Florianópolis, the city on the island, is the capital of the southern state of Santa Catarina. The stunning, 53km-long island on which the city sits offers over 100 beaches, culture, good food and nearly 300 years of history.
At just a four-five hours’ coach ride from Curitiba, a small distance, by local standards, it had been on my list for too long, and a couple of weeks ago I seized the chance.
It is the gem in South Brazil’s crown, and whether you arrive by air – flying onto the hilly, forested subtropical island, with its lagoons and golden beaches, or by road – crossing over from the continent to the island with Florianópolis town center and Hercílio Luz Bridge as your view, the first time you see the island is breathtaking.
We arrived late, and first thing the next morning we headed for the centre – with its colourful, Colonial-style buildings, palm trees, energetic street performers and vendors, not to mention the crazy Union Flag-style art deco paving slabs.
The city’s central district is small – and in a few hours we discovered most of Florianópolis’s charming buildings and squares. The Municipal Market sells a mishmash of local food – particularly seafood and lots of exotic-looking fruit.
After grabbing an açaí with banana and granola, we wandered up to the Metropolitan Cathedral and to Praça XV de Novembro (15 November Square – every city has one for some reason), where the city’s enormous Figueira (fig tree) resides – so big it literally has to be held up by scaffolding.
The city has a vibrant atmosphere, and if we were lucky enough to see a group of locals practising their capoeira moves: gingas, esquivas and rasteiras.
Although the city is known for having Brazil’s best quality of life (according to the UN’s HDI index), we didn’t want to stay there long as it was oppressively hot and humid in summer: 35°C felt more like 45°C, and soon a trip to the beach was needed.
Getting the bus around the island is easy, if not the speediest way to travel.
An hour’s winding bus ride and you arrive in the centre of the island at the Lagoa da Conceição (“Conception Lagoon”, oh err), next to a small town of the same name.
At 13km long, and over 2km wide in places, the brackish waters of the lagoon are the perfect place for take a boat ride or hire a jet ski.
We hopped on a boat up the western shore of the lagoon – just R$5 each way, which took us past palm tree-covered hills, with the island’s famous sandy dunes in the distance, onto otherwise inaccessible parts of the island.
We passed what seemed to be very exclusive resorts, and after an hour’s sailing along idyllic lagoon shoreline – with kite surfers occasionally racing past the boat, we ended up on a wooden pier which went straight into a restaurant.
The other side, after 10 minutes’ walk or so along a trail, into the subtropical forest, we arrived at a cachoeira (waterfall) that we could swim in. The fresh water was exactly what we needed to cool us down. The area was buzzing with bird and butterflies, and banana and cacao trees (or “chocolate trees” as I often erroneously refer to them) are everywhere.
But the main reason people come to the island – the Ilha de Santa Catarina – is for its array of clean, safe beaches. The only trouble is finding the one that suits you best.
A car or bus ride from the center gets to the northern part of the island in around 35 minutes.
Here you’ll find the resorts of Jurerê, Ingleses, Canasvieiras, Santinho – home to the Praias do Norte (northern beaches).
Jurerê is home to the island’s élite: affluent Paulistas and Cariocas who have bought their dream summer home here. Don’t be surprised when you see the Ferraris and Lamborghinis passing you by, and a hefty bill in the restaurants and bars.
(I was told by Catarinense that in this part of the island there are bars which are for those who simply never need to check their bank balance – and a table or a sofa at a bar can cost R$1,000. That’s just for sitting there, never mind the price of the cocktails. . . Clearly meant to keep the riff-raff out!)
In the end, we plumped for long stretch of golden sands in the town of Ingleses (literally “Englishmen”), which is more down-to-earth, and a little less painful on the wallet. The beaches there are clean, if a little busy at weekend, but there’s space for everyone. Try a banana boat ride or just splash around in the inviting waters.
As we didn’t have all day, we just grabbed a table, and enjoyed a beer with some fries on the beach, and took in some rays, splashed about and admired the views of the surrounding hills and islands.
The Praias do Leste (eastern beaches) offer a mixture of calmer sands – such as Joaquina – to Praia Mole, which is where the surfers head to make the most of the ideal waves.
For those who want to get further off the beaten track – the island offers a number of trails, particularly in the south of the island.
Some go to fresh-water lagoons and falls, others lead you eventually to secluded beaches.
The one-hour trek to Praia Naufragados will offer visitors a taste of the Mata Atlântica – Brazil’s east-coast tropical forest – ending up on a more secluded beach.
It’s a good place to spot much of the island’s flora and fauna – including the majestic swallow-tailed kites circling in the thermals.
Anyone in the south of Brazil should definitely try to visit Florianópolis – it’s a couple of hours’ flight from Rio or São Paulo, and it’s worth every penny.