By ALEXANDRA MARSHALL
Gisele Bundchen and Leonardo DiCaprio are regulars there. When Naomi Campbell visits, she stays in a palatial beach house owned by Donata
Meirelles, the buyer for Daslu, the São Paulo boutique that sells more Chanel than any place in the world (except at Chanel itself). The Brazilian
interior design star Sig Bergamin has a house there, as do Swiss bankers with low profiles but high balance sheets. Waiting in an eternal passport
control line at Guarulhos International Airport in São Paulo, I ran into Kai, one-fourth of the downtown New York design collective As Four, and the
stylist Victoria Bartlett. Guess where they were headed? So what if reaching its white shores takes three flights, a short ferry and a bumpy hour in
the back of a taxi? Trancoso, in the state of Bahia, just might be the chicest beach town you've never heard of.
That trend-obsessed Brazilians of the leisure class have suddenly piled on to Trancoso is not surprising. Until three years ago, when an asphalt road
was built from Porto Seguro, the place was almost inaccessible. Less typical is Trancoso's history. Though the Portuguese first landed on Brazil's
verdant shores in Porto Seguro, industry, agriculture and the slave trade pretty much bypassed the southernmost part of Bahia, and by the 19th
century, Trancoso was forgotten. In 1973, when a handful of Brazilian hippies sought to get back to nature and escape a military dictatorship, no one
would have thought to look for them there. There was a post office in a neighboring town, but mail usually took about a month. The quadrado --
which boasts one of the country's oldest churches -- was in disrepair. There were no roads and no electricity and no currency was traded among the
small Pataxo Indian and mixed-race population -- just ''the forest and those beautiful beaches,'' says Ricardo Salem, one of Trancoso's first modern
settlers. ''When I first climbed up the hill to the square, which was just an opening in the forest, I said, I want to live here.''
Salem and the others settled into a peaceful collective. They fished; they had children; they put on puppet shows. But with skill sets honed by law
school and bumming around Amsterdam and India, the biribandos, as they were called, needed help from the natives to survive. ''By hiring the
native people to help us build houses, we introduced money,'' Salem recalls. ''Soon they started to offer to sell us land. The beach land was less
valuable to them because they couldn't farm it, so I bought two kilometers, about 300 meters deep, for the price of a Volkswagen Beetle.'' Sounds like
a sucker deal, but no one knew the value of that land then. Today, a 100-yard-wide plot on the same beach would cost anywhere from $800,000 to $1
Still, the biribando spirit is in no danger of disappearing. The local dress code calls for nothing fancier than Havaiana sandals and a sarong. The aptly
named Vegetal, another original settler, may have cut his hair -- it was draining his energy, man -- but he still adheres to an all-flora diet. During the
high season of January and February, dreadlocked teenagers selling jewelry and fruit dot the beach by day, and by night there's always a drum circle
on the torch-lit quadrado, complete with capoeira dancers and the unmistakable smell of a certain burning herb. At the rustic new Mata N'ativa
Pousada hotel, next to a listing for Reiki sessions and yoga classes, is a warning that the cost of removing henna tattoo stains from sheets will be
added to your bill. Mata N'ativa's owner, Daniel Victor Santos, is a shy, 30-year old Jesus look-alike in board shorts. He is happy to lead a kayak
excursion on the water-lily-dotted Rio Trancoso, and he'll throw in a delightful lecture on nature preservation free -- though the calls of the bright
Corrupiao and Xexeu birds almost drown him out.
''When I came here in 1997, it changed my life,'' says André Zanonato, co-owner of the sleek hotel, Etnia Pousada. He and his partner, Corrado Tini,
previously lived in Modena and worked in fashion and design but found that ''in Europe, everyone is stressed, afraid of terrorism. We came here to
stay in nature and find balance in our lives.'' (Etnia's in-house art therapist probably helps.)
Zoning laws in Trancoso are keeping overdevelopment at bay -- there's that biribando ethic again -- but rumors abound that a Txai resort hotel is in
the not-so-distant future. And Club Med has already arrived. Perhaps this will prompt Brazilians to pack up and pioneer the next great vacation spot
in a country that still has large chunks of terrain unexplored by the nonindigenous. Some have moved on already: Gloria Coelho, the São Paulo-based
fashion designer, recommends Ponta do Corumbau, a beach rimmed by a coral reef four hours by car (or 20 minutes by private plane) from Porto
Seguro. Trancoso residents don't much care. ''The important thing about Trancoso isn't that it's chic, although it has become a fashion place,''
Zanonato says. ''The important thing here is the nature. And the people who live here understand that.'' If you don't believe him, just ask Vegetal --
that is, if you can find him.
Alexandra Marshall is a New York-based writer who often covers Brazilian fashion.
April 24, 2005
Copyright 2005 The New York Times