Friday 17 June 2011

Going for a Brazilian

I'm often asked "Is it worth me entering Metro competitions when I live outside the major cities where it circulates?" and "If I've won a prize from Metro, will  they allow me to win again?"

Well, I live in Hampshire and have won several prizes from Metro including a weekend break, a camera, a hamper, several lots of tickets to events and best of all, several years  ago, a holiday to Brazil. Here's my account of the holiday.

The outward flight was long and uneventful, and Brazilian immigration was incredibly long and tedious. Once clear of the formalities we looked out for a driver waving a board with our name on it, but none was to be seen. The local tour tout saw me looking lost and confused, and came up to me, but instead of trying to flog me an expensive taxi journey (the resort was 50 miles away) he explained to me that the resort of Costa do Sauipe had its own VIP lounge at the airport, where we would meet our driver. Quite how he explained it, as he spoke no English and I speak no Portuguese, I'm not sure, but he was right and we soon found ourselves settled in air conditioned comfort while we waited for the other passengers who were transferring to the resort.

The coach we travelled on was incredibly luxurious, with soft leather seats and padded leg rests, and as it was 20 hours since we had left home we were both asleep within moments of sitting down - so much for seeing a bit of Brazil on the journey.

We were greeted at the hotel by the night manager who wanted to take us on a guided tour of the hotel, but we were far too exhausted for that so after  a quick cold drink we were shown to our room - a big, airy, comfortable room with the joy of a very efficient and practically silent air conditioner (there was also a ceiling fan which had the novel trick of switching itself on every time the bathroom light was turned off). We fell asleep straight away, but to our surprise our body clocks still woke us both at 5am so we set out to explore the hotel.

It was built around a huge swimming pool - so big that during the morning they gave kayaking and windsurfing lessons on it, and only needed to use a third of the pool for them! Also in the immaculately kept gardens was a trapeze and trampolining area, although we didn't see it in use very much - only for the kids club, but the staff who demonstrated to the kids were pretty impressive.

Eventually it was time for breakfast - and the start of a week of pigging out for us! Breakfast was probably the most spectacular meal of the day as there was so much to choose from - a table groaning with tropical fruits, all the usual cereals, yoghurts etc., a wide range of hot dishes, both local and international, cold meats, cheeses, and dozens of varieties of freshly made cakes and breads. Plus a very wide range of juices - orange, mango, guava, melon, coconut, cashew, hog-plum and many we had never heard of. Plus a "cranky juice of the day" such as orange and watercress or beetroot and passionfruit. Oh, and there was always champagne available for breakfast although I never quite fancied starting the day that way.  Breakfast was shared with dozens of sparrows and Bom-ti-vi birds (Bom-ti-vi means "nice to see you" so we called them all Brucie), who were cheeky enough to help themselves from peoples' plates.

 We spent the first day acclimatising and recovering from the journey - lazing around the pool, swimming from time to time and generally unwinding. Lunch was taken, as every day, in the poolside buffet where there was a wide range of salads, grills and local dishes, and the inevitable huge chiller of fresh fruit (I don't think I'll ever get scurvy even if I never eat another piece of fruit in my life). Also by the pool were two coconut stands, where staff spent all day opening young coconuts and tipping the juice into chillers, so guests could help themselves to it, and two bars where we sampled the local "caipirhina", a cocktail made of  crushed limes and sugar with the local cane spirit, a kind of white rum.

After that strenuous morning, Mark went for a nap while I treated myself to a hairdo at the hotel salon. Paying for it was a bit of a problem though! I had expected it to be charged to the room, but that wasn't acceptable, neither was a credit card - they wanted payment in Brazilian Reales. Now, you can't buy those in UK, and the foreign exchange shop had advised us to take US dollars, so I tried to pay with those. Eventually they accepted them, but I felt I had paid a lot more than I should have done. When I went into the bank next day to change some currency, they explained that there was a US$15 tax on every transaction involving dollars, even at the bank, so as we were only expecting to change a small amount of currency the dollars we had taken were useless and we had to withdraw cash with our credit cards. (And the "free buy back" of our US dollars when we came home cost us £20. Bah!) Oh well, I was very pleased with the haircut!

