In Santa Catarina, The Surf’s up for Luxury Travel

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Ponta dos Ganchos Exclusive Resort a Relais & Chateaux property

USTOA members were here for their out-of-country-meeting in 2008 and TravelMart Latin America (TMLA) was here with 250 international tour operators and specialist agents last fall. For most of them, the first discovery was the arrival city, Florianopolis. This is the capital of southern Brazil’s state of Santa Catarina, part of which sits on the 33-mile-long Florianopolis Island, which is alternately called Island of Santa Catarina, yet locally is called “Floripa.” You figure.

But please know that whether Florianopolis or Santa Catarina, she’s a natural beauty, measuring 300 sq. miles and boasting 42 easy-to-reach beaches, little beach towns populated with barefoot surfers, tranquil lagoons, mountains matted with lush rainforest, gargantuan sand dunes, and, according to seasoned travelers, the most gorgeous people in Brazil. Locals claim frequent visitor and super-model Gisele Bundchen to be a native daughter, although her hometown lies in the neighboring state of Rio Grande do Sul.

“Santa Catarina, a chic retreat for vacationing Cariocas from Rio and Paulistas from Sao Paulo for more than two decades, is a rather new kid on the luxury travel block,” says Sandra Borello, president of Borello Travel and Tours. “This is a beautiful destination—with dazzling beaches, action activities and a lively cafe scene—and one we position between Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, often adding Iguassu Falls.”

Borello favors a customized travel plan that starts in Buenos Aires, staying at the Alvear Palace Hotel, continues by air direct to Florianopolis where she says the only truly deluxe place to stay is on the Santa Catarina mainland at the very private Ponta dos Gancho Exclusive Resort, a Relais & Chateaux property, and flies on nonstop to Rio for a deluxe vacation finale at the Copacabana Palace, an Orient-Express property.

While Santa Catarina is the summer playground for the chic and wealthy, during winter (July to November) it’s the playground for the southern right whales. For a very special experience, Borello Travel and Tours recommends a 3-night Whale Watching at Garopaba package, based at the lovely Pousada Vila Tamarindo overlooking Campeche Beach. Clients spend one day on an escorted whale-watching boat tour and another day hiking around Conceicao Lagoon. The $878 pp dbl cost includes airport transfers and land transportation, tours with English-speaking guide, accommodation with breakfast and taxes.

Visitors who cross the bridges from Santa Catarina Island onto the mainland find more beaches stretching north and south, while inland attractions include Joinville, the state of Santa Catarina’s largest city and one whose rich cultural life highlights each July the largest dance festival in the world (a Guinness Book of Records entry), as well as a blooming flower festival in November; Blumenau, settled by Germans and hosting an Oktoberfest gala, second only to the one in Munich; the Catarinense Mountain Range, the coldest corner of Brazil, one of the few places in the country where snow falls and hotel-farms provide a warm welcome; and the cultivated lands of Contestado Valley and the Great West.

The area is home to spectacular beaches ideal for watersports

“Most visitors focus on Florianopolis Island, and it’s all about beaches, surfing, windsurfing, kite surfing, sand boarding, scuba diving and partying,” says Jeffrey Cohen, a Canadian who like many local entrepreneurs landed in Santa Catarina on vacation and stayed to establish his inbound tour company, ViaFloripa.

“While Rio is the key Brazilian vacation destination, more and more international travelers are discovering the charms of our lovely Ilha de Santa Catarina,” says Cohen. Right in the city, attractions are concentrated in the historic center where the 19th century, saffron-colored Mercado Publico shelters colorful stalls and lively patio bars and restaurants. In the pedestrian-only zone around the market, the nearby Casa da Alfandega, the former customhouse, houses a local artisans’ association displaying for purchase traditional Azorean crafts ranging from ceramic bowls to delicate lace.

Cohen offers an Oyster Experience Tour, combining a lecture on oyster culture and a tasting of both fresh and steamed oysters, accompanied by wine. Or recommend a truly fabulous lunch at Toca de Jurere, which serves up an award-winning fish and seafood gala.