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A view of the Emerald Coast, overlooking Ganchos Bay. (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

Total Gem: The Emerald Coast of Brazil

“You’ve landed in heaven, but right now it’s hell,” the driver said as he loaded my luggage into the car. I had just flown from Buenos Aires to Florianópolis and was breathing in warm, beachy evening air mixed with car exhaust and jet fuel. He responded to my obvious, but cautious response — “Why is it hell right now?” — with “A [fútbol] game just let out. [The stadium] seats 19,000 people so there are a lot of cars.” Ah, just another case of a worldwide irritant: traffic. That’s something I can deal with, I tell him.

Plus, I was too excited about my destination, the Emerald Coast of Brazil. I was also amped to get to the Ponta dos Ganchos resort where I would be staying (a hot property that will only get hotter as the travel industry homes in on Brazil as the World Cup and the Summer Olympics approach).

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See how the sea and shore seem to blend together? (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

The traffic jam allowed me to pump my driver, Leo, for information. He told me that in this corner of the world, it’s all about the water. And he’s right. From certain vantage points, the deep green waters that give the coast its name seem to merge with the verdant shoreline they lap up against.

On the drive to the resort, we passed one colorful fishing village and tiny beach after another. During the summer season, Florianopolis swells to two million people, nearly five times its usual size. Leo told me it’s the “number one place people wish they could move to in Brazil,” citing a boom in tech start ups along with its natural beauty (“over three quarters of the area is preserved,” he boasted) as reasons. Plus, Brazil’s third-largest university provides a youthful vitality that keeps the city fresh.

Finally, we pulled up to Ponta dos Ganchos, which can only be described as a dream destination (previous guests Paul McCartney, Beyoncé, and Fergie probably agree). My friend, Kelly, joined me for this Brazilian getaway, after I attended the Virtuoso conference in Buenos Aires, and we felt like we were on a honeymoon (the resort serves dinner to one lucky couple each night on their own private island).

We even ran into another industry friend, Elite Travel International President Stacy Small, who scouts properties like this for her clients. After raving about the place (“It’s one of those rare beachfront resorts that wows on every level from the uber-stylish ‘bangalos’ with private sea-view plunge pools to the genuine friendliness of the staff.”), she confided that it’s somewhere she personally plans to return to “when the craving for a peaceful recharge hits.”

The resort is distinctly Brazilian, a welcome impression in an increasingly homogenized hotel world. My favorite feature in each of the 25 bungalows was the extra-large hammock. What’s better than starting off the morning by lolling around and enjoying the views? But the real reward of staying here is the unparalleled access to the secluded coast (the property offers private beaches, kayaks, sailboats, and two nature trails).

Beyond the resort, the region boasts some of the best diving opportunities in Brazil, including the Arvoredo Marine Biological Reserve. Between June and November, you can witness a true spectacle of nature on board a whale-watching ship as pods of the marine mammals migrate north to find warm, calm waters to have their babies.

And, farther afield, you can explore the city of Blumenau, known for its impressive Oktoberfest celebration, or visit the local Scherer distillery to sample some cachaça, a Brazilian spirit made with sugar cane.

I was also happy to put an old aversion to rest on the Emerald Coast. At Ponta dos Ganchos, they serve the famous Santa Catarina oysters, which I loved. I had always been turned off by the bivalves’ fleshy texture and overbearing saltwater taste before, but these were different — just a hint of salt and a dash of fresh citrus. In fact, if I’m lucky enough to return to this part of Brazil, I’d like to go out on a traditional bateira with an oyster farmer so I can taste them as soon as they’re harvested.

Finally, I feel compelled to mention that if you come to this corner of the world, you’re bound to see the largest rodent on Earth.

A waiter had warned us that two capybaras roamed the resort property, but urged us not to worry, as they are completely harmless. Still, my first encounter was startling. Native to South America, capybaras live near water and look like a cross between a porcupine, a wild boar, and a rat. I can’t say I wanted to sneak one home in my suitcase, but it was fascinating to watch the pair roam around at night.

Know Before You Go:

I’m about to admit something that makes me look like a real amateur. I didn’t realize — even think about — checking to see if Brazil required a visa for Americans. By the time my friend realized we needed one, I was already in Buenos Aires and due to fly to Brazil in five days. Next thing you know, I’m frantically searching for a passport photo place and printing out bank statements. But, as it turns out, it’s simple to secure a Brazilian visa at the consulate in Buenos Aires (thanks to this site for the helpful tips!) and takes only 24 hours, with no rush fee. Bem vindo ao Brasil!

Annie Fitzsimmons is Intelligent Travel’s Urban Insider, giving you the dish on the best things to see and do in cities all over the world. Follow her on Twitter @anniefitz.