Check the dictionary for “sun, sand and surf” and you may well find a photo of Ceara. Boasting more than 300 sunny days a year and 350 spectacular miles of mostly undeveloped coastline, the Brazilian state is a sun worshipper’s dream come true. But that’s not all.
The 56,000-square-mile state, located in northeastern Brazil, also boasts towering mountains, expansive plains, cosmopolitan cities and rolling sand dunes. Whether your idea of a good time involves dancing up a storm amid a sea of people, zooming across the sand in outrageous dune buggies, strolling through art exhibits at an urban cultural center or stretching out in a lace hammock at a remote bed and breakfast, you can do it all in Ceara.
Long popular among European and South American travelers — it’s the no. 1 vacation destination among Brazilians — Ceara is beginning to gain a following among North Americans seeking a new twist on the old fun-in-the-sun getaway. Ceara’s capital city, Fortaleza, is the ideal home base for exploring the region. The waterfront urban center boasts a total of 19 individual beaches spread along a 15-mile coast. Fortaleza recently experienced a surge of development aimed at capitalizing on its status as Ceara’s primary gateway. Improvement projects completed in recent years include the construction of Pinto Martins International Airport (FOR); one of the newest and most modern airports in Brazil, Pinto Martins features seven boarding gates and has the capacity to receive 2.5 million passengers annually.
Fortaleza’s Dragao do Mar (Sea Dragon Art and Cultural Center) is another relatively new addition to the city’s landscape. Rotating exhibits highlight the traditional handicrafts of Ceara’s various regions. The complex also includes an outdoor amphitheater and one of Brazil’s most modern planetariums.
Every night is party night in Fortaleza. (Calendars of events routinely list street parties by location.) Until recently, though, the city was relatively quiet on Monday nights. That changed five or six years ago, when a local businessman (parties are, indeed, big business in this spirited city) hit on the idea of Bar do Pirata, or Pirate Night. These days revelers flock to a massive party complex at Iracema Beach, near the art and cultural center, where they don pirate hats and dance ’til dawn to the lively beat of Ceara’s traditional forro music, a rhythmic combination of zydeco, samba and reggae. While forro is a couple’s dance, solo travelers need not fear: anyone in the market for a dance partner is likely to find one.
The roving party lands at a different site every night of the week. Myriad bars and restaurants line Avenida Beira Mar and Iracema Beach. Thursday evening at Praia do Futuro (Beach of the Future) is a favorite among locals, who gather to feast on fresh seafood and shimmy to live music.
Daylight hours are busy, too. Leisure options include hitting the beach, hopping aboard a boat tour, hiking ecological trails and shopping. Bargain hunters will discover that deals on delicate lace and elaborately crafted hammocks abound. Rua Monsenhor Tabosa, an immense open market, is a particularly good place to shop for local handicrafts, including wicker furniture, straw baskets, ceramics, embroidery and needlepoint, lace and a regional favorite: bottles hand-filled with colored sand to create designs ranging from scenic landscapes to personalized patterns including names and dates of travel.
Settled by the Portuguese in the mid-17th century, Fortaleza blends its rich cultural and historical heritage with a modern-day infrastructure. Landmarks from its past, in the form of churches, forts, public squares and theaters, blend easily with 21st century architecture. Attractions of note include the Fort of Nossa Senhora da Assunção, one of the city’s first structures, and Palácio da Luz, an 18th century building that today serves as the seat of the Ceara state government.
CA ESAR PARK FORTALEZA
Overlooking scenic Mucuripe Beach, Caesar Park Fortaleza is just 10 minutes from downtown and 20 minutes from the airport. Built in 1992, the 230-room hotel houses three restaurants, three bars, a health club and a swimming pool. Guestrooms include a work area wired for Internet access. Hotel services and amenities include a business center and convention facilities. Tour, taxi, laundry and concierge services are available 24 hours a day. $$$
CAESAR PARK FORTALEZA
3980 Av. Beira Mar
Praia do Mucuripe
tel 85 466 5000, fax 83 466 5111
Marble bathrooms and soothing tones of blue and yellow highlight the guestroom décor at Meliá Confort. Deluxe rooms feature balconies with ocean views. On-site facilities include a restaurant, bar, swimming pool, fitness center, business center, 24-hour room service and laundry. Nonsmoking rooms are available. $-$$
3470 Av. Beira Mar
tel 85 466 5500, fax 85 466 5501
PARTHENON GOLDEN FORTALEZA
The recently renovated Parthenon Golden Fortaleza is an apart-hotel offering one- and two-bedroom suites. Located on the beach, accommodations include a small kitchen, separate living area and balcony. There’s an on-site restaurant and a small swimming pool. Internet access is available only in the hotel lobby. Free parking is included. $
PARTHENON GOLDEN FORTALEZA
4260 Av. Beira Mar
tel 85 466 1413
A no-frills operation, the 170-room Ibis Hotel is a good bet for travelers on a budget. Rooms are clean and comfortable. And you can’t beat the beachfront location. Private indoor parking is available. $
