New York Times


A Beach Scene? Just Up the Coast


Published: March 12, 2006

WHEN it comes to beaches, the landlocked city of São Paulo obviously suffers in comparison to Rio de Janeiro , where the famed Ipanema and Copacabana beaches are just across the street from some of the city's top hotels. But, in fact, the beach scene near São Paulo can be just as inviting as Rio's if a little harder to get to and offers a glimpse of Brazilian life away from the country's chaotic urban centers.

The Litoral Norte, or North Shore , begins less than an hour's drive from the city at the town of Santos , and about an hour later, the SP-55 highway (also known as Rio-Santos) is tracing a beautiful coastline of lush but rugged green hills towering over a shoreline of rocky coves and sandy beaches.

The beaches of the Litoral Norte are extremely popular on the weekend, which can mean long traffic jams along the highway and crowds angling for open space on the beaches. But travelers from abroad are not tied to the Brazilian workweek, and thus can go when the crowds are still at home. Midweek is the perfect time to rent a car for two or three days and relax on the beach before returning for a raucous weekend in the city. And in many hotels along the coast, prices go down midweek, making it an economical time as well.

Some of the most sought-after beaches are within the municipality (more a county than a city) of São Sebastião. Until the Rio-Santos highway was completed in the 1970's, the oceanfront communities were fishing villages where Caiçaras, the descendants of Portuguese and indigenous people, had lived for centuries. It is now ruled by another people, called veranistas by the locals and loosely translated as summering city slicker condo owners.

But there is a scene for everyone, from the energetic, youthful resort town of Maresias, to the idyllic beaches tucked into the hills at Toque Toque Grande and Toque Toque Pequeno, to the unpretentious colonial center of São Sebastião that also serves as the ferry station to Ilhabela, a green Goliath of an island that looms just off the coast, full of upscale restaurants and hotels.

And there is no reason to choose among them. A traveler can easily stay in São Sebastião, hit the beach in Toque Toque Grande, dine and party in Maresias, then hop the ferry the next morning for a day in Ilhabela.

Since SP-55 goes straight through Maresias about 60 miles from Santos , it is not as picturesque as the smaller towns beyond it. But its long, clean beach, youthful vibe, occasional (Brazilian) celebrity-spotting and good seafood restaurants make up for it. On most menus is the local Caiçara dish called azul marinho, grouper cooked with banana and spices that takes on a bluish hue. A nightclub, Sirena, attracts electronic and techno music fans from the city.

After Maresias, the road heads back into the hills, offering dramatic views of upcoming beaches from high above. About six miles down are Toque Toque Pequeno and Toque Toque Grande, accessible by steep but easily navigable roads off SP-55. Despite their names, Toque Toque Pequeno is actually the bigger of the two and has the only lodging. The Pousada Aparas is run by a German family whose English is good. You can swim in the pool, request a private barbecue, rent canoes and get massages, but the real attraction is the beach, a 30-second walk away. Guests not wanting to drive into Maresias for dinner can try the Barracuda Beach Bar, right across the street

Toque Toque Grande is equally charming, a perfect cove with Toque Toque Island offshore, and lumpy green mountains and at least one waterfall behind. But it has no lodging beyond homes rented out by the veranistas.

Down the winding road, past a few more beaches, is São Sebastião's center, a charmingly unpretentious collection of brightly painted colonial-era buildings with red-tiled roofs and a church in the center. Unlike Paraty, a tourist magnet a few hours east, São Sebastião feels like a working town, not a museum. The best place to stay is the Pousada Ana Doce, in a purplish colonial building whose 16 rooms surround a lusciously green garden.

Ana Doce is perfectly set between the town's picturesque central square and a seaside row of seafood restaurants and ice cream parlors offering Brazilian flavors like brigadeiro (named after a fudgy condensed milk and cocoa powder candy) to the understated, refreshing graviola, one fruit that's a sure bet in a land where choosing from a list of strange-sounding tropical treats can be a game of chance.

From São Sebastião you can pop over to Ilhabela on the frequent ferry (free for passengers, 10.7 reais, about $4.85, at 2.2 rais to the dollar, for cars). Ilhabela, with a population of 22,000 people, 360 waterfalls and 40 beaches, has endless restaurants, from Deck, which has several eating areas offering, among other dishes, sushi as well as goulash with spaetzle, to a restaurant at the southern end of the main road oddly named Nova Iorqu"I" (New York, more or less) with a stunning sunset view and horrendous miniature copy of the Statue of Liberty . (The story behind the name is complex; best just to enjoy the seafood and powerful passion fruit caipirinha.)

Because the beaches of São Sebastião are frequented by Brazilians, not international tourists, there is the occasional lack of English speakers. That's the bad news. The good news is you'll be sharing the beaches with Brazilians. And that's worth the tradeoff.