You’d be unlikely to go all the way to Brazil specially to spend time in Paraty, unless you had a house there or were extraordinarily well clued up, but if you’re heading that way you’d be very foolish to give it a miss. For Paraty is special. It’s a little gem that has survived as an almost perfectly preserved colonial town entirely because of the wayward turns of history.
Paraty had the good luck to have had a short period of great grandeur during the 18th century when all the gold from the inland mines had to pass through its sheltered harbour and all its glorious villas and splendid churches were built. The gold route, the remains of which can still be seen and are worth visiting, followed the old Indian trails down from the mining towns to the port.
Then the indigenous Indians began to attack the gold carriers on the mountain trails and soon a new route had to be built linking the old mining towns of Minas Gerais directly to Rio. Paraty’s moment of glory had passed and modern life, with its attendant high-rise buildings and over-development, passed it by. Until the late 1950s the only way to reach it was to walk or go by boat. During the 1950s and 1960s it was discovered by new age hippies and in the 1980s and 1990s well-heeled Brazilians and foreigners who fell in love with it began to restore the houses.
Which is why Paraty is still a perfectly preserved 18th-century colonial town. Much of its charm lies in the homogeneity of the architecture, which contrives to give it an air of great tranquillity and “settledness”. “And, best of all,” as Simon Clift, the owner of the house I stayed in, puts it, “it hasn’t been sterilised through mass foreign tourism like so many European towns, which may have gained three red stars in the Michelin guide but in the meantime have lost their soul. Paraty ... remains a vibrant town with real people living in its midst.”
It lies in lovely country on the coast 160 miles west of Rio and three to four hours by car from São Paulo (though on Fridays the air buzzes as fashionable Paulistanos and Cariocas with weekend houses or parties to go to fly in by helicopter or private plane). The rainforest comes right down to the edge of the town and Paraty looks out across a watery heaven, a usually blissful sea and 300 small islands around which the tourist is free to wander. There are two tropical fjords in Brazil and both are in Paraty. These days it is a Unesco world heritage site and it is said to be the hardest place in Brazil, outside the Amazon, to get planning permission to build.
Go when the weather is great (much of the time but particularly in the Southern hemisphere’s summer, between October and May), spend your days wandering round the islands, messing around in boats, swimming when you feel like it and, then by night, drop back into your pousada or, best of all, into one of the enchanting houses that are available to rent.
You must stay awhile to get the measure of the place. It has a languorous air, as if nobody is in too much of a hurry. The streets are cobbled, cars are forbidden and at high tide some of the sea washes in. The streets are lined with elegant looking houses but the real charm lies behind the closed doors.
Open them and you like as not enter an enchanted garden – fruit trees heavy with avocados, mangos, pawpaws, bougainvillea lending colour to the bright green of the jungly plants and hummingbirds darting in and out. There might well be a pool and often a fountain. Many of these wonderful houses are owned by foreigners who came, saw and fell in love. Now they rent them out when they’re not in town. Liz Calder, the co-founder of Bloomsbury Publishing, for instance, bought a house there and founded a literary festival that happens every year in July and bringing a whole different crowd to enjoy the charms of this small seaside town.
The houses to rent vary but the best of them come complete with every kind of service. The one I stayed in, The Colonial House, had been beautifully put together; a grand main bedroom and huge ensuite bathroom, and three other good bedrooms. If you were a big party you could ask to take over one of the other houses owned by Clift (who was chief marketing officer at Unilever before leaving London last year to spend more time here). He is known to have the best cook in the town and she and her team look after everything from breakfast out on a terrace filled with flowers, trees and birds eating the tropical fruits, to dinner parties (you might feel obliged to return some of the hospitality you will undoubtedly be showered with), boat trips, massages at the local spa, sorting out the chauffeuring, the internet connections, music and all the rest.
You could also rent the house of the pretender to the Brazilian throne, Prince João de Orleans e Bragança. It is right on the sea front, a wonderfully elegant, though not enormously grand, house that his father bought after falling in love with Paraty. It is filled with the faded relics of another, long gone age, grand portraits, sepia photographs, fine furniture with an elegaic beauty of its own. It comes, as all the best houses do, with help and cooks, and, if you want them, with concierges who will fix everything from boats to picnics.
Out in the tropical fjord are wonderfully grand and beautiful houses to rent on the waterfront, where you have peace, privacy, exquisite views and usually a boat and a boatman who will take you back to the town as well as all round the coastline. Though they’re not cheap (prices vary from about $4,000 to $11,000 a day), if you divide it between lots of friends it is surprising value, for they come with every comfort and one can’t overestimate the beauty of the place. All around is blissful, unpolluted sea and glimpses of other islands.
Across the water from the fjord, looking over to the mainland, lie rolling hills and mountains covered in rainforest. From time to time a fisherman’s boat comes by. There are hundreds of other islands to explore, some of them have restaurants, some are nature reserves inhabited by tamarind monkeys, yet others have private houses.
All along the harbour are colourful boats that can be hired, with a boatman, at prices from about £100 for a small rough boat up to about £220 for a big, beautifully equipped vessel. Food and drink is extra. Clift’s adopted son Cleberson has a very luxurious schooner, the Dona Geralda, which will take you to quiet, unvisited beaches, and on which you will have smashing food.
You should spend one day going by boat to the traditional village of Juatinga, where fishermen’s families have lived their simple maritime life for generations. If you were energetic you could hike there and arrange to be picked up by boat for the journey back. You should spend another going to see the gold trail and the remains of the cobbled route that the Portuguese laid over the Indian trails.
Paraty lacks a beautiful beach – but Lopes Mendes, on Ilha Grande (the biggest island in the bay), is a beauty and a short car journey away are two famous surfing spots, Trindade and Praia da Fazenda. You should take lunch at one of the simplest but loveliest restaurants in the world – Restaurante do Ostra, in the first fjord. Here Dadico Valdir, who’s lived there all his life, grilled us fish he’d caught that morning accompanied by manioc chips (very delicious) and for pudding he pulled down a fruta pão (breadfruit) from a nearby tree. All for about £10 a head with a caipirinha (Brazil’s national drink, made from cachaca, which is a sugar cane rum, sugar and lime) included.
And then, though the town itself has plenty of cute little restaurants, don’t miss out on the Bistro Amigos, another enchanting little eatery, up in among the tropical jungle, a 10-minute journey by car from the town, to which Clift took me and some of his friends one night. Run by a local garden nurseryman, there are just two tables for six set under an awning in what seems like a green bower. The chef brings you what he’s cooked that day – delicious little parcels of fish and vegetables and he always finishes off with cinnamon-coated, deep-fried bananas. Flowers bedeck every dish and the bill (about £20 a head) comes in a basket with an orchid.
Behind the closed doors, too, there’s an active and surprisingly sophisticated social life. You really need to get to know Clift, who these days devotes his post-working life to a new young adopted Brazilian family, educating by my count something like 15 young children in the town, funding houses for his extended adopted family, supporting schools and heavens knows what else. He knows everybody and everybody knows him. I had the great good luck firstly to be renting his lovely house and secondly to bump into him in the harbour, where he took me under his wing and introduced me to his exotic playmates – ex-models from Paris, poets, artists, duchesses and princelings with mittel-european titles, people from around the world who spend three or four months a year in Paraty.
In Paraty meeting people doesn’t take long and so before you know it you know half the town. Just make sure you bump into Clift along the harbour wall.
Lucia van der Post was a guest of Cazenove and Loyd (www.cazloyd.com), which offers seven nights at The Colonial House in Paraty from £2,915 per person, including breakfast and transfers (or £3,765 including flights from London to São Paolo)