If he could live in Brazil, Bernard O’Shea would probably settle in Florianópolis, on the island of Santa Catarina, which is famous for its seafood and beaches.
You only have to look at a map to know that Florianópolis must be a great holiday destination. Although it’s a Brazilian state capital, it grew up mostly away from the mainland on the island of Santa Catarina, surrounded by a great many beaches, bays, coves and other little islands in its archipelago.
The rest of the city, its less historic, more industrial component, is on “the Continent”, as the islanders call it.
Floripa, as it is nicknamed, is indeed a holiday haven – South Americans flock to it in summer, and even people from Rio de Janiero and the Brazilian north-east (where the beaches are spectacular) come to pay it homage. And if they don’t go to Santa Catarina island, they go to the resorts along the coastline of Santa Catarina state, such as Balneário Camboriú (a sort of mini Rio de Janeiro), and the idyllic spots around Governador Celso Ramos, Armaçao de Piedade (pictured below) and Palhoça.
The island would appear to be linked to the mainland by a spectacular suspension bridge, and in a way it is, and in a way it isn’t. The 819 metre long Hercilio Luz bridge (below), built in the 1920s, is there for all to see, but that’s about all you can do with it – it has been shut for 25 years now, owing to safety concerns. And while the authorities ponder what to do with it (and they have been pondering a long time), it is nevertheless one of the great icons of the city. A much more functional highway bridge crossing has been constructed a little further south.
Santa Catarina is just one of three states that make up Brazil’s South (the others being Rio Grande do Sul to the south and Paraná to the north) and although the region is Brazil’s smallest (6.75% of the territory) the South is one of the more prosperous, accounting for almost 20% of Brazil’s economic output. Santa Catarina and Floripa are often cited as the state and the city with the highest standard of living in Brazil.
Although Florianópolis is the capital, it is not the biggest city in the state (that honour goes to Joinville up north) and despite its high-rise apartments, when you come here you certainly feel more like you are on an island getaway than in an a concrete jungle. The city has a population of about 470,000, the greater metropolitan area about 1.2 million.
Santa Catarina island is roughly 54 kilometres long by 18km wide, giving it an area of 424 square kilometres, and it is proud of its beaches. You will often hear the boast that it has 42 beaches, or at least 42 that are easily accessible, but others say the number is 100 if you include every single one, even if some of them are almost impossible to get to.
Those beaches the north-west of the island, such as Praia dos Ingleses and Praia de Canaseiras, are popular with families because of their warm, sheltered waters, while the more adventurous holidaymakers – surfers, windsurfers, hang-gliders and the trendy younger crowd – head to Praia Mole and Praia Joaquina.
A prominent feature on the island is the big freshwater lagoon, known as Conceiçao, and the district known as Lagoa de Conceiçao is the hub of the night life, with many bars, restaurants and nightclubs. In summer, it buzzes.
The south of the island tends to be quieter, quainter and more rustic. Here you can find houses constructed and painted in the Azorean style – many of the original settlers to this region were immigrants from the Azores islands, in the North Atlantic Ocean, about 1350km off the west coast of Portugal, and there is a strong Italian influence too.
Among the most typically Azorean villages is Riberão da Ilha, about 30km south of Floripa on the west side of the island, which is famous for its seafood – any visit to Floripa area should include a drive round the southern parts of the island, topped off with a delicious seafood feast at a waterfront restaurant.
The waters around the island are perfect for oyster farming and indeed oysters – ostras in Portuguese – are the local specialty, as are prawns and other shellfish. Some restaurants bring in their fare fresh from their oyster racks or the rocks not far out in the bay.
Another fish that is closely associated with the local gastronomy is tainha (mullet). In May and June, enormous shoals come up from the south, looking for warmer waters to spawn in. Many end up on grills and barbecues – feasting on tainha is a winter treat.
From July to November, it is the southern right whales’ turn to migrate north, to mate, give birth and nurse their young before heading down south again for the summer. They can often be seen very close to the shore, and the waters south of the island have been declared a South Right Whale Environment Protection Area. Imbituba, about 90km south of Florianópolis, is where many of the whale watching specialists are based.
While Floripa’s main attractions tend to be natural, it does have a compact historic centre that warrants at least a half-day’s exploring, taking in the charismatic Mercado Público or public market (have a coffee or meal in its outdoor courtyard), the XV de Novembro Plaza, the neo-classical Customs House, and Santa Catarina Historical Museum, housed in the Palácio Cruz e Sousa, the former governor’s residence and administrative offices (it’s now named in honour of local poet João da Cruz e Sousa).
Further afield, the 11 fortalezas or fortresses that are scattered around Santa Catarina and nearby islands are a popular attraction. Built by the Portuguese in the 1740s to defend the territory from possible occupation by the Spanish, thankfully, they saw little in the way of military action. However, the largest fortress, Santa Cruz de Anhatomirim, does have a dark past – in the federalist revolution that took place in 1894, dozens of political prisoners were executed here.
The three main fortalezas – Anhatomirim, Santo Antônio de Ratones (above) and São José da Ponta Grossa – have been restored and are popular stops for those doing day trips on schooners and other craft – the best way to take in the splendours of the region.
There is a lot more to Santa Catarina state than its maritime and beach culture. Venture into the interior and you will discover the Vale Europeu – cities and towns in the Itajai river valley with distinct German influences (Blumenau hosts the world’s second biggest Oktoberfest), apple orchards, pine forests and serras or hilly ranges that can be covered in snow in winter. For those who love spectacular road journeys, the Caminho dos Cânions (canyons) in the south of the state should be on your list. TTW
Bernard O’Shea travelled to Brazil at his own expense. In Santa Catarina he was hosted by the state government.
Photos: courtesy of the state tourism authority, Santur.