Daily Express, August 15, 2009

CHARMED BY RIO’S RIVIERA

Just up the coast from Brazil’s liveliest city is a peninsula that evokes the Cote d’Azur in its heyday. DUNCAN CRAIG visits beautiful Búzios

THERE was simply no escaping her. Her face stared down at us from the wall of seemingly every restaurant and bar, the town’s sole cinema was named in her honour, and on the bay-front promenade a life-size bronze of her gazed inscrutably out to sea. Wherever we went in Búzios, we found Brigitte Bardot

It was like stumbling upon some bizarre celebrity cult, a place with an unhealthy, inexplicable fixation. Like Germany and David Hasselhoff.

Then all became clear. Brigitte “discovered” Búzios. Not, disappointingly, in the manner of a Columbus or Cook, perched at the bow of a galleon clutching a telescope. No, the glamorous French starlet simply visited and became enchanted during the twilight of her fame in the early Sixties and this sleepy fishing town got caught in the glare.

Transformation into a chic resort, “the St Tropez of Brazil”, followed. The Europhile locals were, and clearly still are, indecently grateful.

Búzios is a peninsula rather than just a town, a serrated knife of land protruding five miles into the soft belly of the Atlantic 100 miles east of Rio de Janeiro. Jagged headlands divide curves of sugary sand, the area’s principal draw. There is some debate as to the exact number of beaches but there’s at least one for every hour of the day.

The drive from Rio took a little under three hours, urban frenzy quickly giving way to untamed verdancy. White cows dotted the hillsides, vivid against their dazzlingly green surroundings. Every few miles we’d pass a roadside stall guarded by an army of 3ft-high Christ the Redeemer statues.

Cloudless skies and the whisper of a breeze greeted our arrival; blessed with its own microclimate, temperatures in Búzios rarely drop below 26C. Our first few nights were spent at Villa Rasa Marina. This boutique retreat has the look and feel of a private residence, an effect heightened by its location among the “condomínios” that line the peninsula’s northern approaches – many of them second homes for well-off Cariocas (Rio residents).

I took a table beneath the bamboo awning of Bar do Zé, ordered a tangerine caipirinha and got down to some serious people-watching

The hotel straddles the road; our room was one of just 20 in the beach-front section, arranged around a courtyard with stone walls and red pantiled roofing pinched into half-a-dozen peaks. Modern flourishes such as an iPod station and wall-mounted plasma screen were juxtaposed with weighty furniture and shelving crafted from recycled wood from north-west Brazil.

The pace of life in Búzios is the infirm end of pedestrian and the Rasa Marina proved the ideal spot to acclimatise. It took us a couple of days to even leave. Eventually, we headed to the peninsula’s hub, “Downtown”. With its quiet cobbled streets, dappled squares, stylish eateries and elegant clientele, it did indeed have overtones of St Tropez. Circa 1950. The epithet was clearly applied prior to the Côte d’Azur town’s colonisation by traffic and ostentation.

Rua Das Pedras and (what do you know?) Orla Bardot are the principal streets, along which the best restaurants, shops and bars cluster. With evening approaching we settled at a candle-lit table beneath the bamboo awning of Bar do Zé, ordered a tangerine caipirinha and got down to some serious people-watching.

Búzios is the sort of place where nearly everyone has that faint whiff of celebrity about them. A keen eye might pick out the likes of Matthew McConaughey or Monica Bellucci, both devotees, while Sarkozy and Carla were here last summer. Out running one morning, I passed a petite jogger flanked by two huge men. She wore the pulled-down cap, thick sunscreen and oversized shades uniform of the A-list at work(out).

Búzios is shopping and eating utopia, a place where you progressively let out both belt and suitcase. For every haute couture boutique such as those along Via Coloniale, there are 10 enticing shops selling affordable jewellery, chic swimwear or Amazonian craft.

Among our favourite eateries were Estância Don Juan, a refined Italian with a beamed roof, wall mosaics and an astonishingly good seafood spaghetti, and Parvati Pizzaria, whose endearingly cluttered walls show off black and white pictures from the golden age of cinema. Havana, too, for its views of fishing boat-dotted Praia do Canto and dance floor across which professional samba dancers whirled with grace and skill – and excitable tourists with neither.

A Búzian institution, these buggies aren’t allowed beyond an imaginary line of the ‘mainland’, adding to the island feel

For the second half of our stay we based ourselves at the Pérola Búzios. A minute’s walk from Rua das Pedras, this “design hotel” is so deeply ensconced in a jungle of cycads, wild orchids and other subtropical flora that it feels totally shut off from the world.

This may explain its décor, which in parts brought to mind a Star Wars set sponsored by easyJet, with orange light spilling from craters in whitewashed, papier-mâché-effect walls. No matter. In its secluded central pool, with a crescent of elevated “lounging beds”, it boasts surely the most relaxing spot in town.

Getting around the peninsula is easy, with a fleet of all-white VW Campervans serving as hop-on hop-off buses. Even more fun are the buggies. A Búzian institution, these aren’t allowed beyond an imaginary line of the “mainland”, adding to the island feel.

Coated with sand and wearing just swimsuits and the ubiquitous Havaianas, we felt every inch the locals as we scooted between beaches. Geribá, on the southern neck of the peninsula, was the most dazzling. Here, I took a surfing lesson among the clean barrel waves then dried out in the sunshine sipping an água de coco.

Ferradura, the next bay along, is an almost perfect circle of gently lapped sand shielded by a narrow, rocky mouth into which the fierce South Atlantic rollers detonate in that mesmerising, slow-motion manner.

Here, we found the perfect spot for our final evening. Family-run Dino’s sits undemonstratively in the corner of the bay, a small collection of tables at the shore’s edge. The wine list isn’t up to much – all three dusty bottles were brought out for me to look at – but the anchovies, landed and cooked in front of you on an open clay oven, were nothing short of exquisite.

Departing Búzios relaxed, contented and total converts to the Brazilian beach holiday, we felt it only right to raise a glass to Brigitte. Although somehow I can’t see us opting for the life-size bronze in the back yard.

* GETTING THERE: Steamond Journeys (020 7730 9639/www.steamondjourneys.com) offers a one week break to Búzios from £1,135pp (two sharing), including three nights at the Villa Rasa Marina, four nights at the Pérola Búzios, both B&B, and return British Airways flights from Heathrow and transfer. Brazilian Tourist Board: 020 7399 9000/www.braziltour.com