Finding Her Brazilian Groove

New York Times, November 7, 2004

RAZILIANS love their beaches as much as Russians love their banyas and the English love their pubs. That's why, in Brazil, the quest for the perfect stretch of sand is a national obsession.

Conventional wisdom says that Ipanema is the mother of all beach parties; the bossa nova classic proves it. The shores around Salvador in the northeast boast postcard-perfect views and a rich Afro-Brazilian heritage. The cognoscenti flock to the sands of Búzios, made famous by Brigitte Bardot.

But my vote goes to the coast of Santa Catarina state, some 400 miles down the coast from Rio de Janeiro, where the beaches offer world-class surfing breaks and a bohemian vibe - think Hawaii, circa 1983 - that make this Brazil's up-and-coming region. Argentine tourists, Carnaval revelers and wave-riders have been going there since the early 1990's to escape the manic scene typically associated with Rio de Janeiro and Salvador.

The region's best-known port of call is the state capital, Florianópolis. It is the gateway to Ilha de Santa Catarina, nicknamed Floripa, where descendants of Azorean fishermen are making way for Brazilian models and international playboys, solidifying the island's reputation as the hippest year-round beach scene in South America.

Santa Catarina, settled in the 19th century by German and Italian farmers, is one of the country's wealthiest states. Some purists dismiss it as a European outpost with no real claim on the Brazilian soul. With the help of three girlfriends in March, fresh from a bitter New York winter, I was determined to prove them wrong. The plan was to spend a few warm-up days in Rio, fly south to Florianópolis and rent a car to circumnavigate Floripa clockwise starting at Canasvieiras, a resort town on the north coast.

This was my third trip to Brazil, but I was relying on Anna, our resident Brazilophile, to negotiate the itinerary, including the six days we had allotted for Santa Catarina. Besides, every time I felt tongue-tied, my brain automatically trotted out Spanish pleasantries. Gracias, not obrigada. ¿Qué pasa? rather than the ubiquitous Brazilian greeting, tudo bom? (how are you?)

Within minutes of our arrival, we realized the congested town is Santa Catarina's answer to Cancún: so many T-shirt shops, so little time. The concentration of Internet cafes, beer gardens and strolling retirees wasn't quite what we'd expected.

We joined the masses at the beach in front of our hotel the next morning and watched an endless parade of vendors. A cart loaded with all the ingredients to make a caipirinha, the Brazilian national drink, rolled by, hippy-hoppy music (as its called here in the land of the endless vowel) blasting from its tinny speakers. Not far behind, a grandmotherly woman in a white headscarf pushed a portable grill. We were instantly drawn to the smell of her choripan, a tasty, salted Argentine sausage served in a bun.

The revelry extended into the shallow water offshore, where hilarious passengers filled a banana boat. Had we traveled to the island to party the days and nights away, such sights might have quickened our heartbeats. Barra da Lagoa, a fishing community on the shores of Lagoa da Conceição, a large inland lake, promised salvation. We piled into our rental car and headed to the island's east coast, a 45-minute, 30-mile drive along small country roads.

In the 16th century, Floripa was a strategic Spanish settlement for the transfer of gold and silver from Peru to Europe. By 1675, the Portuguese wrested control, setting the stage for immigrants from the Azores who arrived in the 18th century. Today, their descendants still ply the warm waters of the lake in brightly painted boats, searching for grouper and shrimp. This was more like it.

After settling into a rustic guesthouse, or pousada, on Praia Mole (praia is the Portuguese word for beach), about a 10-minute drive past Barra da Lagoa, we couldn't resist trying out Floripa's most bizarre sport: surfing on the island's Sahara-like dunes.