Boom with a view: the new Brazil
Brazil's burgeoning economy is giving the country renewed confidence anda taste for the finer things in life
The last time I turned up at Rocka, a beach lounge in a little bay in Búzios, I found not one, but six Michelin-star chefs had taken over my regular spot. French kings of the kitchen lay on white sunloungers sipping mojitos, watching the rhythmic patterns of the waves delight the local surfers soaking up the sun as they waited. Slivers of lobster carpaccio with white truffle oil; soft, pearly white squid swimming in garlic butter and herbs; and delicately chunky ceviche ensued - all delivered on rustic wooden boxes painted a bright turquoise blue.
A laid-back beach restaurant that now draws world-class chefs on their days off, the success of Rocka is symbolic of a new Brazil.
"When we opened three years ago, we would never have dreamed we would be where we are now and it has everything to do with the wave of change that is taking place in Brazil," says owner Santiago Bebbiano. "Brazilians are travelling like never before and returning with greater expectations - but for the first time, they are finding places and things at home that outmatch the best of what's abroad. This is something that has never happened before."
As the effects of Brazil's economic boom continue to develop, one trend that has taken a while to unfold is Brazilians' belief in all things Brazilian. When it comes to the finer things in life, Brazilians have long looked to, and shopped, abroad. Now, the next generation of home-grown entrepreneurs is redefining Brazil's luxury market, stirring up attention both at home and abroad through a unique blend of sophistication with innovation ... while still wearing flip-flops.
Rocka is the place that insiders urge you to visit when you mention Búzios, a chic beach resort a few hours up the coast from Rio. Búzios earned its reputation as Brigitte Bardot's favourite romantic escape and kept it through its myriad stunning coves, emerald curves and sparklingly clear water. In recent years, Búzios has upped its game and grown from a family resort into one of Latin America's most chic beach retreats, where the international elite rent designer villas for the entire season.
"We now have people ringing up from as far away as New York to book a table for dinner months in advance," says Bebbiano's business partner and head chef Gustavo Rinkevich. "While this has a lot to do with the sophistication of Búzios, it is the regeneration of Rio that is driving the change."
Rio has long held the reputation of Sao Paulo's fun-loving brother - perfect for a weekend frolicking on the beach, if not much else. Now, ahead of hosting the 2014 Fifa World Cup and 2016 Olympics, the city has smartened up in appearance and security and is having its moment.
For the first time in decades, Rio has recaptured the creative force for which it earned its heritage and is fast blossoming into Brazil's hub for art, design and, for the first time, luxury. December saw the relaunch of the iconic Copacabana Palace Hotel after a US$20 million refurbishment, as well as the opening of Rio's first five-star shopping complex in Barra de Tijuca. Replete with international brands such as Burberry and Ferrari, VillageMall also offers a new platform for home-grown luxury brands such as Osklen and premier chocolatier Aquim to set up among the big names.
Taking on the old guard of European chocolatiers, Aquim is the first premier chocolate maker in the world to originate from the country where its cacao beans are produced.
"An understanding of, and connection to, the land is fundamental to the concept and taste of the chocolate," says founder Rodrigo Aquim.
While it took the family-run business eight years of trial and error to find the right formula behind the Q collection of chocolate, the Red Cross chose one of Aquim's limited-edition Q boxes, designed by celebrated architect Oscar Niemeyer, to present to Queen Elizabeth to celebrate her diamond jubilee this year.
Next year, Aquim will offer enthusiasts the chance to experience the process for themselves, with customised experiences on the working fazenda. It will also launch its new range of Q chocolates onto the international market.
From the tropical plantations of Bahia to the Mantiqueira mountain range, Brazil's latest hospitality venture is luring visitors even further off the beaten track. A magnificent lodge of six suites and 11 private villas, Botanique Hotel and Spa is the first hotel dedicated to showcasing the very best of Brazil, bringing local talent and produce to the fore. Eight years in the making, the project was conceptualised by entrepreneur Ricardo Semler and his wife Fernanda, alongside AOL's co-founder David Cole and The Body Shop's Gordon Riddick.
"Even when we started, we had the feeling that Brazil was coming of age and that it was time to stop being so humble about our own possibilities," says Fernanda Semler.
Designed by Brazilian architect Candida Tabet, the lodge has been constructed primarily from locally sourced raw materials, with striking interiors curated by Adelia Borges that showcase the work of more than 100 of Brazil's up-and-coming designers.
Just as at Rocka, food is one of the fundamental areas where Botanique makes a difference. Chef Gabriel Broide adapts the trend of "foraging" to craft an exquisitely fresh menu supplemented by 400 garden boxes, accompanied by a wine list that prioritises boutique Brazilian wineries and artisanal micro-breweries.
According to Semler: "The idea behind Botanique is to create a place that could not exist anywhere else on earth."
Back in Búzios, the light is fading and there is just time for a sunset drive around the headlands by beach buggy.
Contemplating a future Michelin star down the line, Bebbiano shakes his head. "What would be the point?" he asks. "We would just lose what we are all about."