Sunday, May 10, 2009
GETTING THERE: Ilha Grande (pronounced EEL-yah GRAHN-day) lies 100 miles down the coast from Rio de Janeiro and 14 miles off the coast. American Airlines offers connecting flights from Reagan National to Rio, with round-trip tickets starting at about $700. Continental, Delta and others have flights from BWI Marshall at about the same price; ditto United out of Dulles. Higher-end resorts on the island will arrange for airport pickup and transfer to Ilha Grande, which is the easiest option. (Expect three to four hours of travel time.) Alternatively, taxis can be hired to the coastal cities of Angra dos Reis or Mangaratiba (about $200 for a two-hour ride). From either city, ferries, catamarans and private boats offer regular departures to Ilha Grande's main village, Abraao (about $5 for a 90-minute ferry ride). Be sure to budget accordingly: Although credit cards are widely accepted on the island, there are no ATMs.
WHERE TO STAY: Though the main village of Abraao has dozens of simple guesthouses, the best options are outside town. Perched on a densely forested hillside above the bay, Asalem (between Abraao and Abraaozinho Beach, 011-55-24-3361-5602, http://www.asalem.com.br) offers rustic, airy suites with great views of the turquoise waters below ($165-$280 a night double). Secluded enough to satisfy those seeking a private getaway, the resort is also a short rain forest stroll away from village bars and restaurants.
To really get back to nature, consider the Island Experience (Village das Estrelas, Camiranga Beach, 347-416-6517, http://www.theislandexperience.com), an eco-fitness retreat tucked away in a remote cove ($2,100 per person per week, all-inclusive). The retreat's Sunday-through-Saturday detox and de-stress program includes plenty of jungle hiking and sea kayaking, as well as daily massages and meals made with local fish, fruits and vegetables. A warning: If your idea of a tropical vacation includes sipping margaritas on the beach, look elsewhere. The Island Experience has a strict no-alcohol policy, and each day begins with a sunrise yoga session.
WHERE TO EAT: Abraao has no shortage of restaurants serving fresh local seafood as well as pastas and good pizzas. Among the best is Tropicana (Rua da Praia 28, 011-55-24-3361-5047), an informal waterfront bistro that offers French fare alongside traditional Brazilian cuisine. Standing all alone on a remote beach, Restaurante Praia da Fora (Praia da Fora, 011-55-24-9214-6590) offers some of the island's most authentic Brazilian cuisine. The only challenge is getting there. For ambitious hikers, the restaurant is a two-hour jungle trek from Abraao; alternatively, water taxis can be arranged ($25 one way). A highlight is the moqueca mista, the classic Brazilian stew made with fresh seafood, coconut milk and tropical dende oil.
WHAT TO DO: Ilha Grande offers the ultimate surf-and-turf combination: 106 white-sand beaches and more than 100 miles of trails through primary and secondary rain forest. Among many memorable treks is the Feticeira Beach Trail. Starting from Abraao, the trail snakes past prison ruins before ascending into mountain rain forest and finally dipping down to a small stretch of white sand, palms and emerald-colored water (three hours round trip). More-distant beaches are best reached by boat. One popular destination is Lagoa Azul, a limpid pool perfect for snorkeling, surrounded by deep green rain forest (about $15 for a five-hour snorkeling trip). Travel offices on Abraao's main drag, including Agencia Lagoa Azul (Rua Getulio Vargas, 011-55-24-3361-5093), can help sort through the options and arrange guides and transport.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Good basic information (never mind the bad translations) and lots of photos are available at http://www.ilhagrande.com.ar.