 245 rooms and 13 function rooms, Brazil might not have had much of a tourism industry at all. Iguaçu Falls and the Amazon River may rank among the world’s great natural attractions, but because of their distances from Rio—by air, 735 miles to Iguaçu Falls and roughly 2,175 miles to the mouth of the Amazon—they are accessible from the city only by plane or by an excruciatingly long bus ride. Between those two destinations lies the world’s largest wetland, the 54,000-square-mile Pantanal, where jacare, the local alligators, inhabit the roadsides and anacondas as fat as footballs bask in the muck.
"Brazil isn’t Provence," Douglas Wren told me upon my return from Brazil. Wren is vice president of PanAmerican Travel Services, a Salt Lake City agency that specializes in high-end travel to South America and Central America. "You didn’t come back from Mato Grosso [a western state of Brazil that is home to part of the Pantanal] with tales of driving through the countryside and finding a quaint little auberge whose owner invited you in for lunch," he said. "These places just didn’t exist."
Until the mid 1990s, said Wren, North American agencies seldom arranged trips only to Brazil. "The standard in luxury travel was the South American Circle," he said. "It was a guided tour for 40 people for three weeks. You started out in Rio de Janeiro, probably staying at the Copacabana Palace, then flew to Buenos Aires and Bariloche, crossed the Andes, and then went on to Lima and Machu Picchu before returning home. What made it a luxury tour were services like a private guide or a suite instead of a room. But you always used the same hotel or resort the economy group used. There were no luxury experiences for upscale travelers."
Maybe that is because Brazilians were not sure what luxury tourism was supposed to be. During the 1970s, when a military junta ruled the country, the government neglected tourism, labeling it as elitist. "When they finally decided to promote tourism as a way of generating revenue, they didn’t promote the arts, our museums, our cuisine, or our culture," Luiz Augusto, president of Rio’s State Syndicate of Tourist Guides, told me while I was visiting the city. The main reason for coming to Rio was sex. Augusto said, "The ads always showed a girl posed seductively in a tanga and saying, ‘Come see me in Rio.’ "
Even when considering the political situation of the 1970s, one still has to wonder why nearly 500 years passed between Vespucci’s arrival and the opening of a property like the Pestana in Angra dos Reis, where the beauty of the islands and the forest seems surreal. In the late 1990s, a wealthy international crowd gathered on the bay waters nearly every weekend of the season, but the visitors usually stayed on their yachts because Angra dos Reis offered no luxury hotels, no restaurants serving gourmet cuisine, and no spas providing therapy, beauty, and relaxation.
That changed in 2000, when Pestana, a hotel chain based in Portugal, opened the resort that Birchall now oversees. "It was simply a matter of recognizing that a luxury market existed here at Angra," said Birchall. The property comprises its own secluded beach, a spa and health club, and 27 spacious bungalows (some have private saunas and hot tubs) with hammocks from which to enjoy the stunning views of the bay.
The cuisine is fit for the most demanding yachtsman, and the breakfasts—pancakes and tapiocas and white cheeses and fruits and mousses—are especially memorable. A stroll around the steep hillside grounds is the perfect way to work off those calories.
After taking such a walk, I joined Birchall on the hotel terrace for coffee. "Angra is quiet right now," he said, "but there are times when the sky is full of planes and helicopters coming and going."
The busiest time is during Carnival, the nearly weeklong festival that precedes Lent, but the celebration here does not resemble the frenzied street revel in Rio. "The mass market goes to Rio for Carnival," said Birchall. "Our guests come here to escape it."
Unlike Angra Dos Reis, which was discovered by an Italian, Vespucci, the town of Armação dos Búzios, located about 100 miles northeast of Rio, was put on the map by the French, more specifically, by Brigitte Bardot. The movie star landed here in 1964—to vacation with her Brazilian boyfriend—with an army of paparazzi swarming in her wake; since then the population has grown from 500 to more than 15,000, and what was once a sleepy fishing village has become Brazil’s most popular beach resort. A bronze statue of Bardot sits near the center of town, welcoming male visitors to take a seat in her lap and have their photo taken.
The main street is a narrow cobblestoned road lined with houses that face the water. They are diminutive two-story structures with brightly painted doorframes and shutters. It is as quaint and inviting as one might expect of a small town said to contain as many as 500 pousadas, the best known of which is the Casas Brancas Boutique-Hotel & Spa.
"We get lots of tennis players and soccer players," said Santiago Bebianno, the 35-year-old scion of the family who opened the Casas Brancas in 1974. "[Designer] Philippe Starck stayed with us. He was here for a week and never left his room."
