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Brazil's Santa Catarina is South America's next hot tourist spot

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When most people think of Brazil, they remember Rio’s Carnival, tropical jungles, the Amazon or such thriving metropolises as Sao Paulo. Well, leave your preconceptions about Brazil at home, because one of the country’s top tourist destinations, frequented by savvy insiders, is the southern state of Santa Catarina. Just 438 miles south of Sao Paulo and 709 miles south of Rio is a state so varied in landscapes, ethnic populations and cultural backgrounds that even the locals refer to it as a “different” Brazil.

While the Azoreans first settled on the Santa Catarina coast in the mid 1800s, European immigrants -- led by the Germans and Italians -- settled inland, and by the 20th century, other Europeans, Asians, Arabs and Brazilians from other regions arrived, making Santa Catarina’s 6 million inhabitants the most diversified in the Brazilian states.

 

At just 36,835 square miles (roughly 1 percent of the country’s territory), Santa Catarina is the smallest of the southern states, but it has 347 miles of coastline as well as mountains, Atlantic rain forests, Brazilian pine tree forests, mangrove swamps, lakes, rivers, dozens of thermal-mineral springs, ecological parks and deserted beaches, in addition to picturesque fishing villages and happening resort towns.

 

The capital city, Florianopolis -- or Floripa, as the locals call it -- is situated on Ilha de Santa Catarina (Santa Catarina Island), and is considered to have the best quality of life of all the Brazilian state capitals. The high educational standards and general prosperity mean that there isn’t a great income disparity among the city’s 380,000 inhabitants, and consequently, the crime rate is low compared with other Brazilian cities. There is a well-developed urban and tourism infrastructure, an international airport, ports for cruise ships, world-class hotels and a historic downtown area.

 

About 45 percent of Santa Catarina Island lies in a nature preservation area, and the 100 pristine beaches in the municipality are rated as some of the most beautiful in Brazil. Joaquina Beach, on the east, has some of the best surfing in the world, and is the site of the World Surfing Championship.

 

The trendy beach town of Florianopolis was once a surfers’ enclave, but it now receives an average of 370,000 tourists in the summer (December to March) – more than any other destination in Brazil aside from Rio. Many wealthy urbanites from Argentina, Paraguay and other parts of Brazil are attracted by Floripa’s beaches, culture and hip nightlife, and many have purchased vacation homes there. Other international visitors are starting to discover this sizzling resort destination.

 

Viagem & Turismo, Brazil’s leading travel publication, crowned Santa Catarina as the best tourist destination in the country in 2007. The magazine also recognized Costao do Santinho in Florianopolis as the best beach resort in Brazil for the third consecutive year. It’s easy to understand why. The property is spread over an area of 10 million square feet, of which 75 percent is preserved as Atlantic forest.

 

Accommodations include 14 villas designed in a traditional Azorean style, and a suites-only international wing with terraces that afford panoramic views of the beach. The extensive facilities include an acclaimed spa, a state-of-the-art fitness center, a surfing school, a heliport and a convention hall with a seating capacity for 3,600 people. Not-so-standard resort offerings include seven ecological treetop trails, sand boarding on the dunes, and an open-air archeological site and museum featuring 5,000-year-old rock art.

 

Along the Emerald Coast, 25 miles north of Florianopolis, is another noteworthy beach resort, Ponta dos Ganchos, a Relais & Chateaux property. Set on a forested hilltop of a privately owned peninsula in Governador Celso Ramos, the resort offers 20 (soon to be 30) lavish bungalows with plunge pools and secluded veranda views of the sea. Guests, many of whom are honeymooners, can also enjoy such sophisticated features as a Christian Dior spa, alfresco massage tents, all-inclusive gourmet dining, and helicopter transport to and from the property.

 

Farther north along the BR-101 highway, 56 miles from Florianopolis, is the booming seaside resort town of Balneario Camboriu, renowned for some of the best nightlife in South America. The crescent-shaped, waterfront Avenida Atlantica hugs four miles of beach and is lined with high-rise apartment buildings, hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and shops. For a town of only 90,000 inhabitants, there is a well-established infrastructure and extensive tourism facilities to cope with the 500,000 summer tourists, who come for the innumerable day and evening leisure options. A top attraction is Unipraias Park, a hilltop forest reserve between two beaches that is only reachable by a cable-car network transporting visitors 1,050 feet in the air. Once in the park, there are ecological trails, suspended treetop walkways, and viewing stations with spectacular views of the city and the coastline.

