Just hearing the names Copacabana and Ipanema is enough to transport the imagination to a world of golden sands where perfect bodies play volleyball on the beach or bask in the sun and carefree atmosphere of Rio. Rio, Cidade Maravilhosa - the "marvellous city" - watched over by the morros as the high hills are known locally, is not content with being home to what are probably the two most famous beaches. Instead the traveller has such a long list of appealing alternatives to choose between that it's not an easy decision: what about Botafogo beach with its views of the Sugar Loaf and Corcovado with the unmistakable Christ the Redeemer statue, for example, Leblon maybe, or Prainha, a favourite among surfers.
But if you're looking for less-spoiled settings you don't need to go far: just a couple of hours north of Rio, in the Buzios peninsula, there are a score of beaches offering a taste of paradise. And heading south, you'll find no fewer than two thousand beaches divided among the eight bays and 365 islands of Angra dos Reis - one island for every day of the year! Just a little farther on, almost on the border with the state of São Paulo, lies the small town of Paraty. This erstwhile colonial port from which gold and coffee was shipped to Lisbon, is as famous for the boat trips between the beaches surrounded by Atlantic forest that dot the vicinity as it is for the charm of its traditional cobbled streets.
Along the more than 9,000 kilometres of coastline, each beach seems the peak of perfection - until you reach the next one! In the southern state of Santa Catarina, praia da Rosa de Imbituba is famed amoung surfers while around the bay - listed among the ten most photogenic spots in the world - there are more deserted spots where each year, between July and November, schools of right whales come to mate and give birth to their young. Then, in the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, you find the Sancho and Conceição beaches and the old fishing village of Porto de Galinhas, all scattered down the coast of the remote state of Pernambuco.
Farther north, in Ceara, the incredible turquoise waters of Jericoacoara are surrounded by dunes and crags while, farther still lies the marvel of Lençois Maranhenses. This national park extends from the coast of Maranhão and encompasses a unique ecosystem of about 300 square kilometres dotted with snow-white dunes that reach up to forty metres in height. Here, too, are freshwater lagoons in all the shades imaginable from deepest blue to bright emerald green, one of the most glorious sights in this world of natural phenomena.
Of course, Brazil has far more to offer than a long list of beaches. Within the borders of this vast country lie colonial cities, world famous wonders of nature and such a very special atmosphere that it's fair to say that Brazil is, above all, a way of life. Its beaches may offer a living picture of paradise, but to stop there would be to miss the half of it.
Where to stay:
Luxury hotels in Rio include the Pestana Rio Atlantica, with the best views of Copacabana beach from most of the balconies as well as from the pool and the solarium. Also opposite the beach, the Copacabana Palace is an icon of glamour 1923 whose doors have welcomed the rich and famous from halfway around the world. A real discovery is the Casas Brancas in Buzios, a delightful boutique hotel with thirty rooms and spa on a beach to die for. Close to the beach at Porto de Galinhas, the Nannai Beach Resort, with thatched bungalows on stilts among the palm groves, seems almost like a South Seas hideaway. More exclusive still, is Ponta dos Ganchos, hidden among the vegetation of an exquisite location in the southern state of Santa Catarina and operating under the prestigious seal of Relais Châteaux.
In cities such as Rio you'll find numerous top notch restaurants, including Careme (Rua Visconde de Carabelas, 113), Aprazivel (Rua Aprazivel, 62) and Cristovão (Rua Goncalves Dias, 32) on the second floor of the legendary Cafe Colombo. At the less urban beaches there are popular restaurants where you can sample the delights of the local caiçara cuisine, which features tropical fruit and fresh fish or seafood dishes such as casadinho shrimp and tubalhau with shark meat, as well as typical Brazilian dishes such as feijoada and moquecas.
While in Brazil don't forget...
New Year and other special occasions are celebrated to the full in Copacabana with concerts and fireworks on the beach, plus candles, flowers and other offerings in honour of Iemanja, the Afro-Brazilian goddess of the sea. Fishermen and devotees also hold ceremonies of worship every February 2nd at the Rio Vermelho beach, Bahia.