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BRAZIL'S RISING STAR
FLORIANOPOLIS
Written and photographed by Mark Chesnut
You may not have heard much about it yet, but the city of Florianopolis is slowly but surely building a reputation as the next jet-set hot spot; something like a combination of St. Tropez, Punta del Este, and the Hamptons—but with lower prices. It’s also increasingly on the radar for gay and lesbian travelers looking for sun, sand, and sophistication without the big-city hassles of places like Rio de Janeiro.

The city of Florianopolis, called Floripa by most Brazilians, is the capital of the state of Santa Catarina, set on a 202-square-mile island just off the coast of southern Brazil. Floripa, however, feels more like a collection of towns, thanks to its 42 beaches, natural beauty, and outdoor activities.

For all the glitzy development I’ve heard about, I begin my visit (accompanied by an array of International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association members who are equally curious about the destination) in the quiet southern part of the island, where nearly half of the terrain is covered with Atlantic rainforest. We hike a secluded path to reach Naufragados Beach, an uncrowded sunny spot where we enjoy the sand and the view of a far-off lighthouse before boarding a small boat to a nearby oyster farm. Oyster farming and fishing continue to be an important source of revenue for locals. This homegrown industry dates back to 1673, when the first Azorean and Portuguese settlers dropped anchor here. Early settlers also left their mark in the charming architecture, which is especially visible in small Azorean settlements like Ribeirão. These small communities are great places to try the local seafood, as I find out during a tasty lunch at Porto de Contrato, a waterfront restaurant with a beautiful view.

It wasn’t until the late 20th century that Floripa’s growth spurt started, and today’s population of some 800,000 is nearly triple what it was back in 1970. The city has among the highest literacy rates in all of Brazil, and is a center for education (two major universities are based here) as well as a nascent-but-growing software industry. So while the iconic Hercilio Luz Bridge (which was the longest suspension bridge in Brazil when it opened in 1926) has been closed for nearly two decades (commuters now use other bridges to travel between mainland Brazil and the island), the city is firmly focused on its future as a technology and tourism hub.

The anticipated business boom here isn’t quite in full swing, but tourism seems to be, thanks in large part to the city’s vast natural beauty. Every beach in Floripa seems to have its own personality, and each attracts its own type of travelers. Our next stop is Campeche Beach, where the stronger waves make for good surfing. Just a couple blocks away, we tour a lovely small hotel called Pousada Natur Campeche (pousada is the Portuguese word used for small inn), peeking into its colorful guest rooms, each named for a different country (and decorated accordingly).

Pousadas, in fact, offer some of the most charming and interesting accommodations in Florianopolis. International brand-name hotels only recently arrived here (Sofitel was the first, in 2006), and most are located downtown, far from the beaches, making smaller hotels in the beachfront communities a good choice; other noteworthy gay-friendly small properties include Pousada dos Chás (literally, Inn of the Teas), which, as might be surmised, offers an afternoon tea service; and Ilha do Papagayo, which has bungalows on its own private island, just off of Praia do Sonho Beach.

THE HEART OF IT ALL
The next morning, I awake early for an excursion to the historic city center. We head to Praça 15 de Novembro, a lush town square centered around a giant ficus tree. Following a tradition that supposedly brings good luck, everyone in our group holds hands and circles the tree three times (and since two other groups are doing the same thing, no one even notices that we’re mostly men). I check out the crafts market that sets up daily just off the square, and admire the variety of historic 18th- and 19th-century architecture in the neighborhood, including the ornate Palácio Cruz e Sousa Museum, a former government palace that now houses a history museum, the historic former Customs House and the Public Market, which is a good place to pick up souvenirs. For live musical performances, the Floripa Music Hall is a recommended spot.

That afternoon, we venture into Floripa’s gay side. I step onto the sand at Praia Mole, a popular beach with a large gay section that heats up every summer (which, remember, is during North America’s winter). We take seats outside at Bar do Deca, a relaxed, open-air bar that serves thirsty gay sun worshippers. It’s a great place to sip a caipirinha (Brazil’s de facto national cocktail) and people watch.

Sitting at the next table is a group of handsome men in bikinis. After we start chatting, one of the guys, whose name is Renato Agostinh, tells us that he is a former Mr. Gay Florianopolis and came in fifth in the Mr. Gay Brazil contest in 2007. “I’m very proud of my city,” he says, smiling. “It’s a very good place to be gay.”