While changing for dinner, we tried the local TV and discovered that in the early evening, one channel had a cookery hour every day -  a Portuguese programme followed by either Jamie Oliver or Nigella on alternate days, so we had something familiar to watch while we pottered around.

The hotel had three formal restaurants and two buffets, which were open in different combinations each night. We never did quite work out the system, but on the first night we found ourselves in the Japanese restaurant. Oh dear, the meal was dire! Our starter was chicken yakitori - a single small skewer of tough, dry chicken garnished with half a grape. The main course was a breaded chicken escalope worthy of captain Birds Eye, with some sticky rice and a teaspoonful of stir fried vegetables. The Japanese customers appeared to be enjoying it. Luckily it was the only disappointing meal we had all week - the rest of the week was filled with beautiful tender steaks, lobster, crayfish tails, local dishes so spicy they made the eyes water, and fruit, fruit and more fruit! We kept finding more eating opportunities as the week went on - one day there was a machine dispensing fresh mango "slush puppies", another day a lady in national costume was making street food dishes, and another day there was a huge bowl of hot kibbeh served up by the pool!

There was entertainment provided every night, but it started at 9.30 pm and we were already fast asleep by then most nights! One night there was to be a circus, so we decided to stay up for it. However we went into the "posh" bar for an after dinner brandy first. The barman produced two brandy snifters and a bottle of Remy Martin, then proceeded to fill them as deep as you would a wine glass. Obviously we didn't want to make him feel uncomfortable by complaining, in fact to make him feel really at ease we has a second one each. After that, we went to look for the circus but the geography of the hotel seemed to have changed beyond recognition so having lost the circus we staggered back to our room which for some reason was rotating slowly on its axis.

 On the second day we explored the rest of  the resort. Costa do Sauipe is a purpose built resort on the coast about 50 miles north of Salvador. There are about four major hotels. Ours, Breezes, was the poshest and was right at the end of the resort - our room looked out over virgin swamp and jungle and from the window we saw all sorts of interesting bird life and even a capybara.  A path along the sand dunes, shaded by coconut trees, led past the other hotels and into the central village area. Here some of the swamp pools had been made into water gardens, with a network of interconnecting bridges and pathways, leading on one side to the beach with a pretty beach bar and on the other side to a small street of shops. The shops were all built in traditional style - every building was different, all painted in bright, sugar candy colours, as were the little self catering cottages that surrounded the main street. There were all sorts of souvenir shops, a bank and lots of cafes and bars - but of course as our hotel was all inclusive we weren't tempted into any of them!

Next day we went by bus to Praia do Forte, a neighbouring town. The bus stopped at the end of the picturesque main street, and we walked along the street to the beach. There was a church that was supposed to be very interesting, but we were more interested in watching the mixture of fishing boats and tourist boats in the bay. Around the corner from the church there was the usual gaggle of tacky souvenir stalls (I think I have now seen crickets made out of bamboo or reeds on every continent, except Antarctica of course. I've never been there but I guess both crickets and bamboo are in pretty short supply) and then the entrance to the Tamar project, a turtle sanctuary. They had several tanks of turtles, plus tanks of nurse sharks and sea hares (what ugly things they are!) and several species of fish, eel and ray. But the highlight of the visit was when we watched as  a giant turtle laid a clutch of eggs. Two of the staff were standing by to help her and shade her, and as soon as she had finished laying she slithered off into the pool and forgot all about the eggs. At that point the staff carefully excavated them into a thermos box and carried them over to a nursery area near the beach. Each clutch of eggs is put into an enclosure and marked with the expected hatching date, then on the due date the barrier between the sanctuary and the sea is removed and all the lights along the shore line extinguished, so the babies will make their dash for the ocean.

