Just a two-hour drive from the non-stop party of Rio, 300 rocky islands form a haven for nature lovers. Ilha Grande, with its 100 beaches and languid rhythms, is the largest – and the most perfect
“Oi Meninha,” purrs Roberto, the wiry beach-shack owner, beckoning me over to his lunch plate. He offers me a forkful of fish, grilled slowly in banana leaves on the barbecue and dressed simply with a squeeze of lime from a fruit plucked minutes ago from a nearby tree.
I’ve been basking lizard-like on his patch of fine white sand for the past week, honouring the beauty and stillness around me in a Zen-like way. A few feet away under a palm tree, a man dressed casually in sun-bleached shorts and designer sunglasses is experimenting with Bossa Nova rhythms on a guitar and out in the bay a group of friends are rippling the water’s glassy surface with flippers and snorkels.
My fellow islanders are a mix of tourists from across the globe and Cariocas, natives of Rio who have travelled the two hours by road and two by boat to get their fix of Costa Verde energy. Ilha Grande, a nature lover’s paradise, sits in the middle of a bay of 300 rocky outcrops on Brazil’s "Green Coast". The island is, as its name suggests, the largest (covering about 200 square kilometres) and boasts more than 100 sandy beaches and quiet coves burgeoning with coral and tropical fish.
There are also 56 waterfalls to cleanse the soul and cool the body in the fierce heat of a Brazilian summer. As I have discovered, it is a ritual in Brazil to spend the first day of a new year bathing in the rushing torrents of a waterfall. Local tradition suggests that it brings good luck for the months ahead.
Across the island, through hilly jungle paths lush with mist, lies another equally perfect beach with the opportunity to lounge in the sun and frolic with tropical fish and seahorses in the waters. The world-famous Lopez Mendez beach stretches out its fine white sands along the green-blue waters of the Atlantic. A chilled green coconut, its top lopped off with a machete and a straw stuck in to suck out the sweet liquid inside, is ample reward for my two-hour sticky walk in the midday sun.
The secret of Ilha Grande’s unspoilt grandeur has much to do with its status as a nature reserve and several bits of the island are extra-protected zones inaccessible to tourists. Sheltering in the unique eco-system of the rare Atlantic forest terrain is an exciting range of fauna including monkeys, parrots and iguanas. Species in danger of extinction such as the red-ruffed fruit crow (Pyroderus scutatus), the brown howler monkey (Alouatta fusca) and the maned sloth (Bradypus torquatus) are revered wildlife sightings. The best way – in fact, the only way, save boat or bike – to explore the island is on foot, along well-marked trails looking out for rare orchids in the mangroves that line the shore.
A handful of coastal villages and hamlets offer lodging and accommodation, facilitating the quiet enjoyment of the island’s many natural gems. Highlights include the dazzling waters of the Blue Lagoon, the Pico do Papagaio mountain top (shaped like a parrot's beak, hence the name) and the wild Parnaioca beach with its tranquil waterfall pool.
Due to its status as a national park, the island has stringent rules governing development. The majority of accommodation, typically pousadas (small guesthouses), is found in Vila do Abraão. Once a quiet fishing village and now the central hub of Ilha Grande, Abraão is no more than a few intersecting roads filled up with restaurants, hotels and the premises of tour operators offering trekking, scuba diving and surfing adventure.
In the early mornings, before the heat rises, it is a pleasant place to watch the locals easing into the promise of a new day: the baker, setting out his trays of breakfast pastries drenched in sugar and syrupy caramel; the bar owners, sweeping the tables down after last night’s social engagements; and the fishermen, knocking back a sharp, strong coffee before leaping into their brightly coloured boats and trawling the green waters.
In the evenings, after a flirtation with the dance-like martial art of capoeira in the village square, I relax in a hammock on the veranda of my rustic hotel with a rum cocktail and a group of tired adventurers, watching the fat orange sun descend and listening to the breaking waves.
Where to stay
Pousada Naturalia (+55 24 3361 9583 or +55 24 3361 9584, www.pousadanaturalia.net; email firstname.lastname@example.org), Abraão Village, Ilha Grande, Angra dos Reis. £30 per night.
Pousada da Cachoeira (+55 24 3361 5083, www.cachoeira.com), Bicão's Street 50, Abraão Village, Ilha Grande, Angra dos Reis – a tropically decorated inn, set in the jungle. £25 per night.
On the mainland, hip digs are available at Pousada Picinguaba (+55 12 3836 9105, www.picinguaba.com), Rua G 130, Vila Picinguaba, Ubatuba. From its tranquil forest setting, this plush pousada faces the sea and a dreamy 3km-long sandy beach. Prices start at £150 per night with a three-night minimum stay.
Where to eat
Rei das Moquecas (+54 24 3361 5111), Rua da Praia do Abraão. This simple restaurant serves up delicious moquecas (spicy African-influenced stews) and local dishes such as fish with banana and other creative uses of the catch of the day.
Flor da Ilha (no telephone number), Rua da Praia do Abraão. Serving up typical fare based on fish and meat, this place also offers a good range of fresh fruit juices.
British Airways (www.ba.com) flies to Rio de Janeiro three times a week and to Saõ Paulo daily. A bus from either of those cities to Angra dos Reis links with a 90-minute scenic boat ride to the island.