 

If you are able to tear yourself away from the beach and the endless recreational activities of the coast, head inland toward Santa Catarina’s “European Valley.” A two-hour drive and 156 miles northwest of Florianopolis (or 39 miles from Balneario Camboriu) is Blumenau, the capital of the fertile Itajai River Valley. Blumenau looks as if someone took a piece of Germany and dropped it in the middle of tropical Brazil. The descendants of the German immigrants who came in 1850 have preserved their traditions and arts as characterized by the distinctive enxaimel-style (half-timber, half-brick) architecture, local crystal ware and textile production, gastronomy and festivities. Since 1984, Blumenau has organized the largest Oktoberfest in the world, after the one in Munich. Every year, from Oct. 10-27, more than 700,000 visitors join the city’s 260,000 inhabitants to celebrate with parades, concerts and theater, not to mention copious beer drinking and partying.

 

Just 19 miles north of Blumenau in the valley of the Itajai-Acu river is Pomerode, the most German city in Brazil, where an estimated 90 percent of the 20,000 residents are fluent in both German and Portuguese. For a step back in time, stay at the Mundo Antigo Hotel Farm, where pastoral cabins offer simple yet comfortable accommodations. The Fischer family has run the farm for more than 75 years, employing organic farming methods, and the restaurant in the original farmhouse building serves mouth-watering, traditional German fare adapted with several Brazilian ingredients.

 

Since 2000, 90 miles of the southern coast of Santa Catarina has been preserved as a whale sanctuary. Right whales make their annual migration from the Antarctic to these warmer waters to give birth and feed their young. Between June and November, the southern right whales can come so close to the shore that many can be sighted from the beach. Imbituba was the last whaling center to close in Brazil in 1973, and the town is now a whale observation center.

 

The Vida Sol E Mar Eco Resort & Beach Village  in Imbituba overlooks Rosa Beach (Praia do Rosa) – known for great surf waves -- and a freshwater lagoon that migrating whales use as their nursery in the cooler months. This hillside retreat with a surf school opened in 1993 and operates on ecologically sound principles. There are 29 rooms in the eco-resort portion of the property, and 12 superior villas in the beach village. The villas are individually furnished and can accommodate two to 10 guests, making it ideal for families and nature lovers. In collaboration with the Southern Right Whale Institute, the resort helps support research, education and conservation efforts involving whales and their environment, and also organizes whale-watching excursions from ashore or at sea. Between July and October, boat trips accompanied by a biologist leave from nearby Garopaba.

 

Inland from Garopaba is the Catarinense Mountain Range, the coldest region in Brazil and the only place in this tropical country where it snows each year. The landscape is comprised of 6,500-foot mountain peaks, massive canyons, valleys, lakes and araucaria (Brazilian pine) forests. Ranchers in this area created what is known as rural tourism in Brazil with 100-year-old farms, cattle-driven cuisine and Gaucho cowboy-style culture.

 

In the town of Bom Jardim da Serra, on top of the Serra do Rio do Rastro mountain range, is the Rio do Rastro Eco Resort. Access is by a winding road that snakes up a 4,800-foot mountain, offering stunning vistas along the way. The property has a series of cabins surrounding a trout-filled lake and spread across a field with brightly colored wildflowers. But these aren’t your average rustic accommodations – luxurious details include a glass-enclosed porch with comfortable reading chairs, a fireplace, a bathroom with a hot tub and picture window, and evening turndown service with an electric blanket to ward off the chill. Outdoors-oriented guests can take four-wheel-drive tours or horseback rides to the canyon, go on ecological tracks with guides or visit the winery at Sao Joaquim.

 

You can get to Santa Catarina on TAM Airlines, which flies nonstop from New York-JFK and Miami to Sao Paulo and continues to Rio de Janeiro. Continental flies nonstop from Newark to Sao Paulo, and Delta flies nonstop from Atlanta to Sao Paulo and Rio. TAM, Varig and such domestic airlines as GOL and WebJet Linhas Aereas have flights from Sao Paulo and Rio to Florianopolis.

 

Whether you’re looking for unspoiled beaches, superlative surfing, sultry nightlife, ecotourism or a taste of Euro-Brazilian culture, Santa Catarina has something for everyone – all served with the warmest hospitality. No wonder it’s the hottest new tourist destination in South America.

 

For more information on Santa Catarina, visit www.santacatarinabrasil.com.br.-- Yvonne Yorke

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