A Brazilian miles away

Across São Paulo state, a handful of local hoteliers are redefining Brazil’s luxury resort experience, marrying the best rustic traditions with world-renowned architecture and emerging design and culinary talent. Maria Shollenbarger reports

January 28 2013
Maria Shollenbarger

Here is a strange and delightful experience: to sit high on the slope of a steep, triangular valley blanketed in conifers and strafed by the shadows of thick clouds bustling across a cerulean sky; sipping coffee with thick cream and nibbling handmade biscuits as one listens to one’s hosts describe the surrounding villages – gemütlich places where the roofs are gabled and the cafés all serve fondue and hot chocolate – while all the time admiring the glass-and-timber interior in which one sits, replete with sleek leather-and-wood armchairs and metal cheminées. And realising one is not in Kitzbühel or Cortina d’Ampezzo, or even Chilean Patagonia, but in Brazil.

Such is the unique proposition offered by an exclusive new 17-suite lodge called Botanique, in the north-west of São Paulo state, where the Mantiqueira mountain range presses up against the border with Minas Gerais. The area has long been the wintertime redoubt of monied Paulistas, who imported the Alpine sensibilities of their Gallic or Teutonic forebears to its main city, Campos do Jordão, and throughout the 20th century flocked here to flaunt their furs. While Campos has in recent decades been the victim of somewhat insensitive development, the surrounding countryside has never lost its allure as a retreat for many of São Paulo’s less conspicuously wealthy.

But it’s still a fairly unexpected home for a hotel of this calibre. One would expect to find such a place in a part of the country marked by its more recognised destination signifiers: palms and beaches, crumbling colonial charm, scantily clad bodies. Salvador, perhaps; after a rough patch marked by soaring crime, it is on the rise again. Or Paraty, where Aman Resorts has planted its flag (though it remains mum on the subject of an opening date).

But Botanique is a harbinger of change rather than more of the same. Although there is a received wisdom that Brazilians demonstrate laudable discernment in accommodation when they travel abroad, luxurious resort offerings created by them, for them, on their home turf seem curiously few and far between. But interesting arrivals over the last couple of years attest to the ability of local hoteliers, architects, designers and chefs to define luxury hospitality in vastly different, but all definitively Brazilian, terms. Fazenda Catuçaba is one. Opened in 2010, it is owned and managed by the same team that runs Pousada Picinguaba, one of the small inns that helped make Paraty’s reputation at the turn of the last decade. Until recently a working farm, the Fazenda is situated on 450 hectares of wooded hills and pasture. The design is haute-rustique – mid-century and modern furniture, contemporary photographs and art blend in tasteful synthesis with original floors, workaday blankets and textiles, pueblo walls and wide-paned windows.

Besides the 10 rooms and suites in the main farmhouse, there is a handful of restored one-bedroom cottages and two-bedroom master villas. In October there will also be the option of new private “eco-villas”, conceived by the Brazilian architect Marcio Kogan and constructed high on the hill above the main farmhouse (for sale to private buyers, they will form part of the hotel when the owners are not in residence). A day at Catuçaba is about participation in the place itself; a hike might involve being met at a hilltop lake with fishing rods and catching one’s own dinner, or a garden tour of the coffee-, cachaça-, fruit- and vegetable-producing acres. Gentle horses take first-timers to mountain peaks from which both the sea and the neighbouring town of São Luíz do Paraitinga are visible. If there are those who feel that the cuisine is not as refined as it might be, or that the service is a shade too casual, the unanimous consensus is that all of its prevailing charms more than compensate.   

Fasano Boa Vista, which opened in 2011, has the more recognisable name – and might tick more of the expected “Brazilian” boxes. Rogerio Fasano’s hotels in São Paulo and Rio helped to set new standards for style in Brazil, thanks in great part to a collaboration with local architect Isay Weinfeld (although Philippe Starck was responsible for the design of the Rio hotel), and to a marriage of rigorously edited Brazilian design and Italian sprezzatura – a word implying a sort of insouciant fabulousness – which signals his heritage, and defines his Fasano and Gero restaurants.

This, his first Brazilian countryside hotel, sits 45 minutes outside São Paulo, on rolling pampas crisscrossed with stands of eucalyptus. It’s to São Paulo what Gloucestershire is to London or Bedford is to New York – exclusive, city-accessible, horsey. The 39-room property is part of an upscale residential complex, many of the villas in which are also signed by Weinfeld, whose deployment of natural materials in rigorous linear forms has made his name a byword for Brazilian creative genius. The suites blend raw timber and polished wood, travertine and unrefined cottons and linens into sparely sophisticated white- and honey-toned spaces. The terraces have fireplaces and overlook a man-made lake, which, steadfastly maintained and endowed with a small teak jetty, serves as a sort of über-luxe swimming hole (there is also an infinity pool on the lawn behind the main hotel building, which villa owners occasionally use, as they also do the restaurant and bar).

