Off the coast of southern Brazil’s Santa Catarina region sits the 33-mile-long island of Florianópolis, more commonly known in these parts as Floripa. From the mainland, one can get there by boat (a 30-minute ride past tiny, deserted atolls), by car (an hour’s drive across bridges), or by helicopter (a five-minute flight that costs about $800). Regardless of the route, making the trip to this subtropical paradise—Brazil’s answer to St.-Tropez, Ibiza, and Punta del Este all in one—is worth the effort, if only to experience one of its 42 unspoiled beaches, its big-wave surfing, or its pulsating nightlife. On Floripa’s north end is the yacht-filled harbor of Jurerê Internacional, which was developed in the mid-eighties. Popular with Brazilian jet-setters, many of whom own million-dollar homes in its exclusive subdivisions, Jurerê is the place for nonstop partying at beachfront clubs. The area is packed during South America’s summer months, from December through March.
The west coast is home to the island’s oldest settlements, where daily life goes on as it has for centuries. Here, down cobblestone streets in the neighboring fishing villages of Santo Antônio de Lisboa and Sambaqui, are elegant examples of Azorean architecture, especially the colonial-style church, Igreja da Nossa Senhora da Necessidade, Floripa’s oldest, dating from 1750. The surfer set can be found in Praia Mole, a long strip of soft, powder-like sand and world-class waves on the island’s east coast. Inland, the boho-chic town of Lagoa da Conceição, located within a large lagoon of the same name, has become the area of choice for Brazil’s artists and intellectuals.
“Floripa is like Rio twenty years ago,” says Brazilian fashion designer Carlos Miele, who bought an island hideaway here in 2003. And according to Jeffrey Jah, the club impresario behind the popular Praia Café, “it’s one fifth the price of St. Barths.”
Yet for all the island has to offer, tourism here is perhaps best described as adolescent. Florianópolis, the capital city of the state of Santa Catarina and named for Brazil’s second president, Floriano Peixoto, has beckoned vacationing Cariocas from Rio and Paulistas from São Paulo for more than two decades, but North Americans have been slow to catch on—which may explain why Floripa has yet to have a hotel truly worthy of itself. Yes, there’s the new Il Campanario Villaggio Resort, an ersatz Italian villa with 288 rooms, and the two-and-a-half-year-old, 15-story Sofitel Florianópolis downtown, but neither rates high in charm or authenticity. We found that the place to stay is actually back on the Santa Catarina mainland, in the very private beach resort called Ponta dos Ganchos. Gancho is Portuguese for “hook,” and while the resort may be an ideal base for exploring the region, 99 percent of its guests never even leave the property, offering an inkling as to why it’s considered the best hotel in the area—and, some say, in all of Latin America.
The 50-minute drive north from Floripa, over a bridge and through a cluster of fishing villages known as Governador Celso Ramos, ends at an electric gate with the only clue of what’s behind it being a small Relais & Châteaux plaque partially hidden by passion-fruit vines. Beyond the gate are 20 acres of verdant hills sloping down to a white-sand beach abutting the Atlantic. Man has tread lightly here: Less than 8 percent of the grounds have been built upon. Tucked into the landscape are 25 bungalows ranging in size from 860 to 3,200 square feet and constructed from glass, stone, and garapeira, a Brazilian hardwood. Five new units were completed last year, each featuring an indoor Jacuzzi, a sauna, and a spacious outdoor sundeck with a plunge pool. From almost anywhere in the suite, 180-degree views bring in the bay below and the ocean beyond. Clay tennis courts, a fitness center with an indoor pool, and massage tents overlooking the water round out Ponta dos Ganchos.
The on-site restaurant features locally sourced food and leans heavily on the region’s shellfish. Meats come from Uruguay and Argentina; vegetables, from the resort’s organic garden. The best spot to dine is on the restaurant’s second-floor porch, which at night is transformed with romantic candelabras and bossa nova music. But the dinner to end all dinners is served on a small island across from the beach, reachable by a boardwalk and a rope bridge. Here, one couple per night is treated to an elaborate five-course tasting menu and wine pairing that features regional dishes like carpaccio made from pupunha, an indigenous palm, with oysters and grilled shrimp flambéed in locally brewed cachaca, a liquor made from fermented sugarcane.
