By Susan McKee
Brazil is more than carnival in Rio de Janiero, crowded beaches in Sao Paolo and Amazon River cruises. There are quiet corners to this vast country where immigrants from across the sea have recreated a little bit of home. Santa Catarina is one of those places.
The province (about an hour’s flight south of Sao Paolo) was settled by Europeans – primarily Italians and Germans – and their influence remains strong. In Pomerode, for example, where almost all of the original settlers in the 19th Century came from Germanic Pomerania, 90% of the population still speaks German.
In nearby Blumenau, one of the best-known industries is beer production using traditional German methods (you can tour the Eisenbahn brewery as well as the city’s historic museum of beer-making).
Each year, the residents don German costumes and celebrate Oktoberfest, even though in Brazil – because it’s in the Southern Hemisphere — the celebration takes place in the spring instead of harvest time.
The factory in Blumenau producing hand-crafted glass is called Di Murano (after the famous Italian island outside Venice known for its glass). Its studio is open to visitors, who can watch glassmaking in action –and then buy something wonderful to take home.
One of the Italian-style winemakers in the region is Villa Francioni, where the attraction is not only the wine, but the winery itself. A collection of stained glass windows is incorporated into a six-story combination of production facility, restaurant and shop. No detail in design has been overlooked, from the fanciful wrought iron balconies overlooking the storage tanks to the mosaic tile floors under the aging barrels.
While there are European-style wine and beer, there also is a favorite indigenous libation – cachaça, a spirit distilled from sugar cane juice and aged in Ariba wood barrels.
According to a report in The New York Times, one of the best cachaças in Brazil is Armazem Vieira, distilled in Florianópolis. Visitors can sample (and purchase) cachaças aged from one to 50 years in the same trading post, or “armazem,” built in 1840 by Sergio Vieira – it’s just a couple of miles from the Florianópolis airport.
While enjoyed straight up, most drink their cachaça in the trademark Brazilian cocktail, the Caipirinha, which adds unrefined brown sugar, fresh-squeezed lime juice and ice to the liquor.
An Undiscovered Revelation
The world has yet to discover Florianópolis. Oh, Brazilians know well the capital of Santa Catarina province, but for the rest of us, it’s a revelation. Referred to by the natives as Florípa, it’s situated mostly on Santa Catarina Island, and connected by a trio of bridges to the Brazilian mainland.
Located just south of the Tropic of Capricorn, Florípa has a subtropical climate like central Florida (which is just north of the Tropic of Cancer). The island has 42 named beaches, ranging from mere slivers of isolated sand to vast stretches where fishermen share the shore with sunbathers.
When you head to the center of town, you can’t miss the mercado (filled with fish, meat and produce vendors) and be sure to stop by the city’s old town square, Praça XV de Novembro.
Here, you’ll find the legendary 100-year-old fig tree – a monster of interlaced branches filled with singing birds. Circumnavigate it counterclockwise seven times, and your future good fortune in wealth and romance are assured!
Parque Unipraias Camboriú
North on the Atlantic coast from Florianópolis is Parque Unipraias Camboriú. A great place to spend the day, the park combines Estação Mata Atlântica (a nature preserve with walking trails and information placards on the flora and fauna) and a couple of cable car rides to whisk you to the top from either side of the park.
The descent from the summit into Balneário Camboriú takes you from lush Atlantic rainforest into a distinctly modern city. A shoreline drive separates apartment skyscrapers from a working waterfront.
As I watched one evening, a crew of about 30 fishermen wrangled a huge net to shore, bringing fish and other sea creatures for their dinners.
Inland, the terrain of Santa Catarina changes. After crossing the coastal plain, one drives up a tortuous two-lane highway to the Planalto Serrano, a plateau almost 5,000 feet above sea level. Here, about 140 miles from Florianópolis, is a region with heavily forested canyons and limitless vistas.
The province has several resort hotels that are ready for American visitors. One is Rio do Rastro Eco Resort, on the Planalto Serrano. It combines rustic on-site facilities (including an indoor pool) with outdoor exploration options via jeep, horseback or hiking.
Vida Sole e Mar, on the Atlantic coast at Imbituba, has all the usual amenities, but the big draw is the whales. Just off shore, from about mid-June to mid-November, you can watch whale migration up close and almost personal.
Ponta dos Ganchos Exclusive Resort, a Relais & Chateaux property, has just 20 bungalows for those who need privacy. The cuisine, by chef Luis Salvajoli, blends traditional recipes and Brazilian ingredients for meals that meet international standards.
On Santa Catarina Island, the sprawling Costão do Santinho Resort has a designated “international wing” where foreign visitors are more likely to run across English-speaking staff.
Reader comment: This article is about my state in Brazil… I was happy to know that besides a lot of violence and crime in Brazil, there are still a lot of good things… and ALOHA!!! “:-)
Susan McKee is an independent scholar and award-winning freelance journalist specializing in history, culture and travel. She travels widely and to amazing places–including Armenia, Chad, Finland, Mongolia, and Antarctica. A member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), she lives in Indianapolis, Indiana.