Travel Column: Beachside in Brazil, A Tale of Two Resorts

April 2, 2004

"I love coming here." That simple accolade from my Brazilian guide, Viviane Barbosa, sums up the difference between the companionable seaside resort village we are strolling in, Praia do Forte ("Fort Beach"), in the state of Bahia, Brazil, and the new beach resort mega-complex we just visited called Sauípe, a few miles up the coast.

At Sauípe, four snappy chain hotels adjoined the complex's new "Bahian village," built to house shops and services. The village was cute as Disney, with cheerful bright colors, but deserted at midday: Guests were all at the beach, and no one actually lived here. A gift shop did sell local crafts, handbags, totes, and hats woven of piassava leaves, but with no craftspeople in evidence.

That was the resort's loss, I discovered. Viviane took me a couple of miles inland to a nondescript village, the original Sauípe, and the training center where she works for Brazil's forward-looking Hospitality Institute, helping locals adapt their own crafts and botanical traditions for tourism.

A dozen ladies in the basketry class sat out front, plaiting away. A tiny, bent old woman, arriving late, gaily called out greetings and sat down. As Viviane introduced me in Portuguese, noting I would be flying home that night, the little extrovert interrupted, crying out: "Bom viagem!"—have a good trip. A charmer, that one. The ladies chatted with us happily, hands flashing over piassava strands, far from their customers' eyes.

That local touch, missing at Sauípe, imbues Praia do Forte. Park outside the village, walk in on one of the shady, sandy streets, and you'll find a delightful vacation spot: reasonable boutique inns and a fine beach. It retains the flavor of an authentic fishing town, partly because authentic fishing families still live here. Visitors and residents mingle on the winding pedestrian central street, and diners chat in small cafés under dappled light filtered by vine-laced trellises.

Near the end of town, the 24-year-old Tamar project for sea-turtle preservation operates a beachside marine zoo. Sea turtles have become the emblem of the whole town. You'll see the five turtle species that nest here: leatherbacks, olive Ridleys, greens, hawksbills, and loggerheads. Your admission pays for Praia do Forte fishermen to collect and save the turtle eggs that they once sold for food. We saunter past an impromptu volley ball game, next to the beachside wooden church. The town has genuine charm, not engineered Instant-Quaint. It's popular, yet no high rises tower over it. No speculators have snapped up villagers' houses. How can this be?

The credit goes to a German Brazilian, W.H. Klaus Peters, who in 1972 bought the town, the beach, the adjacent rain forest, and the village's crumbling 16th-century namesake castle. Peters set up a foundation to maintain the castle and a nature reserve for the forest. He deeded the town land back to villagers under strict zoning laws—no building over two stories, all construction of traditional materials, and native houses to be inherited but not sold, so as to immunize the community against real estate price pressures.

This place is a great success—and a challenge: Can other unspoiled beach towns save themselves without what was, in effect, a beneficent overlord?

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