The Brazilian island of Florianopolis has been voted one of the world’s best party destinations by The New York Times, but there’s way more to this Atlantic gem than cool vibes and caipirinhas. With 42 beaches, the island is the perfect place for sand lovers, surfers and sun seekers. You might even find your own patch of paradise.
It seems funny to say it now, but when I first got to Florianópolis, I was a little underwhelmed. I couldn’t hear the comforting rush of water over battered rocks; I couldn’t feel the golden glare of the sun on my cheeks; I couldn’t see the palms, the sand or the sea. No, I was mixed up in high-rise grey: the city. It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.
I’d gone to Florianópolis – or Floripa to the initiated – in the hope of finding my own little slice of paradise. Ever since watching Mexican travel movie Y Tu Mamá También, I’d been obsessed with hunting down idyllic, empty beaches. I’d travelled across Mexico and traversed Central America, but nothing had quite met my exacting standards of natural beauty.
Florianópolis, an island just off Brazil’s southern coast, promised a great deal. According to my guidebook, it’d offer a beautiful array of beaches – 42 in total – and amazing seafood.
A Brazilian island anchored in the Atlantic: It sounded perfect.
I arrived to the island’s main hub – a city also called Florianópolis – with a backpack and a tent, intent on experiencing the kind of free-living I’d seen in road-trip films. But looking up at the apartments and office blocks stretching and yawning above me, sweat seeping from my forehead into my eyes, I started to question my decision to make the 18-hour bus journey south from Rio.
Motorbikes raced past me, slaloming through the streets like Olympic skiers, as I made my way to the local bus station. The city looked lively and fun, but I was determined to find my perfect beach, so I boarded a bus and head east out towards Lagoa da Conceição and the awesome Atlantic.
The bus floated along a single carriageway road flanked by tapestries of thick green. The breeze creeping in through the one open window did its best to tranquilise me, but it was too hot to sit still.
I arrived at Praia Joaquina, on the opposite side of the island to the city, just as day turned into night. I’d have to pitch my tent in the dark.
I found a spot that felt reasonably flat and partly sheltered, and pitched my supermarket tent. I took off my shoes and socks and sunk my feet beneath the warm sand, letting out a glorious sigh of contentment: just me, the sand and the sea. I led back in the tent with my feet sticking out the open door, letting the sound of the ocean send me to sleep. But it can only have been a matter of minutes before I realised my mistake as a squadron of mosquitos made themselves at home, buzzing incessantly around my ears and nipping at my uncovered arms and legs.
I awoke from my fragile slumber when someone tripped over one of my carefully-placed guide ropes, vigorously shaking my shelter. Unzipping my tent, I saw bare feet and surf boards. I quickly pulled on my trunks and a t-shirt.
“Can I help you?” a surfer girl said, her face looking at my bite-ridden body with grave concern.
I looked down to the beach and saw a bunch of surfers staring at me, unimpressed. “No, thanks.”
“Hey, you surf?” she said.
“Yeah, sure,” I said, fibbing. It couldn’t be that hard, surely.
I zipped up my tent and grabbed the flimsy polystyrene board held out for me, almost letting it fly away in the wind. I sprinted into the water, dipping my head under and immediately sucking up a lung full of salty water.
“You OK?” the surfer girl said to me as I spluttered uncontrollably.
“Just getting to know the water.”
The waves weren’t massive, but that didn’t stop me from making a fool of myself. I spent most of my time lying flat on my front, with half my body falling off the board as the relentless waves fell on top of me, one after another, dragging me down to the seabed and tangling me up in seaweed. I’d stupidly thought surfing would be my ticket to paradise. I was doing my best to make it look like hell.
That evening I went for a classic Floripa meal of sequência de camarão: succulent shrimps cooked in most ways imaginable. Sat there poking at my food, my ego slightly deflated after my surf fail, I asked the waiter, “Where’s the most beautiful beach in Florianópolis?”
“Have you been to Armação?” he replied, looking at my vacant expression. “It’s a small fishing town, just south of here. If you’re after idyllic beaches …”
“You’ll definitely find them there.”
I left early the next morning, catching a small, empty bus on the one road south.
As I hopped off, the trees whispered to each other, sharing secrets and keeping the village awake through the muggy afternoon heat. Frayed fishing boats lined the cobblestone streets, the sun sliding down terracotta roofs and rolling across the green-gold coastline.
I bounded down to the beach and paddled in the emerald water. Rising to my right were hills splattered with dense green trees scrambling over rock faces in a race to the top of the hill.
I stopped a stocky fisherman as he left his boat and plodded across the beach in rubber boots, his hands untangling a tricky knot from a length of rope.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said in butchered Portuguese. “Do you know where I might find a beautiful beach near here?”
“Do you see that path on the opposite side of this bay?” he said, pointing decisively. “Follow it and you can make up your own mind.”
Rain forest leapt up either side of the path, dancing in the sea breeze. Submerged in the jungle, I could no longer see anything of the ocean. A gentle stream of sweat trickled down my neck and back. Mystery animals croaked and chirped somewhere in the undergrowth. I was all alone.
I reached an opening and looked down a sheer drop to the boisterous water that was coming racing into the rocks. I picked up a stone and threw it as hard as I could, watching it plunge like a rocket into the sea. I can never resist the urge.
Praia da Lagoinha Leste
I kept walking for some time, rising and falling with the undulations of the island’s coast line – the sun lying snugly across my back.
Then, as if by magic, the trees disappeared, and were replaced by the aqua blue of the sea and the sky. I started descending a rocky path, my weight pulling me down towards the beach.
My heart skipped as the sand crept up between my toes and I suddenly picked up my pace, sprinting towards the breathing water.
I closed my eyes and let the water rush past my legs, synchronising my breathing with the gentle, persistent murmur of the waves.
I opened my eyes and saw a bird cross the horizon from left to right, before turning around and surveying the empty, golden beach and the rolling green climbing up the hills above. I let out a bellowing laugh. I’d somehow found my own little piece of Heaven: Praia da Lagoinha Leste.
I stripped off my clothes and dove beneath the surface of the shimmering water, looking for the bottom of the sea.