25 Things to Love About Bahia

Long a mecca for sophisticated Brazilians, this Edenlike stretch along the country's northeast coast has music, culture, and the best beaches in South America. As the rest of the world catches on, SOPHY ROBERTS reports on what to see, know, and do in Bahia now.

1. Fazenda da Lagoa

Some 25 miles south of Ilhéus, on farmland between rivers and the ocean, you'll find Bahia's most stylish new boutique resort. Designed by Carioca artist Mucki Skowronski, Fazenda da Lagoa opened last November with 14 bungalow suites (from $405; 55-73/3236-6137; fazendadalagoa.com.br). It has gauze-draped beds, sea-facing decks, a spa, acres of Atlantic forest (seen from the dock above), and a beach that stretches for miles. You'd be hard-pressed to come up with a hotel more colorful, more laid-back, more quintessentially Bahian.

2. Salvador da Bahia

Bahia's capital is the oldest city in Brazil, and during the early colonial period it served as the capital of the entire country. Situated on the vast All Saints Bay, Salvador was the arrival point for slaves brought to work the sugar plantations, accounting for the city's vibrant African culture. The slaves were bought and sold in the historic neighborhood of Pelourinho, now a UNESCO-protected quarter of cobblestoned streets, brightly painted buildings, and colonial-era churches. Stay at the Convento do Carmo ($375–$895; 55-71/3327-8400; conventodocarmo.com.br), which opened last October in a converted 16th-century Carmelite convent. And don't miss the Mercado Modelo (portalmercadomodelo.com.br), a massive Bahian arts and crafts market with some 260 vendors occupying an old slave warehouse. Though touristy and full of cheap trinkets, it's colorful and fun to browse. For 18th- and 19th-century silver, furniture, and objects, visit the shop of Roberto Alban (55-71/ 3326-5633), who has a second gallery next door featuring paintings by contemporary Brazilian artists.

3. Txai Resort

This chic beachside property sits in the middle of a coconut plantation about 30 miles south of Itacaré (see No. 7). Recently expanded, it features 18 bungalows and eight suites ($530–$1,095; 55-73/2101-5000; txai.com.br), which are simply but smartly decorated. There's also a striking pool and a hillside spa with Atlantic views that are to die for. Service here is about as good as it gets in all of Bahia. Txai understands the American market as well—not always true of the small pousadas.

4. Moqueca

Bahian cuisine, widely considered Brazil's best, draws heavily on African, native Indian, and Portuguese influences. The queen of regional dishes is moqueca, a spicy fish stew (shrimp and/or crab can also be used). The magic touch is the orange dendê oil, derived from a small African coconut, which gives much of this region's cooking its distinctive richness. Moqueca is best sampled at the Salvador restaurant Paraiso Tropical (see No. 13).

5. Writer Jorge Amado

One of Brazil's greatest novelists, Amado (1912–2001) wrote stories redolent with the sensuality of Bahia—its women, its food, its folk traditions. The essential read is Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, which was published in 1966. The tale opens with husband No. 1 enjoying Carnaval in Salvador: "He was dancing the samba, having a wonderful time, when without a word to anyone he fell over completely dead." By anyone's reckoning, a sexy way to go.

6. Chapada Diamantina

A six-hour drive west of Salvador, Bahia's Diamond Highlands national park area is 600 square miles of canyons, mesas, rapids, waterfalls, rock spurs, caves, and subterranean lakes. This is where precious-stone hunters first came prospecting in the mid-1800s. Now Chapada Diamantina is a center of ecotourism, with all sorts of spirited adventure activities. It's also great for seeing orchids. The area's hub is Lençóis, a former mining town with pastel-colored colonial buildings. Stay at Hotel Canto das Aguas ($85–$210; 55-75/3334-1154; lencois.com.br), where the rooms' balconies have hammocks as well as beautiful views of the Lençóis river. The top guide is Roy Funch (funchroy@yahoo.com), who came as a Peace Corps volunteer and settled here in 1978. A biologist, geologist, writer, and translator, Funch led the effort to establish the park in 1985.

