Driftwood on a beach

Photo © Michael Sommers.

It was only when I finished writing my last blog entry, Escape to Toque Toque (São Paulo), that an interesting coincidence dawned upon me: only a few months ago, I had escaped to another remote and paradise-worthy beach by the name of Toque in Brazil – only the Toque in question happened to be located far, far up the coast in the small Northeastern state of Alagoas.

Squeezed between the states of Pernambuco (to the north) and Sergipe (to the south), Alagoas is quite a rural place. Its territory is roughly 50 percent sugar cane plantations (mostly inland) and 50 percent coconut plantations (mostly along the coast). Then there are its beaches, which many claim are among the finest in Brazil. I’d have to agree for several reasons:

  1. Many of these beaches range from still underdeveloped to completely primitive; instead of “civilization,” you get an endless sea of swaying palms whose constant rustling in the breeze is one of the most soothing sounds on the planet.
  2. The sea water is bathtub warm.
  3. The sea water is bathtub calm due to the presence of coral reefs along much of the coast.
  4. The sea water comes in unearthly shades of turquoise and jade.
  5. The sand is white as snow, soft as flour, hard packed, and goes on forever – especially when the tide goes out… i.e.: if you want to walk forever, you sort of can.

Perhaps the most beautiful and remote beaches of Alagoas are those that lie along its northern coast between the mostly modern capital of Maceió and the Pernambucano frontier, in or around the municipality of São Miguel dos Milagres (which is 100km – a 90-minute drive by car – from Maceió).

Since neither of us drive, from Maceió, my 70-something-year-old mother (who was visiting from Canada) and I took a series of taxis comuns (shared taxis) and kombis (shared vans) to São Miguel. Mimicking the locals, we flagged them down on the side of the highways (both the main Maceió-Recife BR-101 and the secondary AL-101) and hopped in after assuring ourselves of the destination. Taxis comuns are much more frequent and speedy than regular buses. The only downside to this mode of transportation is that many profit-seeking drivers insist upon stuffing the vans to the gills or, as a disgruntled women next to my mother aptly put it, “like sardines in a tin.”

With the help of our fellow squished passengers (who knew the area much better than either us or our greedy driver), our last taxi let us off at the entrance to our final destination: the Pousada do Toque, located just a couple of kilometers north of the pretty little town of São Miguel dos Milagres. From the roadside, we ended up walking a couple of kilometers through a coconut plantation, in the direction of the sea.

Although my mother had repeatedly touted the convenience of traveling with a suitcase on wheels, said wheels are of no use whatsoever when navigating a trail of very fine sand. It was in this condition – me balancing a suitcase with wheels on my head and my mother lagging behind – that we came upon Nilo Burgarelli, owner of the Pousada do Toque, which, in 2007, was selected as Best Beach Hotel in the Americas by Condé Nast Johansens.

Nilo is another adventurous soul who traded his conventional life for a patch of paradise. He hails from Espírito Santo, a rarely-talked-about coastal state wedged between Rio de Janeiro and Bahia that is somewhat of a blank slate even to most Brazilians. After studying cooking in Montpellier, France, Nilo opened a reputed restaurant in Maceió. However, craving more primitive surroundings, 10 years ago he headed north to São Miguel and purchased a coconut plantation along one of the region’s most lovely beaches, Praia do Toque.

His initial plan was to build a couple of chalets where he – along with visiting friends – could get away from it all, while at the same time indulging his culinary whims in a more casual setting. Over time, the chalets evolved into a simple, but extremely comfortable pousada with a restaurant, pool, bar, wine cellar, DVD and CD library, sushi bar (where sushi is prepared with the fresh catch of the day), beauty salon, massage and yoga area, and a boutique hawking everything from local art to fashionable Carioca brands of beachwear.

If it sounds ostentatious, it’s anything but. All the structures are adapted from styles favored by local fishermen. Built of adobe and palm thatch, private and public rooms are decorated with local artesanato, and completely camouflaged within the tropically landscaped plantation.

Indeed, much of the area around São Miguel dos Milagres consists of coconut plantations interrupted by secluded fishing villages. The main modes of transportation are bicycles and jangadas, rough-hewn rafts with billowing sails that are ubiquitous throughout the Brazilian Northeast. The string of almost unbroken beaches that stretch from Barra de Camarajibe to Porto das Pedras are astoundingly beautiful and feature ocean pools sheltered by coral reefs.

Extending 135 km, from northern Alagoas to southern Pernambuco, this stretch of reefs – second only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – is protected (although not always monitored) by the Brazilian government. During low tide, most hotels along the coast offer or organize jangada trips out to the reefs where you can snorkel to your heart’s content.

The trouble with amazing hotels is that you end up loathe to actually leave the hotel. Complicating matters was the fact that my mother and I were in a chalet that came equipped with a sprawling veranda, a lush garden, and private access to the beach. We did, however, briefly wander the common grounds frequented by other guests (mainly French and Paulistanos) and make an appearance at the elegant dining room where, after downing caipirinhas in which the classic lime/cachaça duo was tarted up with honey, ginger and fresh mint leaves, we feasted on fresh langoustine served with grilled mango, eggplant, and pineapple.

Incidentally, all of the fresh produce on the menu is raised on Nilo’s organic farm (also located on the premises). Many of Brazil’s finest hotels are members of an organization called the Roteiros do Charme, and aside from “charm,” one of the essential requirements is that member hotels (there are currently around 50) make a sustainable contribution to the local community through both social and environmental actions. Apart from the farm, and solar panels that supply much of the hotel’s energy requirements, Nilo also funded the building and operation of a local school (located on the plantation) for employees and other members of the community.

At Pousada do Toque, guests are happily left to their own devices with the exception of meal times which tend to be convivial affairs. While guests, glowing from the imbibing of sun and caipirinhas, smile and nod to each other, Nilo, in the role of charming, paternal host goes from table to table, offering greetings and embraces so warm that you wind up feeling like a very special house guest (or a recently adopted child).

Indeed, leaving Hotel do Toque and Praia do Toque would have been very sad – if it hadn’t been for the fact that our next destination was only 3km away…