After setting foot on Ilha Grande, I immediately wanted to leave. The tiny harbor smelled faintly of rotting fish, and the only indication of civilization was a paltry batch of low-rise buildings. Two nights later, sitting at night on a beach, under a mesmerizing constellation of stars, my friends and I felt we could stay there forever.
Brazil is a country of deep contrasts, and Ilha Grande, an island 100 miles south of Rio de Janeiro, is no exception. It's just as easy to see barefoot kids peddling their catch of the day as to see sleek yachts floating outside mansions surrounded by fortresses of exuberant trees.
What struck me as unique about this place, though, is that everyone, regardless of social standing, seemed truly joyous and carefree. Perhaps it's the effect of the turquoise sea and powdery white sand, the dramatic peaks covered in lush jungle, the abundance of colorful fish, the lack of cars and roads, and the unspoiled quality of it all.
Many visitors spend their days on Ilha Grande (which means Big Island) perfecting the art of doing nothing, idling on a sailboat or sunbathing on one of 106 nearly deserted beaches. But this retreat, reachable by ferry boats that leave daily from the town of Angra dos Reis, is also known among active travelers for its world-class trekking and diving. Surprisingly, in spite of its proximity to Rio and bountiful offerings, it remains free of hotel chains and tourist masses.
On our second day, after an early breakfast of fresh mango, ham and cheese on baguette bread and two cups of delicious café com leite, my friends and I set out on a three-hour hike to Lopes Mendes, said to be Brazil's best beach. We left from the main village of Abraão, following a trail that, at first, appeared to be clearly defined and not very challenging. There were bright, dense trees framing the narrow dirt path, which at times became steep, and which gradually began to feel -- at least to some of us -- extremely taxing.
Distracted by the beauty of a fresh-water stream, we made a wrong turn and ended up at a small, unimpressive beach with a tiny shack that sold sodas and chips. The vendor informed us that, alas, Lopes Mendes was at least 60 minutes away. Finally, after grunting through one last hilly stretch, we found our prize: an immense beach of impossibly soft sand and stunning sky-blue waves, practically all to ourselves.
Ilha Grande has plenty of trails. The most challenging -- and the one that provides the best panoramic views of the surrounding archipelago -- is the hike to Pico do Papagaio (Parrot's Beak). At about 3,000 feet, it's one of the highest points on the island (and, indeed, it looks like the upturned beak of a giant parrot). A less energetic option is exploring the ruins of a prison known as Devil's Cauldron, a testament to the island's sordid past. In the 18th century, slaves were held there before being sold to plantation owners. A century later it became a jail for violent criminals, which operated until 1994.
Since there are no roads or motor vehicles, the only way to get around is on foot or by boat. Every morning, a squadron of sailboats awaits visitors at the village's harbor, each offering a different route or activity. Some boats will take you diving, others snorkeling. Still others operate as water taxis, letting you choose the destination.
Before leaving, we took a daylong ride around the island on a big, slow sailboat that anchored occasionally to let us swim and snorkel. The captain and his sidekick, an effervescent middle-aged Brazilian named Walter, fed us bananas and watermelon and shared with us their extensive knowledge of Ilha Grande, down to the names of the sea creatures that came to bite our toes during one dive. Our last stop was the bay called Saco do Ceu (Sky Sac), where the perfectly still water mirrors the sky.
In the evenings, the action is concentrated in Abraão. There are campy souvenir shops, ice cream parlors, small pousadas (bed and breakfasts) and a few simple restaurants serving fresh seafood, pasta and pizza, a meal as popular in Brazil as the traditional feijoada (black bean stew). I didn't need to go into town for my favorite nighttime activity on Ilha Grande: gazing at the stars, joyous and carefree.
From Rio de Janeiro, you can a take a bus to Angra dos Reis at the Rodoviaria Novo Rio. Buses leave practically every hour, and the ride takes two hours and 30 minutes. Another option is to book a private car service, which costs about $150. Ferry boats depart Angra every weekday at 3:30 p.m., and at 1:30 p.m. on weekends. If you miss the ferry, or prefer a private ride, you can book a speedboat, which carries up to four people, for about $170.
Where to Stay
Asalem: Managed by photographer André Cypriano and his wife Bianka, this oceanfront pousada feels secluded but is within walking distance to the village of Abraão. Breakfast, which includes fruits picked from nearby trees, is served on a big veranda overlooking the sea. The six spacious, simply decorated rooms, are perched on a hill above and offer magnificent views. Double rooms from $140.
Sitio do Lobo: It's one of the most exclusive pousadas on the island, favored by local socialites and the occasional celebrity. Thanks to owner Julia Serrado, an interior decorator, the reception inside the main bungalow looks worthy of a travel magazine (but elsewhere the décor is much more rustic). The six suites overlook the bay called Enseada das Estrelas, 10 minutes by boat from the village of Abraão. Double rooms start at $250.
Where to Eat
Reis e Magos: Perched over the famous Saco do Céu bay, this simple but romantic restaurant specializes in moqueca de camarão, a traditional shrimp stew, and other fresh seafood dishes. Tel:+(5524) 3367-2812
Lua e Mar: This friendly family restaurant serves a varied seafood and pasta menu. It's centrally located on the village of Abraão. Tel: +( 5524) 3361-5113.
Paola Singer is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, Newsday and Hemispheres magazine.