After a fascinating morning at the sanctuary, we treated ourselves to a glass of beer at a beach bar (almost 50p for two bottles) then had a good look round the village, where we loved all the "tourist" shops. To us it was a very attractive village selling all sorts of  cheap and interesting goods - to a local it was probably a tourist trap full of  overpriced tat! We bought sarongs and T-shirts, and a bottle of the cane spirit for making caipirhinas (65p a litre) then as we had a while to wait for the bus, sat in another bar in the shade of a cashew tree and had another beer. The bar manager took one of the cashew fruits down and ate it - the cashew nut grows outside the fruit, at the end, and you remove and roast it, leaving a fleshy fruit the size of a small pear. You chew, but don't swallow, the flesh - it has a taste of physalis (Cape Gooseberries) - and after spitting out the flesh you are supposed to down a shot of tequila.

On Friday we hired a horse and carriage (and driver) and explored the inland area of the resort - several square miles of dunes, scrub, lakes, swamps and gardens. The facilities were fantastic - about 20 tennis courts, a golf course, an equestrian centre (the carriage driver took us in to meet the horses) and a watersports centre, plus areas for off roading,  BMX cycling, dune sports and pootling around in little electric buggies. Going at a horse's pace meant we were travelling fast enough to see the whole area yet slowly enough to have a good look at all the flora and fauna - again, there was an amazing variety of bird life. We saw some tiny vivid green lizards, but sadly no iguanas. The driver explained to us that the huge number of vultures circling around was because they love to eat snakes, which inhabit the area in large numbers. That put paid to any idea of stopping the carriage and taking a walk through the scrub!!!

Inspired by the birds we had seen, we booked a birdwatching trip for Saturday. We were collected in a jeep, and taken on to get the other passengers from another hotel - a Japanese Brazilian couple and an Argentinian couple. When the Argentinians were told we were English, the woman rolled her eyes and muttered something about the Malvinas, so we kept very quiet about Mark having served in the Falklands war. We were driven a few miles and then had a short walk through the jungle to the river Sauipe, where we boarded a tiny boat, were issued with binoculars and headed off for the 10 mile journey to the mouth of the river. Frankly the bird life was a little disappointing - we could see far more from our room - but travelling through the gradually thinning jungle and mangrove swamps out to the coast was very interesting.

At the mouth of the river, we had a short break for hot roasted cashew nuts  ashore at a local "resort" - a couple of tiny cafes and lots of coconut-leaf roofed beach huts, then set off back up the river. A slight problem with the engines delayed us, so as we went along, night started to fall and we had some very spectacular views of the beautiful sunset. There were bats flying round our heads and all the night-time sounds of the jungle were starting. Then the Argentinian couple's mobile phone rang - it was their daughter, announcing that she was pregnant, so the trip turned into a bit of a celebration!

 Sunday was our last day - we flew out of Salvador at 1am on Monday so had to leave the hotel at 10pm. Although the receptionist told us that it may have to be earlier because "There has been a revolution in Salvador". Fortunately she had mis-translated - in fact it was a demonstration. One man was lying in the road as a protest against toll road charges, and the road was plenty wide enough to drive round him.

 Anyway, as it was going to be a long night of travelling, we took things very easy and had another lazing-round-the-pool day. When we went indoors to do our packing, the weather suddenly changed and it started to pour with rain - the first time all week it hadn't been glorious sunshine! It must have known we were going.

As we were leaving, a convention of 250 Dutch travel agents was arriving and they were being met with a gala dinner and a show of traditional Brazilian dancing, so while we waited for the airport transport we watched voodoo dancers and fire dancers, and left with the sound of drums echoing in our ears.

It was a wonderful holiday, among the best we have ever had. We seem to have got exactly the right balance between activity and relaxation, we ate and drank extremely well, and (unusually for me, as I have dormant tropical sprue) were completely healthy all through the trip.

Roll on the next holiday win!

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