Brigitte Bardot was here
The secret life of Buzios, the Saint-tropez of South America
CAMERON Diaz is looking good. At least I like to think it could be Cameron Diaz, this lithe and golden-skinned goddess lounging in her designer bikini on a white vinyl sofa a few metres away from me. She has an elegant tattoo on her ankle and an artistically pierced navel.
I am in Buzios, the bodyworshipping Brazilian beach town referred to as the Saint-Tropez of South America. Specifically, I am at Rocka, the hippest of hip venues. This restaurant commands the rugged headland above Praia Brava and could well be the world’s sexiest beach scene.
Buffed Brazilians are cavorting all around me — preening, parading, posing beneath Veuve Cliquot-branded umbrellas, even taking chairs down to the water line and letting the gentle surf wash over their bodies as they knock back fruit cocktails and rounds of champagne. It seems as if every gorgeous fashion model in the country has converged here.
The beach party scene has been going more or less nonstop in Buzios, 150km north of Rio, since the summer of 1964. That was when the ravishing French sex kitten Brigitte Bardot arrived in all her erotic glory. BB ( as she is widely known here) and her boyfriend Bob Zagury arrived in the then remote fishing village and rented a hut on the waterfront.
‘‘There was nothing in Buzios,’’ Bardot enthused in her memoir. ‘‘No electricity, nor telephone, nor refrigerators, nor running water.’’ She rejoiced in a barefoot life amid the hibiscus bushes, and skinnydipped in the sea, which ‘‘bubbled like blue champagne’’.
The world suddenly took notice of Buzios, especially when photos appeared of BB lolling on the sand wearing nothing but a shell necklace, her wild golden hair waving in the breeze, like some Venus tossed up from the water. The funloving Cariocas, the residents of Rio, soon followed in BB’s steps and today Buzios still blossoms as the country’s holiday capital.
‘ ‘ There’s nowhere else like Buzios for Brazilians,’’ says Marco, a wiry DJ just in from Rio. ‘‘We come here as teenagers for the nightclubs and the beach scene and we keep coming back as adults, to escape our normal lives. The moment I arrive, I let out a deep breath. I relax.’’
As dusk approaches at Rocka, I realise I’ve been staring at the Cameron Diaz lookalike for roughly six hours. Believe it or not, there are only so many taut, perfect bodies one can gape at (just as there is a limit to consumption of chargrilled lula, octopus and whitefish carpaccio).
Maybe it’s time to get some balance back in mybeach life. That night, as I stroll the starlit waterfront of the village, I begin to wonder if there’s anything left of the old Buzios, the natural world that hypnotised BB. Are there any beaches that are untouched, any glorious strips of sand the trendy crowd has missed?
Next afternoon, I am boogying around the peninsula — that is, driving a beach buggy, pronounced by Brazilians as ‘‘boogy’’. The vehicle is battered, beaten and eaten up with salt air; there are holes in its floor, no indicators, a squealing clutch and a stick shift that leaps between gears. It’s like driving a grown-up dodgem car.
I screech my buggy to a halt above a headland and follow a path down to some rocks to the far end of Praia Brava, where there are no upscale eateries, blasting music or dancing, but just a few Brazilian surfers enjoying the swells.
In one shady nook stands a humble sand-floored beach bar decorated with bleached whale bones. I order an iced Bohemia beer and a homemade pastel neopolitana (an empanada-style roll of cheese, tomato, onion and fresh oregano). For the equivalent of about $ 3, it’s a taste of vintage Brazil.
Now I’m inspired to fall off the grid entirely. Every time I drive around a headland, I spot one of Buzios’s offshore islands, remote and tantalising in the expanse of cobalt blue. Maps tell me there are a dozen of these alluring specks, though it’s all but impossible to find any further information. However, the owner of the beach bar knows these little islands well from his fishing days.
‘ ‘ None is inhabited,’’ he explains. ‘‘In fact, most of them are so rugged, you can barely land on them by boat.’’ He tells me the exception is Ilha Fea, or Ugly Island, which ‘ ‘ happens to be beautiful’’. Apparently, it was given its erroneous name by a Portuguese explorer who approached it from the north and saw only sheer cliffs topped with jungle. But from the south, Ilha Fea appears idyllic, with a tiny gold-sand beach protected from the wind and framed by cliffs and rocks.
Perhaps this is where the old Buzios can be found.
The first fisherman I approach looks at me as if I’m crazy. ‘‘Ilha Fea?’’ he laughs. ‘‘Why? There’s nothing out there.’’
But the next boat owner, with the marvellously aristocratic name of Adeusnasci (Born From God) Pereira dos Santos, is happy to take me for a spin.
An hour later we are crashing through the waves in his orange and white trawler. Dolphins race the prow of the boat, flying fish leap from the waves.
After all the perfect bodies of the mainland beaches, it’s a relief to be with Adeusnasci, who is short, rotund and missing most of his teeth. He looks like a cross between a battered prize fighter and Danny DeVito.
When we lower anchor at Ilha Fea, we are the only ones here. The stretch of sand is minuscule, but it’s just what I have been looking for. Jungle cascades down the cliffs like a verdant waterfall. It’s the same pristine world that would have been known to the Tupinamba Indians, the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who drifted by in 1503 or, most legendary of all, my beloved BB.
I wade ashore and try to find a trail up the cliff face, even pulling myself up by vines, but fail miserably. Instead, I rock-hop around the sharp, mollusc-covered shoreline, inspecting sea caves and pools filled with bizarre creatures.
I become so engrossed in this lost world that I don’t notice the rising tide.
There’s nothing for it. I jump into the wild surf and plough my way back against the current.
As I flop panting on the deck of Adeusinei’s boat, he shakes his head in bemusement.
I gaze up at the perfect blue sky. It’s Friday afternoon and the limos will be arriving in Buzios with a fresh wave of Rio partygoers, all dressed to the nines.
Over at Rocka, the chef must be prepping the lula to go with afternoon cocktails. There’s no question where to go next. ‘‘Take me back to Buzios, please.’’ Tony Perrottet’s most recent book is The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe; sinnersgrandtour.com.