Nicolas Peluffo, the 30-year-old managing director of Ponta dos Ganchos and son of one of its founders, has run the resort since 2004. His customary attire of T-shirt, shorts, and white Havaiana flip-flops projects a casualness that belies his seriousness and his determination to keep the place operating at a high standard. His Italian and German forebearers first settled in Uruguay in the 1860s. A century on, Nicolas’s entrepreneur father, Daniel Peluffo, moved with his architect wife, Elianne Klenner, to Porto Alegre, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state. When Daniel sold his shoe export business there in 1995, the surf-crazed 16-year-old Nicolas convinced his parents to move to Floripa. The family settled in Lagoa da Conceição, the island’s Southern California-esque community, where designer Miele is now a neighbor (and a fellow surf buff).
It was over dinner in 2000 that Daniel and his friend Nicholas Razey, a former telecom executive from England, first discussed playing a role in the burgeoning tourism industry of “greater Florianópolis.” By the main course they had decided to open a small guesthouse catering to couples. By dessert the concept had grown to a rustic-chic bungalow resort that Klenner would design. From the original 15 freestanding bungalows—built in eight months and opened in December 2001—the property grew to 20 in 2004, and 25 in 2008.
It was Razey’s idea to draft Daniel’s son into the project. At 21, Nicolas had taken a break from his graduate studies in business management to surf in Australia and California. “I had no experience, zero,” he confesses, but working 18-hour days at the resort provided a necessary crash course. He was eventually given the post of operations manager, and in June 2004 he was promoted to general manager. That year, with his eye on a Relais & Châteaux designation, he flew to France to learn what getting one would entail. On his return, he set in motion renovations and improvements to everything from the wine list (increasing it from 27 labels to 300) to the staff-guest ratio (now two to one). By the end of 2005, Nicolas was named managing director.
Touring the villages of Governador Celso Ramos, whose 12,600 inhabitants live in small, simple, brightly colored houses that dot the hillside overlooking the bay, can mean hiking to a hidden waterfall or accompanying a local fisherman to an oyster farm for a tasting as the mollusks are freshly scooped from the sea. Whaling drove the economy here in the 18th century, but today’s fishing boats go out for a month at a time, returning with sardines and tuna. Smaller vessels launch early each morning and come back at dusk with grouper, shrimp, and squid. Retired sailors sit in their doorways weaving nets and hammocks.
A little farther afield, in the town of Biguaçú, about 15 miles from the resort, is Restaurante Casa do Peixe, which means “fish house.” A four-year-old lunch-only restaurant, it’s the labor of love of Carla Wolff, who, with her doctor husband and two daughters, left São Paulo for Floripa in 2002. Wolff creates simpler dishes than the restaurant at Ponta dos Ganchos but cooks them with the same fresh local fish and organic produce and serves them family style. A signature favorite is the octopus vinaigrette followed by a filet of Namorado and pirao, a regional specialty of manioc root meal cooked in fish, shrimp, or coconut broth.
Some of the best scuba diving in Brazil is at Arvoredo Marine Biological Reserve, a 20-minute boat ride from the resort. Here the warm Brazilian waters meet the cold, nutrient-rich currents from the Falkland Islands in the south. There’s everything from tiny sea horses to 300-pound sea turtles—even whales and penguins in the winter months, from June through October.
Right now Floripa real estate prices are on an upswing, and many predict that five-star properties—think Aman resorts—and a world-class marina will be operating in the next three to four years. “This place has maximum potential,” says Jah. “We’re just getting started.”
Floripa is a 55-minute flight from São Paulo, a 75-minute flight from Rio de Janeiro, and a two-hour flight from Buenos Aires. It’s important to note that U.S. citizens must have a visa to travel to Brazil, which requires an itinerary, a passport, extra passport photos, and a money order for $130. For more information, visit the Web site of the Brazilian consulate at brazilny.org. Ponta dos Ganchos Resort starts at $655 per night for two people, meals included. Call 55-48/3953-7000 for reservations, or go to pontadosganchos.com.br.