The gay tour continues that night, when we head to a reception at Jivago Lounge, a trendy bar with a tiny dance floor. It’s not an exclusively gay place, but as the evening goes on, it’s easy to see that this venue attracts a variety of stylish young people of every sexual orientation. Those looking for a larger-scale gay ambiance head to the Concorde Club, which has two dance floors and plenty of laser-light-infused excitement, and Mix Café Club, which hosts a lively array of drag shows and DJs.

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As I’ve already realized while savoring locally caught seafood, fine dining is big business in Florianopolis, and many of the places are gay-friendly. Bistrô Isadora Duncan, in fact, is gay-owned. This beautiful restaurant is bathed in candlelight at night and serves gourmet Brazilian and international cuisine. The restaurant recently opened a single suite on the second floor. If you can snag a reservation to stay here, you’ll enjoy a Jacuzzi with beautiful sea views.

CARNAVAL & PRIDE
Florianopolis may be attracting more gay travelers year-round, but there are two annual events that result in a major surge of queer vacationers: Carnaval, the annual pre-Lenten celebration, and Semana da Diversidade (Diversity Week), the local pride festival.

Carnaval includes the Pop Gay competition, a beauty contest for drag queens and transgender people. On Carnaval Saturday, the samba schools parade includes many local gay revelers. Happening throughout the week are a variety of parties, drawing DJs and partygoers from throughout Brazil and abroad. The Week, one of the top gay nightclubs in both São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, organizes an annual gay Carnaval party event, transforming the gay-friendly Praia Mole Eco Village Resort and Spa into something like a big outdoor gay club—all just steps from the gay beach.

“Before I came to Florianopolis, my expectations were quite high,” says Dane Steele, president of Steele Luxury Travel, a gay tour operator based in New York City that offers packages to Brazil. “From traveling to Rio many times and operating trips both for Carnaval and New Year’s, I heard quite a buzz about Floripa. All of my new Brazilian friends were escaping from the overpopulated celebration times to head over to Floripa, a place where the beautiful and wealthy flock for their vacation time.” Steele is so impressed with the destination, in fact, that he’s introducing new gay Carnaval packages here.

“Florianopolis has always been a favorite destination for gays from Brazil and South America, especially during summer,” says Marta Dalla Chiesa, owner of Brazil Ecojourneys, a gay-owned, straight-friendly tour operator based in Florianopolis. “But I think it has potential to attract tourists from other regions as well, because it has a lot to offer. Some people compare it to Rio 20 years ago; it has a lot of natural beauty, it is laid-back and safe, and has always been a magnet for alternative lifestyles, so gays and lesbians feel comfortable here.”

The Semana da Diversidade, meanwhile, has continued to grow since its debut in 2005. This weeklong local pride festival includes a parade, outdoor festivities, and the Diversity Games, an LGBT sporting event. The dates for gay pride week (which takes place this year in September) change every year; check http://www.diversidadefloripa.com.br for more information and details.

GAY TOUR OFFERINGS
An increasing number of gay-owned and gay-friendly tour operators are offering packages in Florianopolis. Locally based, lesbian-owned Brazil Ecojourneys offers a four-day package that includes lodging at Praia Mole, the gay beach, as well as gay New Year’s holiday celebration packages and a five- to seven-night gay Carnaval package that offers a choice of accommodations downtown or on Praia Mole. http://www.brazilecojourneys.com

Zoom Vacations, which has provided independent gay trips to Florianopolis for several years, is offering a gay group excursion for Carnaval from February 12–17, 2010. Zoom promises a “multi-sensory trip” that combines culture, relaxation, parties, and accommodations in a private villa. http://www.zoomvacations.com

New York City-based Steele Luxury Travel is offering a package to Florianopolis during Carnaval, with lodging in a private five-bedroom villa, next door to the Praia Mole Ecovillage, ground zero for some of Carnaval’s best gay parties. The eight-day trip will include the services of a private chef, a cleaning staff, and a lifestyle concierge that will help guests with VIP access to all of the events held at The Week, where participants will have their own VIP section and two pool parties. http://steeletravel.com/carnival.html

PLAYING IT SAFE
The bomb attack that left 21 people injured during São Paulo’s massive gay pride parade this year, as well as ongoing crime and safety issues in both São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, has made some travelers wary about heading to South America’s largest country. Some gay tourism experts say the São Paulo attack is no reason to cancel your next Brazilian vacation. “I believe that this incident was absolutely an isolated incident,” says Ylan Chrem, IGLTA regional ambassador for Latin America. “Brazil is one of the most open gay destinations in the world, and the government supports us and includes us in their travel and tourism marketing plans.”

