WITH the phone to his ear and a look of exasperation on his face, it was safe to assume that Charles Levitan was chasing yet another would-be guest from his fuss-free collection of whitewashed cottages on Boipeba, a lushly untrammeled island off the coast of Brazil. “No, we don’t have televisions in the room,” he said. “No, we only have fans.” The impish grin on his face suggested the prospective guest had been satisfactorily dissuaded.
It’s not that Mr. Levitan enjoys losing customers. But over the last few years, as this remote island near Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia, has gained increasing cachet, he has learned that it is better to have empty rooms at Pousada Santa Clara than peevish guests complaining about Boipeba’s erratic electricity, its absence of motorized transport or the nonexistent night life.
“If you can’t live in the moment, this isn’t the place for you,” he said one morning during my visit last year, seated at the front desk and looking slightly frazzled after enduring weather-related queries from a French doctor. “If you need to constantly know the weather forecast, you might want to go somewhere else.”
Boipeba may lack glamour, but it compensates with ridiculously perfect weather and the kind of vacant, palm-shrouded beaches that make you forget about the pleasures of air-conditioning. For those needing more diversions, there is a rare swath of unmolested Atlantic rain forest to be explored, acres of coral reef and picturesque colonial-era villages where the fish you glimpsed during your afternoon snorkel could very well end up on your dinner plate.
Although there are regular flights from Salvador, whose intoxicating mix of African, European and native Indian cultures would be reason enough to visit this part of the world, most visitors still arrive the old-fashioned way: a four-hour trip by ferry, bus and speedboat. Once docked at Velha Boipeba, a cobblestoned hamlet that’s home to the bulk of the island’s 1,600 residents, most guests trudge their way across the beach to one of three dozen guesthouses, a number that has been growing each year. It is not a venture for the high-heeled Jimmy Choo set.
Oddly enough, many who depend on tourism are more than happy to dissuade some travelers from visiting Boipeba, an ecologically fragile haven for the armadillos, nesting sea turtles and abundant sea life that thrive in the tangle of mangrove that gives the island its decidedly green tint.
“If I could freeze the island just as it is now, that would be perfect,” said Miguel Rosas Dos Santos, a 47-year-old tour-boat operator who is almost wistful for the days, circa 1985, when Boipeba had no mail, phone service or electricity, and no accommodations, save a handful of rustic huts. “Everyone loves the money flowing, but too many tourists will ruin the place.”
Such existential ruminations are commonly heard at Pousada Santa Clara, which is run by Charles Levitan, his brother Mark, and Charles’s partner, Matias Mulet. Their richly landscaped pousada, which manages to be at once stylish, intimate and a ridiculously good deal, is almost always full with a coterie of returning guests and old friends who sometimes stay for weeks on end.
Charles, 55, the older of the Levitan brothers — there is a third living in Israel — handles the logistical and financial aspects of Santa Clara. Mark’s dominion is the kitchen, where he concocts inventive dinners that lean heavily on the island’s produce: seafood, mangos, coconut milk and the red fruit of the dende palm. In addition to being the chef at the pousada’s thatch-roofed restaurant, his other talents reveal themselves in the meticulously coiffed landscaping and the fanciful Gaudí-esque tile work that graces Santa Clara’s twisting pathways.
The two brothers discovered Boipeba in 1999, when its tourism industry was still nascent. Mark was visiting Charles — then working as a tour guide in Salvador — and they took a side trip to Boipeba. They arrived during a rainstorm in the dark of night, but it didn’t take long before the brothers were smitten. “We thought of buying a little beach house and the next thing you know, we were negotiating to take over this awful, broken down pousada that the previous owner had given up on,” Charles said.
They opened in the winter of 2001 with six rooms, although with no phone service guests would just show up and hope for the best.
In the ensuing decade, regular boat service and telephones arrived, and Santa Clara added five rooms; more recently, the brothers grudgingly installed wireless Internet, mostly to relieve themselves from the annoyance of guests who would beg to check their e-mail at the front desk computer.
ost of the island’s accommodations are arrayed along the beachfront, where the ferries dock, or up the hill in Velha Boipeba, where guesthouses are salted among the homes of local residents. Scattered across the island, seven miles at its widest, are a number of other guesthouses where the beaches are blessedly empty but a mere 20-minute walk to the civilizing sustenance of Velha Boipeba.
While the pousadas range in size and quality, there are not, at least yet, large hotels or all-inclusive resorts. Fishingforays, snorkeling tours and lazy daylong boat rides are mom-and-pop operations that can be arranged by your hotelier, with whom you will invariably be on a first-name basis.
In recent years, the island has undergone a modest transformation. There are now nearly two dozen restaurants and the crush of tourists during Brazilian holidays can give Velha Boipeba a slightly honky-tonk feel. Although American tourists are still relatively rare, the island has been discovered by Europeans — Italians, Germans and the French — a few of whom have stayed on to open pousadas.
Perhaps the most momentous change came five years ago, when Boipeba began receiving flights from Salvador, although a jaunt in a 30-year-old eight-seat prop plane is not for the tremulous.
IN 2007, Petrobras, the Brazilian energy giant, began drilling for natural gas off the coast, which is not visible from Boipeba’s beaches but has nonetheless caused great alarm among environmentalists. It also had an unexpected impact on the locals, inspiring a newfound appreciation for their island’s fragile habitat. (As part of the deal, Petrobras built a modest environmental center and provides stipends to local fishermen whose catches are occasionally reduced by fish kills that some blame on the drilling.)
Even if the arrival of satellite TV and high-speed Internet means that local teenagers spend more of their time inside, the rhythms of daily life, for visitors at least, remain unchanged. The 12 miles of empty and pristine beaches remain, well, empty and pristine, and the trails through the tropical forest can be hiked without passing another soul.
The more ambitious can horseback ride or snorkel out to the reefs. My own predilection is to take what I call the hedonist express, a speedboat that hopscotches from the floatingoyster bars — where 15 reais (about $9.25, at $1.63 reais to the dollar) buys a dozen freshly yanked from the sea — to a spit of sand, visible only at low tide, where two enterprising friends named Washington and Jefferson serve passion fruit caipifrutas.
“Sometimes I think of leaving here, but then I have a day like this and the thought goes out of my mind,” said Matias, 47, as the boat purred along the coast, passing a pastel blue 17th-century church and the endless greenery of coastal mangrove swamps.
From time to time Charles and Mark also toy with the idea of leaving. Running an inn can be taxing, they say, and there are social limitations to island life. But a larger consideration is what impact the creep of development will have on their beloved Boipeba. All three men say they can’t imagine staying if the place turns into Morro de São Paulo, the resort town on an adjacent island that was once as idyllic and untouched as Boipeba but is now overrun with sunburnt carousing holidaymakers. “I hope it doesn’t happen, but I can’t really talk since I came here and opened a business,” Mark said.
Even if environmental laws offer Boipeba a measure of protection, such a fate is not hard to imagine. Some locals fear what might happen if a 4,200-acre chunk of the island, on the market as a potential “eco resort,” is sold to developers.
“I haven’t worn shoes in almost 30 years, and even June in New York feels cold to me,” Charles said, only partly in jest. “I’m not quite ready to throw in the towel.”