Brazil's Emerald Coast: The State of Rio de Janeiro
Paraty (the "t" is pronounced as a "ch" as in "ParaCHEE") is a UNESCO World heritage site on the Southern Brazilian coast of the State of Rio de Janeiro, just a three-hour drive from the city of Rio.
This quaint community has cobblestone streets dating back to Portuguese rule, when gold mined in the mountains was brought down to the port on the "Gold Trail" and shipped back to Europe.
The streets have the same look and feel as the old Roman Appian Way. Over the centuries the buildings of Paraty were preserved so that, today, it looks much the same as when it was a bustling center of trade in the 1600 and 1700s.
Pousada do Sandi is an excellent hotel in the historic heart of the pedestrian-only waterfront district. Modern amenities are hidden behind its old wooden beams, wideboard floors and stonework. Wi fi Internet access, a pool in the center courtyard and TVs in each room offer the creature comforts one expects in any top notch inn.
Bicycles can be rented, but everything - excellent restaurants, tour boats, incredible shops - can easily be reached from Pousada do Sandi by foot. Paraty is a city to unwind in, adopting the leisurely pace of the natives, exploring the shops by day and the bustling nightlife after sunset.
Paraty Bay, one of the most beautiful places on the Brazilian coastline, is often referred to as part of the "Green" coast, but "Emerald" Coast best describes the sparkling translucence of the bay reflecting the lush verdant jungle on the shore.
Islands, one for every day of the year, dot the warm waters. The beaches on them are all public. Getting to them is easy, too.
Boats are available for hire on the wharf at Paraty. The different boat styles and colors offer a great opportunity for photographs in the morning light.
It is also the perfect time to negotiate a charter. Figure on spending about 150 reais for the day, plus whatever you eat and drink. A day on the beautiful bay, with stops for swimming and exploring, will be your reward.
Sailing, snorkeling, and scuba diving are also popular pastimes. So is fishing, for sport and for sustenance. Which means that the bounty of the bay is a staple in everyone's diet. Seafood, in all forms, is the specialty of the local restaurants.
Refugio, on Flag courtyard just off the wharf, has outside dining and a "marriage" of jumbo shrimp as a specialty of the house. Margarida Café, on the edge of the historic section, offers local dishes such as Moqueca Caicara (grouper, shrimp, mussels in a tomato sauce, served with manioc, mushrooms and rice) and more European versions of the freshest fish available, with live music performed in the background.
There are even bars and restaurants on some of the islands, so one could island hop through the waters between Paraty and Rio for a year, eating fantastic seafood and never stepping on the same island twice.
Instead, I drove up the coast, stopping to explore churches and beaches as the spirit moved me.
After hours of emerald seas dotted with lush green islands, beautiful beaches and rocky outcroppings, the mountainous region around Frade/Angra dos Reis is a striking change. Here, two hours south of the city of Rio on an old plantation, Hotel Do Frade and Golf Resort offers respite to the weary traveler.
Frade (pronounced as if the "d" were a "g" as in FRAgee) is the perfect place to stop and stretch your legs. The trails up through the golf course and the multi-million dollar houses under construction offer the chance to see a surprising amount of wildlife.
It is great birding country, too. Birds of all kinds nest here, or rest during migration. The roughs and water hazards are home to them, as-well-as a flock of free range ducks, and one of geese.
There is even a resident herd of the largest living rodent in the world, the Capivara. These semi-aquatic mammals have slightly webbed feet, and look like a larger version of their cousin the guinea pig. Much larger, to be exact - a Capivara can reach 4' in length and weigh as much as 140 pounds!
Confronting a herd of such beasts in the wilds could be frightening, but the herbivore is very timid. You'll be lucky to catch sight of them, but the views down to the seaside resort over the rolling green fields are spectacular, and worth the climb.
The resort also offers half-day sails for island-hopping in the bay, with half-hour stops for swimming along the way.
This is the same bay that begins South at Paraty and goes north to the city of Rio de Janeiro. The water still feels warm in the bay, but the waters above the city of Rio are more exposed, open to the Atlantic.
After a night in Hotel Do Frade, I continued my journey North to Rio de Janeiro and beyond, another hour up the coast to the once quaint, but now hip fishing village of Buzios.
There's something curious about the water off the coast of Brazil. When you travel north along the shore in the State of Rio de Janeiro you are traveling towards the equator. The climate is warm, tropical.
The water is also warm when swimming in the sea off Paraty, but as the temperature of the air warms following the coast north, past Frade and the city of Rio toward Buzios, the water gets cooler. It felt positively chilly swimming in Buzios after the warmth of Paraty Bay.
One of the reasons Buzios was settled by fishermen was because the cold stream of nutrient rich water from Antarctica flows closer to the Brazilian shore as it nears the equator. The fishing is better there even if the swimming is a bit cooler. But, on a hot day that's what you jump in the water for, right?
