SÃO MIGUEL DOS MILAGRES, Brazil — Anyone who says it's the journey that matters most wasn't trying to navigate through the favelas of Maceió, my launch point for Brazil's Costa dos Corais, or Coral Coast, 50 miles north.
Although Maceió has a reputation for crime, the real threat occurred when my GPS had me turn onto Avenida Presidente Roosevelt. Suddenly, I was facing three lanes of traffic heading directly toward me.
"What do I do now?" I asked my partner, Chris, who calmly replied, "Just keep going."
Our Fiat rental was small enough to squeeze onto the bike lane — a maneuver that barely fazed the cyclist I almost clipped. And I succeeded in driving a good half-mile with not a single motorist honking. Try doing that in L.A.
With Pope Francis' recent visit, which drew exuberant crowds numbering in the millions, and the upcoming World Cup and the Summer Olympics, Brazil has now elbowed its way onto the world's radar screen.
However, Chris and I were seeking tranquillity and empty beaches on our two-part trip.
On this late December day, we were headed to Pousada da Amendoeira, a boutique inn a world away from the shanty towns and sugar plantations we would pass on the way to São Miguel dos Milagres.
It was an uneventful three hours by the time we made that final turn for the beach. Soon we were sipping agua de coco under a canopy of thick green leaves.
"This is the Amendoeira tree — which we used to name the inn," said Tsachi Greenhut, an Israeli transplant. He and his Brazilian wife, Jessy, opened the pousada five years ago. "Getting to know the local people, who received us with authentic smiles, has taught us a great deal about nature," Jessy said, "and how to lead a simple life without the stress and overconsumption of big cities."
Amendoeira, which abuts the largest protected marine reserve in the country, is big on sustainability; hence the solar panels, composting, organic vegetables and participation in environmental projects.
This is laid-back Brazil, being, as it is, more than 1,000 miles away (a 2 1/2-hour flight) from Rio's all-night samba clubs. Amendoeira has capitalized on that vibe, thanks to its mellow yet attentive staff, abundance of hammocks, hot tubs and healthful aesthetic enhanced by locally influenced fusion cuisine.
Yet Amendoeira is small enough to feel intimate. Eight bungalows are set amid a plush green carpet and fragrant flowering plants; most are just a few steps from the shaded deck overlooking the ocean.
For all the pousada's comforts, it's the vast expanse of calm transparent water that is the main attraction. That's why Chris and I were on the sand in time for the 5 a.m. sunrise on four of the five mornings we spent here. This schedule helped prime us for the snorkeling/manatee viewing excursion that we planned for 7 a.m. on our third day.
Of course, this is South America, so it was closer to 8 o'clock when we began the half-mile walk through the knee-deep water to meet the jangada, a narrow, flattish wooden boat built for the baby waves.
"Tudo bem?" ("Everything OK?"), Israel, the jangadeiro, called out as we stepped onto the boat for the five-minute trip to the tidal pools. We were forced to rely on our hastily learned Portuguese, but we didn't need anyone to translate the fact that we were drifting through an azure bathtub with huge stands of coconut palms fringing the shoreline.
The snorkeling didn't compare to the Great Barrier Reef's, but there is something sublime about swimming in perfectly clear 82-degree water on a late December morning.
The highlight of the trip began with our getting stuck on a beautiful sandbar and waiting for the tide to rise so the boat could enter the Tatuamunha River, home to the sanctuary for the country's most endangered aquatic mammal, the manatee, or peixe-boi as locals call it. Since 2006, the Program for the Reintroduction of Peixes-bois Marinhos has been educating locals and tourists about the importance of conserving these creatures that were nearly hunted to extinction.
"Não toque!" ("Don't touch!"), Israel told us as we entered the preserve, but a few minutes later, a manatee nuzzled my foot after lifting its flipper onto the boat. These guys may weigh 1,200 pounds, but they're friendly. Rather than swim away from us, the peixe-bois approached the boat as we drifted along the mangrove-lined riverbank.
When we returned to the open water, the sea was finally starting to rise, but the 2-foot swell was just a faint precursor to the more dynamic phase of our trip — exploring Morro de São Paulo on the Bahian island of Tinharé.
Getting there had us retracing our tire treads back to Maceió — this time, driving with the traffic on Avenida Presidente Roosevelt and catching a one-hour flight to Salvador, where we would take a catamaran to Morro de São Paulo the next day.