Ilha Grande looms out of the Atlantic haze like a tropical island from the pages of Robinson Crusoe. From the catamaran that crosses daily from the mainland of southern Brazil--the nearest mainland port, Angra dos Reis, lies just 105 miles south of Rio de Janeiro--an unbroken emerald wall of dense Atlantic forest rises to serried peaks that tower 3,000 feet above the surrounding ocean.
Today, most of Ilha Grande is a state park. There are no roads; no cars, either. Surfers fawn over the island's hundred-odd beaches, each Sickle-shaped and fringed with palm trees. Hikers come to tramp among cascading waterfalls and steep ravines, some to circle the island over five days, others to stroll on shorter day trails that lace through the jungle.
Local yachties, too, rank the area as a choice destination. "My beloved bay, my adoptive land," wrote Brazilian yachtsmen Amyr Klink, on returning to the island after sailing solo around Antarctica in 1998. "Of all the treats in the world, none would be more special than sailing across the bay of Ilha Grande."
Today, vacationers kayak in the island's coves or dive with PADI-registered scuba guides to the caves, rock chimneys, and wrecks that litter the surrounding ocean. Enticing paths lead off through the forest to natural highlights such as the white coral of Lagoa Azul pool, the 50-foot plunge of the Cachoeira da Feiticeira waterfall, or the spectacular late-afternoon reflections visible at the Gruta de Acaia cave. Bird-watchers, too, come to spot forest rarities like the white-tailed trogon or the blue manakin.
The island's great attraction is that the day's destination is rarely too important. Some visitors limit themselves to puttering around Abraao bay in a motor launch, exploring tiny coves, and casting envious glances at the sumptuous vacation homes erected on private beaches by Brazil's newly wealthy. Others chug around the coast in the Bahia-built riverboats much favored by Ilha Grande's fishermen for their low cost. The boat's long prow, designed to ride high on fiver banks for the easy loading of cargo, is wholly unfit for the open sea, but the boat's pitching and yawing seems only to add to the fun.
The absence of vehicles hit me as I leaped onto the wooden jetty at Abraao, the island's only town. A single row of houses, each painted a vibrant shade of lilac, papaya, or magenta, lined the waterfront; a cobbled street, Rua da Igreja, led towards a tiny white church. Porters sprang forward...