Here, too, boat charters will take you out to the islands for swimming and exploring. I took them every chance I could, never tiring of the hidden beaches and surf-pounded rocky shorelines of the countless islands that stretched to the horizon.
There is still a fishing fleet that supports a thriving fish market, but now it is in new upscale digs, with restaurants and shops where fish shacks used to be.
Praia de Manguinhos is the fisherman's colony on the outskirts of Buzios. There, the Porto de Barra Gastronomia, with a collection of eleven restaurants, offers the freshest seafood along with the chance to rub elbows with the locals.
Downtown Buzios is primarily for pedestrian traffic only. The streets are crowded with tourists, many off the cruise ships that anchor daily in the harbor. It has the vibe of a honky-tonk beach town mixed with a very sophisticated shopping and dining enclave.
High-end shops, many European, sit side-by-side with funky souvenir shops, and the great restaurants are separated by fast food stands.
At night, the music from various clubs included loud rock, techno, Motown and a single guitarist playing Bossa Nova. They all competed with the Christian rock and gospel spilling out the doors of a local church. This town is nonstop rompin' chompin' and stompin' hedonistic fun!
Buzios' visitors are an incredible mix of age, money and nationalities. I met a young California resident enjoying a brief layover from a journey to manage property investments in his homeland of Japan. There was a Mexican psychic, with homes in France and Greece, exploring the real estate opportunities in Buzios.
Then there were the local fishermen sitting in the shade while their children netted crabs in the shallow water of the bay. The owners of the pousada I stayed in, Casa Branca, spoke five languages and were as comfortable on the "continent" as Brazil, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. It was a very traveled, educated and cosmopolitan crowd living side-by-side with the locals.
Buzios comes the closest to a Mediterranean seaside village of all the Brazilian coastal towns I visited.
The food matched the people's tastes. Cigalon Restaurante is not a typical Brazilian restaurant. Rather, Chef Sonia uses "French techniques on Brazilian foods in a respect for the flavors and smells" that bring a modern twist to the traditional fare.
Her flavor combinations and expert sense of wine pairings are as pleasing to the palate as her creative plating is to the eye.
I especially liked her giant shrimp in shrimp foam on a chiffonade of lettuce, carrots and broccoli mixed with rice noodles in a delicate citrus sauce. There was texture, flavor and color, plus some molecular magic working on my plate and in my mouth - fantastic!
Sawasdee is a Thai restaurant with a Brazilian chef and a Brazilian sensibility. Chef Marcos enjoys using Brazilian ingredients in a way that he believes the Thai would. Traditionalists would be disappointed with the fusion, but there is nothing disappointing about the award-winning food!
His clever combinations will impress your palette and your eye. Extra rare duck with banana paste and orange-curry sauce certainly made my day. The flavorful sweet and savory sauces let me adjust the hotness of my dish, dipping and spooning as much, or as little, as my taste buds could stand.
Chef Filipe Bronze closed his famous restaurant "Z" in Rio to become the executive chef of the Marina All Suites Hotel chain. He surprised me with the tasty combination of salmon and watermelon grilled over a wood fire.
It was colorful and quirky, and as bright as his smile. The man was a presence in the kitchen. I wasn't surprised to learn he had a television cooking show. He created a dish for me - "Drunken Oysters" - that I loved.
Shuck live oysters into a bowl and fill with Brazil's national drink - caipirinha**. Wait until the oysters absorb all the liquid, then place one each in Japanese ceramic spoons and shave frozen caipirinhas over them. Serve immediately. I'm not a huge shellfish fan, and raw oysters are an acquired taste, but these were fresh, ice cold and delicious.
Casa Branca was started in 1974 with four rooms. Today the same family still owns the expanded 34-room luxury hotel with roof-top restaurant and pool. The magnificent view is of the crescent beach far below, with the public dock, an island and all the boats rocking in the harbor. It is a busy, but relaxed place to spend some time.
Conde Nast calls their spa "one of the best in South America" and their chef, "one of the best in Brazil." Santiago, the son, and his mother share the hotel management duties. His sister runs the spa.
Tutors are imported to teach the large staff how to communicate with the guests. They all speak English and are trained to make you feel at home in "one of the best hotels in the world."
Next door is the Abracadabra Pousada, the little sister of Casa Branca. It has the same well-trained staff, the same incredible view from the rooftop restaurant & bar, a slightly smaller pool and less expensive rooms.
The atmosphere was a tad funkier, more Key West than Cannes. I felt very much at home there. Abracadabra is the perfect alternative if Casa Branca is full, or too rich for your blood. And, Jacob, the bartender (and sous chef) makes the best caipirinhas in Brazil!
The Margarida Café
Hotel Do Frade and Golf Resort
Porto de Barra Gastronomia
Off season (April, May & June) rates starting at $55/day/double room
TurisRio (Tourism Company of Rio de Janeiro State)
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