7. Itacare's Beaches

Sometimes called Brazil's Hawaii, this surfing hot spot has 15 beaches, most of them in small bays bounded on one side by the Contas river. If surfing is your thing—the sport put Itacaré on the map in the early seventies—then make for the legendary river break Boca da Barra, which can peel for up to a mile down the coast. Book lessons with Lawrence's Surf House (55-73/3251-2049). There's also rafting on the river and trekking in the rainforest (arrange guides through Dehouche: 55-21/2512-3458; dehouche.com). Or you can just chill out on Praia da Concha, Itacaré's longest—and busiest—beach. Dance forró in the evenings with the locals. For a cold beer, the pizzeria Boca do Forno (55-73/3251-2174) is the place to go. Dedo de Moça (dinner, $25; 55-73/ 3251-3372; dedodemoca.com) serves up excellent spicy Bahian cooking.

8. Capoeira

This popular Afro-Brazilian martial art (now practiced in New York, Los Angeles, London—we're all getting into it) is more than just a sport. Capoeira is a ritual, war dance, and philosophy marked by graceful acrobatic movements: kicks, sweeps, flips, head spins, handstands. And it is always practiced to music. Introduced by slaves, capoeira was outlawed in the late 19th century because of its association with revolutionaries and criminal gangs. Today you can see it all over Bahia. It is extremely beautiful, especially when performed on the beach amid torches at sunset. You can also take classes, should you wish. In Salvador's Pelourinho district, try the Associação de Capoeira Mestre Bimba (55-71/3492-3197; capoeiramestrebimba.com.br), which opened in 1932, before the martial art was decriminalized. The Salvador restaurant Solar do Unhão (dinner, $20; 55-71/3329-5551), has shows every night but Sunday ($20). Sure it's aimed at tourists, but the capoeira is terrific.

9. Fresh Green Coconuts

You can pick them up all over Bahia—even at the airports. Split with a machete, they're served with a straw and drunk ice-cool on the beach. When the water is finished, you scrape out the meat using a piece of coconut shell.

10. Trancoso

The most fashionable fishing village in the tropics, Trancoso defines Bahian chic. A 45-minute drive from the area's main hub, Porto Seguro, it is also an insider's sort of place, where moneyed Brazilians come for New Year's and often keep second houses. Some you can rent. Among the best is Casa San Marco (prices upon request; 44-207/788-7815), with eight oceanfront suites. Of the small privately owned hotels, try Pousada Etnia ($230–$295; 55-73/3668-1137; etnia brasil.com.br), built on a hillside with a Mykonos-white pool, an experience created by owners André Zanonato and Tini Corrado. Another option on the beach is Estrela d'Agua ($350–$675; 55-73/3668-1030; estreladagua.com.br), a must for the bar's sundowner scene. Recommended restaurants include Capim Santo (dinner, $45; 55-73/3668-1122), which serves great Bahian seafood, Maritaca (dinner, $30; 55-73/3668-1258) for Italian-Brazilian, and Cacau (dinner, $40; 55-73/3668-1266) for memorable dishes such as grilled snook flavored with soy sauce, ginger, and honey. Trancoso is very hip, yet it appears totally effortless. The dress code says it all: Havaiana flip-flops with H. Stern diamonds and this season's Rosa Chá bikinis.

11. Praia do Espelho

Bahia has 700 miles of coastline, but there's one stretch of sand that wins Havaianas down. Praia do Espelho, between Trancoso and Caraíva, is a sweeping crescent of creamy white sand that's soft underfoot and lined with picture- perfect palms. At low tide, gin-clear water sits in little coral pools. Despite being consistently voted among Brazil's top three beaches, it's almost always empty, as few know exactly how to get there. (It's worth hiring a driver for the 40-minute trip from Trancoso that finishes with a dirt road.) There's a gem of a restaurant at sand's edge, the two-table Silvinha's (dinner, $30; 55-73/9985-4157).