According to the US State Department, “Street crime in Brazil remains a problem for visitors and local residents alike, especially in the evenings and late at night. Foreign tourists are often targets of crime and Americans are not exempt. This targeting occurs in all tourist areas but is especially problematic in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, and Recife.”

Indeed, a destination like Florianpolis, which is a fraction of the size of São Paulo or Rio, could be a safer alternative. “In terms of general safety, logically, a smaller city like Florianopolis is considered much safer,” says Marta Dalla Chiesa. “This is, in fact, one of the reasons that it’s attracting many foreign visitors to our city.”

To stay safe during any visit, Dalla Chiesa recommends common-sense tips that apply just about anywhere, including not walking alone late at night, especially in isolated parts of downtown. “Be street-wise, as you would be in any other big city,” she recommends. “Ask locals for tips on where to go and how to get there. At bars and clubs, avoid accepting drinks from strangers, and be careful who you take back to your hotel.”

Dalla Chiesa says safety has never been a major concern during Florianopolis’ biggest gay events. “We have two large events that [attract] the LGBT community: the Pop Gay Festival during Carnaval and our pride parade, both with around 40,000 to 50,000 people, and we’ve never had homophobic-related incidents reported.”

“Above all,” she says, “don’t let the news stop you from coming to Brazil. We are really a very welcoming people. Official polls even show that the friendliness of Brazilians is normally the number-one reason that tourists give for wanting to come back to our country.”

[Published: November, 2009]

Resources

When calling from the United States, first dial 011-55-48, except where indicated.


HOTELS
Baía Norte Othon Classic, Av. Beira Mar Norte 220, Centro. Tel: 3229-3144. Located in the center of the city, this gay-friendly hotel is a good business option, with plenty of leisure-oriented amenities. $125 and up. http://www.baianorte.com.br

Bistro Isadora Duncan, Rod. Jornalista Manuel de Menezes 2658, Barra da Lagoa. Tel: 3232-7210. Yes, it may be a restaurant with just one guest room, but it’s a lovely, unpretentious place with a canopied bed and a balcony with a romantic Jacuzzi that’s perfect for viewing the sunset over Conceição lake. $241 and up. http://www.bistroisadoraduncan.com.br

Costão do Santinho Resort, Golf & Spa, Estrada Vereador Onildo Lemos 2505, Praia do Santinho. Tel: 3261-1944. The largest resort on the island, this property has a marina, multiple bars and restaurants, shopping, and convention and meeting space. From $151. http://www.costao.com

Il Campanario, Av. dos Búzios, 1760, Jurerê Internacional. Tel: 3261-6000. The newest large hotel in the toney Jurerê Internacional development, Il Campanario has 256 traditionally styled rooms on a prized beachfront location, plus a pool and children’s club. $86 and up. http://www.ilcampanario.com.br

Ilha do Papagayo, Papagayo Island. Tel: 286-1242. This casually elegant property, set on its own island off of Praia do Sonho Beach, has private bungalows with beautiful water views. $110 and up. http://www.papagaio.com.br

Majestic Palace, Av. Beira Mar Norte 2746, Centro. Tel: 3231-8000. A spa, fitness center, business center, meeting space, and proximity to a large shopping mall and other businesses make this one of the best-equipped hotels downtown. $136 and up. http://www.majesticpalace.com.br

Mercure Apartments Florianopolis Lindacap, Rua Felipe Schmidt 1102, Centro. Tel: 3225-4500. This 88-room modern tower, located downtown, has three meeting rooms, a swimming pool, bar, and restaurant. $55 and up. http://www.accorhotels.com

Pousada dos Chás, Rua Francisco Gouvêa 54, Jurerê. Tel: 3282-9112. This former beach house offers afternoon tea service and has a seven-person Jacuzzi, massage room, and guest rooms with cable TV and mini refrigerators. Included in the room rate is afternoon tea, bird watching, use of the DVD library, and wireless Internet access. Rooms are simple yet elegant. $53 and up per person, based on double occupancy. http://www.pousadadoschas.com.br

