There is gridlock all along the Ayrton Senna Highway outside São Paulo; for hours, the air vibrates with heat and the rumble of traffic. When in the afternoon I arrive at my weekend refuge, an estate set in verdant tropical countryside, there’s another traffic hold-up: several broods of tiny hatchlings and their mothers are occupying the driveway, pecking at the maize scattered by an elderly, smiling farmhand.
For a rosary of reasons – corruption, the tumbling real, the booming art scene and the Olympic celebrations next August in Rio de Janeiro, to name but four – Brazil’s big cities are big news. However, their endless noise and nervous energy can take a toll on even the toughest of constitutions. Which is why, as the Brazilian summer slips into gear and Olympics-related travel plans coalesce, it’s time to consider the alternative: secluded pousadas and fazendas, utterly removed from the urban chaos, but within striking distance of all the Carioca and Paulista fun. Even the Fasano group, prominent purveyor of metropolitan cool, sees there is life beyond Rio and São Paulo; it is currently planning a 61-room beach hotel in Angra dos Reis, on the Costa Verde, which is slated for completion at the end of next year.
On the face of it, the mostly off-the-radar retreats I visited seemed to have little in common beyond their non-urban location; one lies on the northeast coast, the others in different parts of the rural interior. Yet they speak a common language of sustainability and low-impact tourism, making a virtue of rusticity in decoration, and suggesting that Brazil’s newly moneyed classes are developing a taste for the interestingly textured over the gratuitously blingy. All are the brainchildren of entrepreneurs – Portuguese, French and Brazilian respectively – each with a very particular vision. And, importantly, none is further than a three-hour transfer from either Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo.
Kenoa, my first port of call, is a low-key, if highly leveraged, resort that sits discreetly on an 8km stretch of virgin beach (a mere scrap of Brazil’s 7,000km-plus of coast) in the northwestern state of Alagoas, three hours by plane from São Paulo. If the beaches at the state’s northern edge are developing fast, the wilder shores of its southern side lie undisturbed among palm groves and lagoons. Little known beyond its client base of well-heeled Paulistas, Kenoa is the creation of Portuguese entrepreneur Pedro Marques, a former Deloitte executive who had long had a beach house in the snoozy fishing village of Barra de São Miguel, where he dreamt of expanding into a retreat where urbanites could soothe away their stress sustainably.
Kenoa’s design might be characterised as “tropical rustic minimalism”: rough-hewn woodblock furniture, rushwork seating and tribal artworks, set against walls of unfinished concrete. An African influence is plain enough from architect Osvaldo Tenório’s use of low-slung organic forms, some of them with palm roofs, recalling those of mud huts. Bathroom sinks are stone troughs, the taps rusted metal tubes. For spaces in which everything is “distressed”, the overall effect is remarkably calming.
As were the long, largely agenda-free days. There was little to do beyond wandering up and down the endless sands, wondering whether the colour of the sea was closer to the aquamarine of Roman glassware or the age-weathered turquoise of medieval Turkish pottery. I bestirred myself for an excursion just once, to nearby Praia do Gunga, considered one of the most beautiful beaches in Brazil, to eat a lazy lunch of prawns in coconut milk.
A few days later I travelled back through São Paulo to Fazenda Catuçaba, a coffee-plantation mansion dating from the 1850s in the bucolic hinterland between Rio and São Paulo. Catuçaba has been restored by its owner, Emmanuel Rengade – who also has the coastal Pousada Picinguaba, in Ubatuba – and is in his hands a working farm very much along 21st-century lines. On the afternoon I arrived, crossing a footbridge accompanied by two honking geese, a famous New York-based baker was cooking up a batch of sourdough in a wood-fired bread oven he had designed and built earlier that week. This is the kind of person Catuçaba welcomes: artists, chefs and other creative types, who do their thing round the estate. For example, the Campana Brothers, Brazil’s hippest designers, erected a “Bamboo Cathedral” high on a hill above a lake before leaving. The house is a dream of Brazilian country living, its original fabric of beams and terracotta roof tiles given an injection of Euro chic with contemporary photographs, objets trouvés and upcycled homestead furniture.
As evening fell, Rengade drove me around the estate in his 4x4, pointing out the award-winning eco house by Marcio Kogan, the land-art installations in recovered wood by New York-based Belarusian artist Pasha Radetzki, and the elegant Amazonian dwelling of grass and tree trunks by members of the indigenous Xingu tribe. Stopping at a hilltop viewpoint, we drank a bottle of rosé while he expounded his plans for the fazenda, which include, eventually, total self-sufficiency in both food and power.
Catuçaba’s meshing of local traditions and resources with global artistic currents provides plenty of food for thought. What should guests not expect? TVs, minibars, a swimming pool or consistent phone coverage or WiFi signal. Rengade had the pool filled in, and I suspect is only half joking when he says he’s considering asking guests to leave their phones in a (locally handwoven) basket at the door. Catuçaba’s ambitions go beyond those of a mere hotel, that much is clear.
