The comely island community of Santa Catarina, situated 430 miles south of São Paulo along Brazil's so-called Emerald Coast, is a not-very-well-kept secret among the well-heeled denizens of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, who bolt here in summer for the sublime beaches, the buzzy nightlife, and the pockets of undeveloped tranquility.
Left: Paragliding over Florianópolis—"Floripa" to locals
At the heart of the island is the vast Lagoa de Conceição, a clear saltwater lagoon that's backed by lush Atlantic rain forest, its entire length dotted with picturesque fishing villages. The sun-dappled picture is reminiscent of the lake regions of Europe.
Sheltered between two rocky headlands and one of the island's most raved-about beaches is the coastal reserve of Praia de Galheta. The hotel scene here is still evolving, so private rentals are a good bet if you're planning to stay around the beaches.
Downtown's vibe lies somewhere between an upscale Caribbean island and Miami's South Beach: Gleaming high-rise apartment buildings line the waterfront, while the historic old town is leafy and languid, dotted with parks where residents play chess under the trees. Stylish urbanites shop for artisanal produce and congregate inside tiny, convivial wine bars at the Mercado Público Municipal (left), an ornate Colonial-era covered marketplace.
Left: Trying out kite-surfing at Lagoa de Conceição
Groups of young Brazilians gleefully sand-board (riding down dunes on a board) along the extraordinary white sand dunes that rise like sleeping giants from the center of the island. This part of the island only really grew up in the past 15 years—before that there was just a lone gas station and a dirt track to Praia Mole. Thankfully the place manages to feel wild and belonging to nature in spite of the hordes of sand-boarders.
Left: Sand-boarders ride the dunes at Centrinho da Lagoa
Jurerê is the nouveau South American answer to St. Tropez, awash in Champagne bars, nightclubs, palatial homes, and a young crowd decked out in skimpy clubwear and designer sunglasses. At Taikô, a Champagne bar where Brazilian MTV sets up camp each summer, everyone is drinking, flirting, and dancing on the sand to music spun by a DJ perched in a lifesaver's tower.
Left: Follow the signs to fresh oysters.
Try Ostradamus, a nautical-theme oyster restaurant on a stretch of beach with sweeping views back to the mainland and the state of Santa Catarina. Somehow the wonderful tweeness of it all—the menu is presented as a rolled treasure map, and the waiters are dressed as sea captains—is delightfully offset by the gorgeous setting right on the water (many tables are set up on a long, covered pier) and the incredible just-off-the-boat seafood.
Left: One of the many waterfront restaurants on Santa Catarina