Pousada Natur Campeche, Servidão Familia Nunes 59, Praia do Campeche. Tel: 3237-4011. Each room at this attractive property is colorfully decorated with an eclectic array of travel souvenirs from a different destination, including Spain, Greece, Turkey, Mexico, and elsewhere in Brazil. It’s walking distance to Campeche Beach. $80 and up. http://www.naturcampeche.com.br

Praia Mole Eco Village Resort and Spa, Rodovia Manoel de Menezes, 2001 - Lagoa, Tel: 3239-7500. One of the best-located properties for anyone planning to spend time at the gay beach, Praia Mole Eco Village features an attractive heated indoor swimming pool, gym, spa treatments, and both guest rooms and bungalows. Once a year, this becomes the gay hot spot when The Week nightclub descends during Carnaval. Doubles from $118. http://www.praiamole.com.br

Pousada Pau de Canela, Rua Pau de Canela, 606, Rio Tavares. Tel: 3233-4989. On Campeche Beach, this pleasant former home features suites with wireless Internet and hydromassage tubs. $48 and up. http://www.pousadapaudecanela.com.br

Sofitel Florianopolis, Av. Rubens Arruda Ramos, 2034, Centro. Tel: 3202-6100. Clean, crisp décor characterizes this attractive downtown property, which has 115 rooms, a spa, fitness center, and meeting space. $100 and up. http://www.accorhotels.com


RESTAURANTS
Ancoradouro Ingleses, Centrinho da praia de Ingleses. Tel: 3369-6060. This casual restaurant specializes in seafood, served in a pleasant beachfront location. http://www.ancoradouroingleses.com.br

Bianco Lounge, Rua Bocaiúva 1761, Centro. Tel: 3209-3777. This fashionable restaurant serves contemporary Italian cuisine, and also has a comfy lounge area for cocktails. http://www.biancolounge.com.br

Bistro Isadora Duncan, Rod. Jornalista Manuel de Menezes 2658, Barra da Lagoa. Tel: 3232-7210. This lovely, antiques-furnished house offers a romantic setting for dinner, either in the dining room by the fireplace or on the veranda overlooking the lake. Gay-owned. http://www.bistroisadoraduncan.com.br

Café de la Musique, Av. dos Merlins S/N, Jurerê Internacional. Tel: 3282-1325. Part restaurant, part bar, part open-air nightclub, this is where the rich and beautiful party and refuel during and after a day on the beach. Stake a place on one of the Bali-bed style lounges and do some serious people watching. http://www.praiacafedelamusique.com.br

Porto do Contrato, Rod. Balicero Filomeno 5544, Ribeirão da Ilha. Tel: 3337-1026. Tasty seafood and other dishes are served at this casually elegant waterfront restaurant where the view is as big a draw as the cuisine. http://www.portodocontrato.com.br


GAY LIFE
Bar do Deca, Rua Rita Lourenço Da Silveira, 97, Praia Mole. Tel: 3233-6507. This beachfront gay bar, right in the gay section of Mole beach, is a nice place to have a caipirinha and soak up some sun as you check out the tiny bathing suits.

Concorde Club, Av. Rio Branco 729, Centro. Tel: 3222-1981. Two dance floors, four bars, and a VIP area make this laser-light-imbued place, complete with a rotating dance floor, one of the liveliest choices for gay night owls. http://www.concordeclub.com.br

Jivago Lounge, Rua Deputado Leoberto Leal 04, Centro. Tel: 3028-0788. This small, style-conscious, gay-friendly nightspot attracts a good-looking young crowd of men and women. It’s not exclusively gay, but attracts plenty. http://www.jivagolounge.com

Mix Café Club, Rua Menino Deus 47, Centro. Tel: 3324-0102. This lively gay nightclub has plenty of room for dancing and hosts live drag shows. http://www.mixcafe.com.br

Termas Hangar, Rua Henrique Valgas 112, Centro. Tel: 3028-8889. This clean, modern gay sauna is open daily from 3 P.M. until 11 P.M. http://www.aquirola.com/hangar


INFORMATION
Embratur (Brazilian Tourism Office). Tel: 3429-7774. http://www.braziltour.com

Guia Gay Brasil: Brazil’s largest gay info site has helpful listings about Florianopolis. http://www.guiagaybrasil.com.br