In the main hotel, a huge lounge-library opens through glass French doors on to a curving veranda lined with sofas and chaises smothered in soft cushions, and usually populated robustly at the weekend by the crème of 30- and 40-something São Paulo society. (These will doubtless come in even greater numbers as of this month, as there will be a full-service spa on the premises.) There are mountain bikes to be ridden and bespoke picnics to be had in the fields extending towards the horizon; there is championship golf and an equestrian centre, where hotel guests can have private lessons in English, if their Portuguese isn’t up to scratch. For all its undeniable suburbanness, it is exceptionally pleasant. (Its only shortcoming – and it is quite a conspicuous one – is the restaurant, which doesn’t yet begin to match the quality and refinement of its counterparts in Rio and São Paulo, although the word is that this is being redressed.) Clearly, the Fasano formula is one that translates well out of the urban environment; two more hotels are to open – one in Salvador in 2014 and another in Trancoso in 2015.

Which brings us back to Botanique, which opened last October and sits some 180 miles distant physically – and a world away conceptually. Its owners, who include Ricardo Semler and Fernanda Ralston Semler, are not hoteliers (although one of the investment partners, AOL co-founder David C Cole, is a partner in Twin Farms in Vermont). They envisioned a luxury retreat that would showcase unsung Brazilian excellence – no Sergio Rodrigueses, Campana Brothers or Isay Weinfelds here, but names unfamiliar to many of their countrymen, let alone the rest of the world.

Botanique is reached from São Paulo by a two-and-a-half-hour drive (although there is the option of helicopter transfer from Guarulhos airport), which, in the last 60 minutes, spirals up into the Mantiqueira mountains. Secondary native forest covers the surrounding hills, swaths of Araucaria and guatambú are brushed with silver-grey splashes of eucalyptus, gullies are thick with palm and ipê (the native trumpet trees), and hydrangeas, imported a century or so ago to lend Campos a European charm, now grow wild, in riotous colours, for miles around.

The hotel itself is a structure of stripped-down elegance. Eleven one-bedroom villas are scattered on the hill behind the main house, which holds the restaurant, Mina, as well as a living room, a library, six guest suites and the 1,000sq m spa. The fineness of the rare chocolate slate used in the bathrooms is underscored by its informal configuration; the floor planks are 106-year-old pink peroba wood, slightly rough underfoot. They are, on first sight, spare spaces that quickly reveal themselves to be supremely comfortable. And they all leverage Botanique’s finest asset to its best effect: the views, which are breathtaking from almost every vantage point.

Here, the experience is meant to redefine Brazilian luxury as much as the interiors do. Thus, a complement of “curators” – specialists in design, wine, cuisine, art, cinema and literature – was enlisted to compile the most interesting work available. Adélia Borges, the iconic design critic, put forward 100 designers, some of them virtual unknowns. And so the stunning wooden bar in Mina restaurant was crafted by Heloísa Crocco, a 63-year-old who Borges discovered through a surfboard collection she designed. The books in the library were selected by Cassiano Elek Machado, a nationally renowned journalist and writer, and the films in the private cinema by Inácio Araújo, the critic at the national daily, Folha. The wine cellar, perhaps most surprisingly of all, is 100 per cent local. “Brazil has been lacking something contemporary of this sort,” says Ralston Semler. “Our ideas of luxury, high design and architecture often come from outside, including the Brazilian talents – they gain approval here when they’ve made it abroad.”

Except for Brazilian chefs, that is, who seem to hold their own on the world stage. Gabriel Broide, who worked with Alex Atala at DOM in São Paulo, deconstructs traditional dishes and ingredients and reconstitutes them in delicious ways. What passes for a starter salad is called the gargouillou da Mantiqueira, a stunning composition of more than 30 fruits, vegetables, flowers and greens foraged from the gardens and the forest behind the hotel and exquisitely arranged on a slate platter: manioc cooked for eight hours to a luscious, gel-like consistency, a maroon indigenous tomato with fruit and mineral notes like red wine, and dozens of others. It is an unfamiliar and delightful sensory experience – and works effortlessly here, in this unexpectedly and, it turns out, quintessentially Brazilian corner of the country.

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