BÚZIOS, Brazil -- When they heard that I was going to Rio de Janeiro, several people told me I had to see this tropical peninsula. "You'll fall in love with it," said one. "It's like being in the South of France," said another.
Being a big fan of the Côte d'Azur , I opted for two days here. I wasn't thrilled about cutting into my time in Rio, but once I saw this quaint seaside resort community , I knew that I had made the right decision. It was as close to paradise as I have ever been.
Búzios is an easy two-hour drive east of Rio -- easy provided you steer clear of peak season in January and avoid the mass exodus on long weekends and holidays. There are several ways to get here, including a bus service that makes frequent runs along the coast. The concierge at my hotel in Rio arranged for a driver to take me in a private car, a great option.
Armação de Búzios, a fishing port known simply as Búzios, was discovered in 1760. French actress Brigitte Bardot visited here in 1964 and found it to be the perfect retreat: scenic, relaxing, and out of the public spotlight. Her affinity for the place made it an "in" spot for Brazilians and other South Americans.
Today Búzios is more popular than ever. Gisele Bündchen , the Brazilian supermodel and girlfriend to Tom Brady, the New England Patriots quarterback, has been spotted here on numerous occasions. And the strength of the US dollar here makes it affordable.
Visitors can stay in a comfortable "pousada ," or inn, overlooking the Atlantic or a scenic bay for less than $100 a night, breakfast included. Other options range from modest guest houses and hostels to private villas. Prices are higher December through March; April, May, and June are considered the best off-season months , when temperatures hover around the high 70s with a steady tropical breeze.
While not the small fishing village it once was, Búzios isn't another Rio. Thanks to strict zoning ordinances, there are no high-rise buildings and colonial Portuguese-style architecture is favored. Single- and two-story pastel-colored homes with Mediterranean-style, barrel-tiled roofs are tucked away amid lush, tropical vegetation, while other, more stately homes are perched on cliffs overlooking one or more of the magnificent beaches that draw visitors to this inviting enclave.
In all, Búzios has 23 beaches, some fronting scenic coves and inlets with calm, clear water, and others open to the ocean with rougher surf. As a general rule, the beaches on the southernmost part of the peninsula are considered the most enticing, but they're also the least accessible; many require long hikes over rocky terrain or bumpy drives on pothole-laden dirt roads. The horseshoe-shaped Ferradura Beach , which is close to town and easy to get to, has calm, clear water. There are several funky bars and restaurants along the shore serving authentic Brazilian fare and drinks -- including the national drink, caipirinhas , made with lime slices, ice, and sugarcane liquor. Praia Geribá , one of the longest and most popular beaches, is great for surfing, and Thursday night luaus at the beachside Fishbone Café are not to be missed.
Praia Olho de Boi ( "Eye of the Bull" in Portuguese) is the official nude beach, though not all sunbathers go au natural. It's a bit of a trek to reach, accessible only on foot, but once visitors catch a glimpse of the white sand, blue water, and smooth basalt cliffs, they are usually hooked. The sunrises here are spectacular.
One of the easiest ways to get to beaches in the area is by water taxi from the town dock. Passengers wade into the water and hop into one of the many colorful boats that take them, for about $3 per person, to the beach of their choice.
Since I enjoy snorkeling, I chose João Fernandinho Beach, where the water was clear and the offshore reefs attracted a plethora of colorful tropical fish. You can rent a mask and flippers for $3 an hour. There are plenty of restaurants nearby and vendors sell everything from inexpensive handmade clothing to delicious "queijos ," fried cheese served kabob style.
While some visitors choose to explore on their own, the Búzios Trolley offers two-hour tours in just about every language, with door-to-door pickup and drop-off for $35 per person. The tour was enjoyable (if bumpy at times) and included stops at scenic lookouts and several beaches.
"Certainly the beautiful beaches are a huge draw for visitors coming to Búzios, but there's so much more here, including fabulous restaurants, shopping, art galleries and night life," said Cris Rainho , 39, owner of Rainho Realty . "It's like a mixture of an old fisherman's village with an island feel to it."
The bohemian spirit can best be captured at night at the quaint sidewalk cafes, funky boutiques, unique art galleries, cyber cafes, ice cream parlors, and bars, discos, and restaurants lining the flagstone Rua das Pedras and the side alleys and walkways in the tree-lined village center. Music is everywhere, wafting from open-air bars and beachside cafes. Everything is open late; many bars and discos don't get crowded until 1 a.m. and are still going strong at 5. One popular hangout is Zapata , a Mexican bar and disco. Ponto Bar serves Japanese food as well as a steady stream of music from a DJ who plays classic rock from the '70s and '80s. Privilege is the "in" disco, and Pátio Havana features great live jazz and blues . One of the best known hangouts is Chez Michou , noted for its crepes (try the chocolate with marshmallow ) and live music and dancing on the open terrace.
Culinary offerings range widely, from Italian to seafood to traditional Brazilian fare. Many visitors have large breakfasts at their inn, eat a light lunch on the beach, then indulge in a late-night dinner at one of the more than 20 restaurants in town. Cigalon is a favorite French restaurant, while Guapo Loco is known for its tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and other Mexican dishes. Sawasdee , hailed by critics as one of the best Thai restaurants in South America, lives up to its reputation. The food is scrumptious and the atmosphere inviting -- especially when dining on the patio across from the beach.
Pousadas are the most popular lodging s in Búzios, and I chose Abracadabra, a five-minute walk from downtown. It was homey and comfortable with great views of the bay. My room had all of the amenities, including a terrace with a couch and a hammock that was only steps from an inviting pool. A buffet breakfast was served daily (by friendly women wearing turbans and flowing gowns) at the comfortable poolside bar and lounge with breathtaking views.
In Búzios, the tranquil coastal atmosphere was idyllic, the people -- residents and visitors -- warm and engaging. If only I could have spent more time in this peaceful retreat by the sea . . .
Juliet Pennington, a freelance writer in North Attleborough, can be reached at email@example.com.