12. Candomble Ceremonies

The candomblé religion combines practices slaves brought over from Africa with native Indian beliefs and elements of Christianity. Catholic saints, for example, were adopted for protection on the plantations. Candomblé is no tourist show, and visitors are asked to be respectful when they visit terreiros, Bahian temples where the religion is still practiced. During ceremonies it's customary to wear white, with men in trousers and women in long skirts. Celebrations that involve music and dancing take place throughout the year, often coinciding with Catholic holidays.

13. Eating in Salvador

The Bahian capital has some of the region's best restaurants, and the Italian-French Trapiche Adelaide (dinner, $40; 55-71/326-2211) has long topped the list. Its bar, on a platform over the water, is the spot for a drink; some say it serves Bahia's best caipirinhas (below). At Amado (dinner, $45; 55-71/3322-3520), Edinho Engel—famous for his hip eatery Manacá on Camburi Beach, near São Paulo—offers local specialties like fried Aratú crab. A good option for traditional cooking is Sorriso da Dadá (dinner, $20–$25; 55-71/321-9642). For lunch, try Paraiso Tropical (lunch, $20; 55-71/3384-7464), a ranch and former cockfighting den that does imaginative takes on Bahian dishes, using some 100 fruits grown on the grounds.

14. Beach Houses to Rrent

This is what the insiders do—book a private home rather than a hotel. Go to the Brazilian Beach House Company (brazilianbeachhouse.com) to be sure of assistance in English. Two of our favorites are the ultragrand Pasagarda ($9,800 per week), a chic colonial beachfront pile that sleeps up to 20, located just below Arraial d'Ajuda, and the simpler Casa Praia dos Nativos ($21,800 a week), a two-bedroom white wooden house with a charming picket fence, beside Trancoso's best beach. If you plan to rent during Carnaval (see No. 18), be sure to reserve at least six months in advance.

15. Bahian Music

Bahia is central to Brazil's music scene. Many of the giants hail from this northeastern state—Caetano Veloso, Tom Zé, Gal Costa, Maria Bethania, Carlinhos Brown, and João Gilberto, the founder of bossa nova. Not forgetting, of course, Olodum, the Afro-Brazilian group featured on Paul Simon's Rhythm of the Saints. The best place to buy Bahian music is Cana Brava Records (55-71/3321-0536; bahia-online.net), in Salvador's historic center.

16. Fazenda Sao Francisco do Corumbau

This is the rustic hideaway perfected: six bungalows, two suites, and a two-bedroom "fisherman's house" in its own oceanside coconut plantation of some 5,000 trees ($410–$825; 55-73/3294-2250; corumbau.com.br). The name Corumbau, which is where the hotel is located, means "distant place" in the native Pataxó language. And you'd better believe it. When coming from Porto Seguro, unless you want to bump around on rough tracks in a four-wheel drive (four hours, sometimes longer if it rains), have the hotel arrange a 20-minute ride via helicopter (November–January; $880 for two) or biplane (year-round; $530 for up to five). The room rates include breakfast, lunch, and dinner—that day's catch from the local fishing boats—plus unlimited coconut water.

17. Colonial Architecture

Salvadorans are fond of saying that the city has 365 churches, one for each day of the year. In truth, there are perhaps 100 or so, but they include some of the finest examples of colonial architecture in Brazil. Must-visits are Igreja do Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, which remains a popular pilgrimage site, and Igreja de São Francisco, with interiors plastered in gold leaf. Igreja São Pedro dos Clérigos, a Rococo gem, was left with one of its towers missing in order to avoid a tax levied on finished churches. Numerous guides conduct tours in English. One who comes recommended is Mônia Nascimento (55-71/8178-2241), who can refer you to a specialist if you have particular interests.

18. Carnaval

Nobody celebrates the pre-Lenten festival more extravagantly than the Brazilians, and the Bahians outdo them all. In Salvador die-hard partyers dance to Daniela Mercury and Ivete Sangalo—who play axé, which combines pop and Afro-Bahian drumming—as they cruise through the streets on a float called a trio elétrico. For a relatively civilized experience, buy a ticket that gets you inside an organized block of revelers. A rope carried by security personnel protects you from the worst of the pushing and shoving that characterizes the pipoca (popcorn), as the main throngs are called. Alternatively, book a box near the parades. The mellowest celebrations take place in the Pelourinho district, where the crowds are smaller and the music is impromptu. Be on the lookout for the Afoxês (the best is Filhos de Gandhi), who use candomblé rhythms, as well as the Blocos Afros (the most popular are Ilê Ayê, Olodum, and Timbalada), whose music draws on Bahia's African heritage. The 2007 dates for Carnaval are February 15 through 20, but we suggest going the weekend before, when the parades have already started but the hotels and restaurants aren't yet bursting at the seams.

