Brazil is 35 times bigger than the UK — yet how little we know it. We often talk of it only in terms of Rio de Janeiro (the carnival, Copacabana beach, caipirinhas) or football (Pele and his yellow-shirted maestros).
So there’s a spring in my step as I head for Salvador, capital of the north-eastern state of Bahia, and a thousand miles from its nearest hotspot neighbour.
It’s Brazil’s third largest city, and was the country’s first capital, founded by the Portuguese in 1549. Its colourful, cobbled old district, Pelourinho — a UNESCO world heritage site which sits high above the marina — provides a beautiful backdrop to the city’s near constant carnivals, ceremonies and festivals.
Salvador’s colourful, cobbled old district, Pelourinho, is a UNESCO world heritage site which sits high above the marina
I’m staying an hour and a half north, at the Tivoli Ecoresort in Praia do Forte. Its vast grassy acres of rainforest are lush; the buildings have to fit in with nature and the way the tree branches grow, rather than nature fitting in with them. The lawns roll gently to the private seven-mile stretch of beach. It’s predominately filled with Brazilian guests; the only English I hear is from an Australian mother holidaying with her daughter and Brazilian husband.
Perhaps the lack of British accents is because there are no direct flights, but that allows a chance to overnight in Lisbon. From our base at the Tivoli hotel on the gorgeous tree-lined Avenida da Liberdade, it’s easy to avoid the most touristy parts of Lisbon (clue: any restaurant with staff standing outside calling you in) and instead saunter cobbled lanes, past pastel-painted buildings.
Browse the Livraria Bertrand, founded in 1732 and officially the oldest bookshop in the world, and queue with the locals at the the Pastelaria Alcôa for a Pastéis de Nata (nothing like the custard tarts of the school canteen) before arriving at the vast Praça do Comércio square, full of life and right on the edge of the river Tagus.
Most enjoyably, we pass through a square where a resident has taken against the cafes’ music and is blaring salsa intermittently through speakers from his first floor balcony. Locals: don’t you love them?
Onwards to Salvador where, at our Brazilian hideaway, he’d have no need to stage such a protest; noises are muffled by the acres of tropical grounds sprawling down to the private sands while rooms are spacious and secluded.
The highlight is undoubtedly the location. Think of the Atlantic and you might imagine dark and stormy swells, but this stretch is warm enough to wade straight in (and this from someone who usually takes 40 minutes to inch into anything chillier than a tepid bath). The bathrooms could benefit from a spruce but with an Anantara spa and over-the-water day beds facing the beach, you’ll barely be in your room.
A turtle at Tamar project for preservation of sea turtles in the town of Praia do Forte
The seven swimming pools have a pleasing lack of lifeguards, bossy health and safety notices, or locked gates come early evening.
A solo swim in the infinity pool to the hypnotic sound of the sea lapping as dusk turns to dark is highly recommended.
As is canoeing the lagoons, not just for a chance to bird-watch and drift, but to chat to the fun guides. Ours arrived a few years ago from São Paulo, fed up with city living and having never set foot in a canoe or on a paddle-board — a salesman for jolly contentment.
The town of Praia do Forte is relatively small, a beach-side cluster of shops that has spread beyond its main street.
Less than a mile from our hotel, it’s a tiny pedestrianised delight. The main street is cheek-by-jowl cafes and shops leading to a small beach, a little church and the Tamar Project (Tamar is shortened version of the Portuguese word for sea turtle, tartaruga-marinha), set up in 1980 as one of the first centres to protect five species of endangered marine reptile.
Giant other-worldly leatherbacks lay their eggs and bury them on the beach. The centre rescues those in danger, and then hatches and releases them back to the sea. The jet black babies in their pools look like wind-up bath toys.
The Forte de Garcia d’Avila was built in 1552 on land given by the King of Portugal
The sex of a turtle hatchling is determined by the incubating heat of the sand — the hotter it is, the more females are produced — meaning that, in these sweltering temperatures, it’s great to be a male.
And, despite now competing with sunbathers along their own version of a sandy maternity ward, the females return to the same place they were hatched to lay their own eggs.
A few miles inland is the Forte de Garcia d’Avila, built in 1552 on land given by the King of Portugal. Garcia d’Avila was the son of the first Governor-General of Brazil, Tomé de Sousa and built this fortress with church, watchtower and castle to observe any enemies approaching by sea.
The curved terracotta roof tiles were shaped by being wrapped over the thighs of the builders. Or so we are told.
It’s now a ruin, but even an estate agent would be reaching for the thesaurus to do justice to the spectacular location —views across a dense tapestry of rainforest to the Atlantic.
Exploring this area is a great introduction to a place that Brazilians — spoilt for choice for beautiful beaches — select for their own holidays.