660 Rua Dr. Atualpa Barbosa Lima
tel 85 219 2121, fax 85 219 0000
This charming Italian eatery’s claim to fame is the bravado of its Italian-born owner, who is on record as stating he had to open a restaurant in Ceara because there wasn’t any good food to be found. The red-and-white checked theme carries from tablecloths to servers’ shirts. Specialties include wood-oven cooked pizzas and an antipasti buffet featuring more than two dozen selections. $$
125 Rua dos Pacajus
tel 85 252 3666
PEIXADA DO MEIO
Fresh-from-the-boat lobster and fish are the order of the day at this beachfront dining establishment. Hanging fish nets and lobster pots drive home the nautical theme. It’s difficult to comprehend that anyone dining here would opt for anything other than the mouth-watering lobster, but steaks and chicken are on the menu, too. $-$$
PEIXADA DO MEIO
4632 Av. Beira Mar
tel 85 263 1799
An open-air patio and wrap-around dining room are designed to take full advantage of the view at this waterfront eatery. Marinated octopus in an onion-and-herb vinaigrette is a favorite, as is the tried-and-true calamari. Guests with big appetites may opt for the grilled seafood combo, chock-full of lobster, shrimp, fish, octopus and squid. $-$$
3821 Av. Beira Mar
tel 85 263 3888
Dine al fresco on the outdoor patio or amid white-linen elegance in the indoor dining room. Either way you’ll enjoy an excellent meal of fresh seafood, including the signature lobster served grilled or sautéed. Coconut milk gives an unusual regional twist to octopus stew.
380 Av. Rua dos Tabajaras
tel 85 219 3311
Beyond City Limits
A number of casual, even rustic, destinations are within a day’s travel of Fortaleza. Canoa Quebrada and Jericoacoara are two that are definitely worth the trip.
A fishing village “discovered” in the 1970s by settlers seeking a sort of bohemian existence, Canoa Quebrada is known for its expansive beaches, rolling sand dunes and laid-back ambience. It’s a place where a night on the town means hoisting a few at a local bar: think Old West with dusty roads lined by ramshackle saloons, then throw in a few palm trees and the not-too-distant sound of waves crashing on the shore. Got the picture? Then consider this: the main drag is named Broadway. It’s tough not to giggle at the irony.
In this setting, about 100 miles from Fortaleza, there are no five-star hotels. Accommodation is in the form of pousadas, which are simple inns or guesthouses. Pousada Lua Estrela (106 Rua Na scer do Sol, tel 88 421 7040, www.luaestrelapousada.com.br) is comfortably situated just off Broadway. Established in the mid-1990s, Pousada Lua Estrela consists of 10 guestrooms set on two levels overlooking a small swimming pool.
Canoa Quebrada is surrounded by wide beaches and acre upon acre of sand dunes. A favorite pastime is the open-air dune buggy adventure. Driven by Mario Andretti wannabes, the excursions are an exhilarating way to explore the coastline.
Some 200 miles west of Fortaleza, Jericoacoara is gaining an international reputation as an emerging tourist mecca. For now, access to the rural beach community remains an adventure. Getting to Jericoacoara involves an all-day road trip, an expensive helicopter charter or a short flight aboard a prop plane (the landing field is a field — a grass field), followed by a quick ferry trip and a bumpy dune-buggy ride. But that’s all part of the charm of this remote location, which, until recently, survived without many of the niceties of modern civilization, including electricity, telephone service and paved roads.
Even now, access to those amenities heretofore taken for granted remains limited. That’s due, at least in part, to federal legislation passed in 1984 that declared Jericoacoara an “environment protection area,” where regulations prohibit activities that may pollute the environment, including new construction of roads and buildings. So consider yourself forewarned: if relaxing in coddled luxury is your idea of the perfect getaway, Jericoacoara is not for you. But if kicking back and tuning out is, you’re in luck.
While several inns and guesthouses are located in Jericoacoara, Pousada Chez Loran (tel 88 669 1195, www.jericoacoara.tur.br/pousadachezloran), about 40 minutes by dune buggy, is worth the trip. Chef/owner Loran Michel was visiting Jericoacoara from his home in Rio de Janeiro in the mid-1980s when a friend convinced him to take a look at lakefront property near Gijoca. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Pousada Chez Loran features 10 individual bungalows. Accommodations are Spartan — but in a charming sort of way. A hammock sways gracefully in front of each thatched-roof cottage. Lace curtains flutter gently in louvered windows. Interiors are simple: tile floor, bed, fan, minifridge and private bath. Showers run cold water only, but in this northern-Brazil locale just a few degrees south of the equator, cold water doesn’t get very cold. As chef-in-residence, Loran, a self-taught culinary artist, earns rave reviews for the cuisine he describes as “Franco-Brazilian.”
INFO TO GO
Located 1,700 miles from Rio de Janeiro and 1,600 miles from São Paulo, Fortaleza is the gateway to Ceara. The region is served by Pinto Martins International Airport (FOR). Buses (about $3) connect the airport to downtown. The cost of a taxi ride from the airport to downtown is about $8.
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