Many moons ago, when my toughest deadline was a nine o’clock lecture and caipirinhas didn’t give me hangovers, I spent three months living in Rio de Janeiro.
In theory I was doing 'research' – which was a fabulous excuse to go to a country that had long held enormous appeal.
Predictably, not a lot of research took place. Instead, lots of travelling, lots of very strong, very black coffee at ten minute intervals, lots of wonderful friends, lots of embarrassing dancing. Fast forward to earlier this year and I’ve managed to acquire a busy job, a husband and two small girls. Despite endless good intentions, I hadn’t been back to Brazil. And indeed, back in January, I went online to book a last minute skiing holiday for the February half term... but I found myself looking at Brazilian beach houses... unbelievably, gobsmackingly gorgeous. The memories came flooding back; and, as if the patron saint of impetuosity had intervened, the perfect house in the perfect place was available. I called my husband and told him to unpack his salopettes – we were off to Paratí.
Paratí is three hours drive south of Rio on a stretch of coast called the Costa Verde, the green coast; 400 miles of perfect beaches, lush vegetation, islands to cruise around. 300 years ago, the town itself was one of the richest trading ports in the world, as it was situated at the end of the gold, and then the black gold (coffee) trail. Endless bounty would come over the mountains from the mines and coffee fields, usually by mule, and find its way onto boats at Paratí, from where it would head up to Rio to be transferred to the treasure ships back to Europe. The town flourished, rich merchants built churches and beautiful houses in the classic Portuguese colonial style. But then the railways arrived, and gradually, slowly, the port didn’t exactly die... but hibernated. In fact, until the main coast road from Rio to São Paulo was built in the 1960’s, Paratí had lain, perfectly preserved, practically isolated by land and almost forgotten, for most of the twentieth century.
Now, its trade is inevitably tourism. We are the bounty... but we don’t mind. It is the most perfect gem of a place. Picturesque without being manicured. Lively without being overrun by gap year students. Rows of fishing boats wait on the quay to take you to untouched islands or little restaurants where prawns are grilled while you swim in clean, clear sea. But best of all when you’re on holiday with children (seven and two), it’s full of Brazilians. They really are the nicest people on the planet. They (in common, I have found, with all Latinos) genuinely seem to like kids. Even the most glamorous of hotel receptionists, far from being intimidating, will find crayons and biscuits in her designer handbag. It makes the world of difference. It means that from the minute you arrive, you feel you can take a deep breath and relax.
The villa was a dream. Colonial, comfortable, not flashy but beautiful. Brightly coloured hammocks were hung on the terrace which led to a tiny beach, and a small but perfectly formed swimming pool. Breakfast would be ready in the morning, the beds made and washing done by the afternoon. If you wanted you could get a local cook to come in and make supper - a luxury perhaps, but at the equivalent of twelve pounds a day, it seemed silly not to. Besides, we all loved Brazilian food, and what better way to eat it than on your own terrace, looking out onto the islands in the bay? We were ten minutes walk from the centre of the town, where you could check out the jewellery stalls, get pleasantly lost in the cobbled streets trying to find the ice cream shops, or stop for a cheeky beer. We hired a car and found waterfalls in the mountains to sit under, and quiet beaches at the end of unmade roads.Carnival was a riot. You’ve got to love a country that takes five days of bank holidays to dance around and drink caipirinhas.
Before we headed back to the reality of London in Feburary, we headed to Rio for a couple of days so that I could show the family the sights. I think that Rio is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, though from the reaction of some friends back home you’d have thought I was suggesting a weekend break in downtown Mogadishu. Yes, there is poverty. Yes, you should leave your Rolex at home. But come on guys! I’d say the same about large areas of London!
We stayed at the Pestana Rio Atlântica hotel slap bang on Copacabana, recommended by Journey Latin America, and justifiably so. It’s not your boutique experience; it’s a big, modern hotel, but it’s endlessly comfortable with friendly staff and a great location. There’s a pool on the roof with the most amazing view. As we’d now come to expect, the kids were treated like royalty, with choices of cots and high chairs and general good cheer. With limited time, we thought we’d take the lazy option of getting a guided tour, and were delighted to meet Licia, a knowledgeable and charming carioca who whizzed us from the Sugar Loaf Mountain, through the old city centre, up to the Christ statue, down through the artist quarter of Santa Teresa, ending up in the most fabulous barbecue restaurant near Ipanema, Barra Brasa. Vegetarians beware. It might have been a whistle-stop tour, but all of us (especially our seven year old) were left reeling with new facts and figures and a huge enthusiasm for this brilliant city.
Ah, Brazil. We’re hooked. In fact, we’ve booked again for Christmas. And how often does the holiday glow last that long?!
By Katie Derham, Newscaster.