While I could not—and did not try to—imagine what Starck was doing in his room for a week, I found it easy to see why Búzios has become a mecca for wealthy bohemians. The weather-beaten houses, the fishing boats bobbing in the harbor, the cachaçarias where grizzled workmen convene to sip the national drink, an alcohol made from distilled sugarcane—all represent a kind of authenticity that money cannot buy. Or, as Bebianno put it while wheeling his SUV up to Rocka, a restaurant and lounge on Brava Beach, about five minutes by car from the hotel, "It’s barefoot chic."
Besides the Casas Brancas site, the Búzios peninsula features several other beaches, each with its own identity and appeal. Horseshoe Beach, for instance, is ideal for snorkeling, while Manguinhos Beach has calm, soothing waves that are perfect for anyone just learning to hang ten. Geribá Beach is filled with surfers, boogie boarders, and windsurfers. And at Olho de Boi, sunscreen is no doubt abundant because clothing is optional.
Flesh also was on display at Rocka, where a dozen French couples in bikinis and Speedos reclined on futonlike lounges, nibbling calamari or coquilles St.-Jacques and swigging mojitos, caipirinhas, or Veuve Clicquot beneath their beach umbrellas. "It’s like a club here," said Bebianno, as he led the way through the indoor-outdoor bar where a deejay played the latest hip-hop hits, which guests listened to through the speakers built into their lounge pillows. "This is where the see-and-be-seen crowd goes."
To be sure, Rocka had a club vibe; the only things missing were bouncers and a velvet rope. "This is the most popular spot in all Búzios," said Bebianno. "Everybody wants a lounge and a beach umbrella. But of course you can’t give one to everybody. You have to be selective."
No less desirable than a lounge chair and umbrella at Rocka is a reservation during Chef’s Cycle at the Ponta dos Ganchos Exclusive Resort, located nearly 800 miles south of Rio de Janeiro, at the easternmost tip of an estuary. The Chef’s Cycle is an annual monthlong event designed to display the talents of some of the finest chefs working in Brazil and abroad. Past headliners have included Claude Troisgros, who owns a number of restaurants in Rio de Janeiro and is a member of the French family credited with inventing nouvelle cuisine; Tsuyoshi Murakami, owner of Kinoshita in São Paulo and a pioneer of Japanese haute cuisine; and Renato Carioni, formerly of the Michelin-three-star Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence, Italy, and now chef at Così in São Paulo.
Accordingly the guests’ expectations were high on this August weekend. "These dinners are always exciting," said Fabio Liberman, the fortyish CEO of a São Paulo holding company and publisher of diVino, a Brazilian wine magazine.
I asked if he had been here before.
"We’ve been here 17 times," Liberman’s wife, Milena, said. "And sometimes we bring friends."
In fact, the Libermans were among the first to discover the resort. "This place was a success from the beginning," said Fabio.
Nicolas Peluffo, managing director of the resort, did not dispute Fabio’s claim, but he said that he would not advise anyone to follow what had been the business plan for the resort. "Actually," he said, "we had none."
About 10 years ago, Peluffo had just returned from a backpacking and surfing trip when his father, who owned two shoe factories in southern Brazil, informed him that he and a business partner were going to build a hotel, and that Nicolas would one day run it.
"I knew nothing about hotels," said Peluffo. "I was 22 years old, still a business student in college. I had traveled with my father on business and stayed at a few Hiltons and Sheratons, but that was it."
But the senior Peluffo would not be denied; he already had traveled to the town of Ganchos to check out the hotel site and found a sea lion lying on the very spot where he wanted to build. "He took that as a good omen," said Peluffo.
Nicolas’ father and his partner, Nicholas Razey, assumed the roles of developers—creating the concept, investing the capital, and hiring the builders—while his mother, an architect, designed the hotel; his younger sister became guest-relations coordinator in 2005 and is now pursuing her master’s degree at Fundação Getulio Vargas. Toward the end of 2001, 10 months after the Peluffos began building the resort, they completed it and welcomed their first guests.
The property features villas set on a peninsula overlooking emerald waters. The accommodations are spacious, and each contains a wine cellar, a fireplace, and flat-screen televisions. Most also have a hot tub and a sauna, and 10 of the villas feature a plunge pool and bathrooms with separate his and her facilities.
Still, when they opened the resort, the Peluffos were not sure whether they were on the right track. "We worked month to month," the junior Peluffo recalled. "I didn’t know what our standards should be. Our goal was simply to create the best beach resort in Brazil, the kind of place I might like to stay."