But so do those of Reserva do Ibitipoca, the next retreat I visited – and then some. My Brazilian friends and fixers had told me in hushed tones about a “reserve” combining elements of country-house hotel, sculpture park and rewilding project on a massive scale. Martin Frankenberg, co-founder of high-end Brazil travel experts Matueté, went so far as to rate it one of the top two hotels in the country. Yet Ibitipoca is wary of publicity, and remains something of a Masonic secret among its mega-wealthy (and predominantly Brazilian) clients. In a world that TripAdvisor has more or less emptied of mystery, there’s something admirable about a place that insists on playing its cards so close to its chest.
Ibitipoca lies at the southern edge of Minas Gerais, the largely agricultural state in southeast Brazil, just three hours by car from Rio de Janeiro. Despite its relative proximity to civilisation, it feels – truly – like the back of beyond. While turning off the main road onto a dirt track winding through rolling countryside that, were I to squint and mentally airbrush out the tropical vegetation, looked a bit like the Welsh Borders, I was seized by sudden scepticism: had I been led on a wild-goose chase? But then, the payoff: the track turned into a cobbled lane leading to a huge sweep of valley ringed on all sides with forest and mountains. The hotel is a converted fazenda at the heart of a private reserve that, at nearly 4,000 hectares, dwarfs the nearby State Park of Ibitipoca.
The “man with the plan” here is mining maestro Renato Machado, who bought the old Fazenda do Engenho, dating from 1715, and its surrounding land in order to make this rural idyll. Machado tells me he was inspired in part by the Explora hotels in Chile and in part by the Aman resorts in Bhutan – but wanted to create “something a bit more sustainable”. He also reveals that, remarkably, the 11-room hotel and annexe are owned by staff on a cooperative basis.
Landscape, architecture, hospitality: everything here is on the grand scale. The sash windows of my room gave onto a view as spectacular as any to be glimpsed from any hotel bedroom in the world. The house itself is splendid, redolent with atmosphere and shows a raw and rustic edge. Panels and shutters are painted in mossy green and eau de nil, the high-ceilinged rooms hung with antique chandeliers that shed a deliberately low light. (The Reserva is serious about energy saving.) Antique local and modern Brazilian pieces mix in the rooms; the fabrics are hand-dyed, all created by Rio-based textiles designer Mucki Skowronski. The house has libraries and lounges, and a porch with hammocks for snoozing. In the freestanding spa, in an ancient wooden granary transported beam by beam from the other side of the state, you can hang in a zero‑gravity sling for total relaxation.
After the perma-thrum of the few interim days I’d spent in Rio, the silence at Ibitipoca was like a bottomless pool of clear water. At breakfast I watched a donkey cart come by, loaded with firewood for the big black stove in the dining room; just beyond the window, a macaw made light work of a papaya. Everything I ate at Ibitipoca was delicious, from the roast palm hearts and full-on feijoada to the endless sweet cakes of the Minas tradition and goat’s-milk cheese made on the farm. A perfectly judged guava soufflé showed how much the cook, a local lady, had learnt from her stage at Claude Troisgros’ restaurant in Rio.
The Aman resorts’ influence – that combination of total service with spontaneous acts of “surprise and delight” – was evident. Verses by Fernando Pessoa were chalked up on a board, a new one every morning. Lavish outdoor meals were conjured from nowhere, in unusual places. One night dinner took place beside a waterfall, with torchlight and braziers. My fellow guests were a happy mixture of well-heeled bohemia and upper-middle-class families. Despite the sublimity of the surroundings, there is no dressing up here, and no standing on ceremony.
On my last afternoon I explored the estate with Brittany Berger, a young US ecologist employed by the Reserva, who explained the plans afoot here: primarily, to return huge areas of degraded pastureland to richly biodiverse Atlantic forest. Among its wealth of species, said Berger, the Reserva is home to puma, maned wolf, ocelot and the critically endangered northern muriquí, the largest monkey in the Americas and one of the 100 rarest animals in the world.
But the estate’s most surprising residents may be its extraordinary artworks. Coming upon the collection of giant figures by American sculptor Karen Cusolito, fashioned in tons of rusted scrap iron on a grassy plateau halfway up a mountain (the figures, first shown at the Burning Man festival in 2007, symbolise aspects of religion, from ecstasy to humility), packed an emotional punch I won’t easily forget.
I left Ibitipoca with a twinge of something that combined regret and envy. I had come to Brazil looking for secrets and planning to share them, but now I sympathised with Machado’s bid to stay under the radar. Not everyone, surely, would appreciate this exquisite blend of high living with rustic simplicity, nor these wondrous natural surroundings. As I headed back to the sprawling city, the airport and home, I had never been so keen for a hideaway to stay just that: hidden away.