19. Photographer Pierre Verger

For six decades this French photographer (1902–96) worked in Bahia, shooting everything from Carnaval's transvestites to the production of cachaça, the liquor in a caipirinha. (This image of boys in Salvador is from 1948.) His obsession with candomblé led to his exploration of the religion's roots in Africa. The work speaks for itself. Find it at the Pierre Verger Foundation (55-71/3261-7453; pierreverger.org) in Salvador.

20. Acaraje

These deep-fried black-eyed-pea cakes stuffed with vatapá (a paste of shrimp, coconut, palm oil, and peanuts) are Bahia's fast food. They're prepared by baianas, matrons usually dressed in white, the color of Iansã, the candomblé goddess of the wind. Acarajé can be found everywhere, but some of the finest in Salvador are made by Cira on Itapuã Beach and Dinha at Rio Vermelho. Everybody knows these two baianas, so just ask where to find them.

21. Ponta do Camarao

Two blissful honeymooners put us onto this elegant pousada and it's easy to see why. Ponta do Camarão ($730; 55-73/9979-6269) is a simple four-suite oceanside retreat in Caraíva, south of Trancoso, with delectable Bahian home cooking. There's no electricity (nothing quite like the brightness of the stars) and the streets are made of sand. You will definitely want your hand held getting here—from Porto Seguro, it is a two-and-a-half-hour trip in a four-wheel drive ($275 a couple), the last stretch passing through rainforest and mangroves. Nota bene: To ensure privacy, the owners accept only one party of guests at a time.

22. Jacare do Brasil Boutique

How we do love this shop (55-73/668-1490; jacaredobrasil.com), located on the main square in Trancoso (see No. 10). The boutique is eclectic perfection, presenting one-off contemporary housewares, jewelry, paintings, and furniture as well as antiques—all reflecting owner Fernando Droghetti's impeccable taste. Everything is fairly priced and typically Bahian–Brazilian. Wealthy house owners come here each evening on their way to restaurants (including celebrity decorator Sig Bergamin, who periodically provides Jacaré with exclusive designs). We recently fell for a coconut- wood and silver bracelet ($50).

23. Biking with B&R

In Bahia you can pedal for miles along hard sand beaches. With outfitter Butterfield & Robinson (866-551-9090; butterfieldandrobinson.com), you can transform that into a bespoke bike tour with five-star backup—massages at the end of the day and fantastic accommodations. Explore the hinterland, rainforest, and cocoa plantations, stopping to swim under pristine waterfalls.

24. Warapuru Hotel

Get ready for this one because it's going to raise the game not just for Bahia but for the whole country. In the palm-rimmed cove of Engenhoca, near Itacaré, Warapuru (warapuru.com) is a supermodern hotel and residential development by Anouska Hempel Design, headed up by Aussie architect Russell Jones. When Warapuru opens next June, it will feature 40 bungalows to rent (around $600) along with 18 four-to-six-room villas to buy (from $1.7 million; contact villas@warapuru.com for sales information). The styling is totally unexpected: sharp lines, Ardósia slate, white Bahian travertine, a cantilevered infinity pool, and a subterranean spa. The design smacks of the austerity of Oscar Niemeyer and the glamour of James Bond.

25. Mangue Seco Beach

It doesn't get much better than sitting under the bright stars on the palm-topped, 60-foot-high white dunes near Mangue Seco. Here, you overlook a wide beach that glistens silver in the moonlight, pounded by powerful surf. Lost on the edge of an estuary at Bahia's northern tip, beyond all the resorts, this is a place little visited even by Brazilians. A reminder of what this entire region once was, Mangue Seco is natural Bahia at its best.