Ponta dos Ganchos had been open a year or two when one of its best customers, the country’s leading cardiologist, offered Peluffo some advice: "He said the hotel was bound to succeed, and when it did, I should resist the temptation to get bigger. Instead, he said, ‘Just raise your prices.’ "
Peluffo has not followed this counsel to the letter. The resort opened with 15 villas and now has 25. And the dining options now include a private dinner for two on a tiny island accessible from the rest of the property by a long pier. But, as his friend the cardiologist suggested, he did raise the prices, from $250 a night for a standard room in 2001 to as much as $6,000 a night for the most expensive accommodation during Carnival this year.
Fabio Liberman brought bottles of Château Cheval Blanc and Château Angélus to share with his tablemates during this night’s dinner, which featured the artistry of the resort’s consulting chef, Laurent Suaudeau. A native of France, Suaudeau began his career at Paul Bocuse’s L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges. In 1980 Bocuse recruited Suaudeau, then 23, to head the kitchen of Le Saint-Honoré at Le Meridien Copacabana in Rio. In 2000 Suaudeau created the Laurent School of Culinary Arts in São Paulo, where his skill in interpreting French dishes with Brazilian ingredients earned him one of the most prestigious titles in the world of French cuisine, Maître Cuisinier de France.
Dinner included appetizers of smoked ham with melon, raisins, and caramel; oysters and foie gras; braised octopus with passion fruit and mustard caramel; scallops and salmon pavé with small zucchini ravioli; and beef tenderloin stuffed with mushrooms and served with a sweet manioc-cream-and-sesame sauce. For dessert we had chocolate ice cream with a peanut-and-vanilla emulsion. Everything was spectacular.
The next day I found the Libermans sitting in the sun while a guitarist nearby played light bossa nova tunes. The moment moved Fabio to reflection. "You ever find yourself in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to do?" he asked. "Well, here we are in the middle of nowhere, and there’s nothing to do."
And he could not have been more content.
A MOST ACCOMMODATING COUNTRY
Brazil no longer suffers from a dearth of luxury lodgings, having fully evolved from an era when tourism was
considered an elitist activity. In addition to beach retreats such as Casas Brancas Boutique-Hotel & Spa, Pestana Angra Beach Bungalows, and Ponta dos Ganchos Exclusive Resort, the options include the following three city properties.
Hotel Fasano Rio de Janeiro
This 89-room Philippe Starck–designed property rises at the eastern end of Ipanema Beach like a sleek exclamation point following a row of one- and two-story cafés and shops. The accommodations feature private balconies, whitewashed walls, dark wood floors, and full marble bathrooms with rain showers. An especially refreshing touch is the array of exotic fruit drinks set out in each room to welcome guests as they arrive. Guests also can enjoy drinks at the hotel’s rooftop pool and bar. ($640–$3,420) +55.21.3202.4000, www.fasano.com.br
Hotel Santa Teresa (Rio de Janeiro)
With its cobblestoned streets, Belle Epoque mansions, tiny bars, and compelling art galleries, the hotel’s namesake Santa Teresa neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro is a far cry from the beach scene. This, the country’s third Relais & Châteaux property, was previously a private estate with a working coffee plantation. It has been transformed into an inn sprinkled with artifacts and art made by the Xingu and Tupi-Guarani Indians. The rooms and garden present panoramic views of Rio’s harbor and bay, and the spa, which includes six therapy rooms, offers some 30 treatments, ranging from hydrotherapy to vinotherapy. ($500–$1,915) +55.21.3380.0200, www.santa-teresa-hotel.com
Hotel Unique (São Paulo)
Like a mammoth modernistic ark about to launch from its urban dry dock, the Hotel Unique heaves above the stylish Jardins section of São Paulo. The building, which contains 95 rooms with circular windows, is shaped like an inverted arch, and it has a facade of weathered green copper. During the day sunlight passes through a huge wall of glass and illuminates the reception area and adjacent bar, called the Wall. At night, incandescent light reflects off the spaces’ beige marble walls. From the pool and the rooftop bar, guests of the hotel can enjoy extraordinary views of the city. ($640–$7,000) +55.11.3055.4710, www.hotelunique.com.br
Casas Brancas Boutique-Hotel & Spa, $300–$588 per night, +55.22.2623.1458, www.casasbrancas.com.br; Pestana Angra Beach Bungalows, $522–$601 per night, +55.24.3364.2005, www.pestana.com; Ponta dos Ganchos Exclusive Resort, about $735–$2,590 per night, +55.48.3953.7000, www.pontadosganchos.com.br (Room rates for all properties do not include holiday premiums.)