Tucked away in Trancoso, Bahia, UXUA Casa Hotel is just the place to immerse yourself in an authentic slice of Brazil
A jet-and-emerald hummingbird delicately hovers over a hot-pink bougainvillea, and when the sun hits the pool, a thousand shades of azure – from the jade quartz pieces under the water – sparkle like diamonds. Lofty ruby-and-gold Birds of Paradise line the paths and, as you amble around, your feet clad in the Havaianas left in your room, huge palm leaves gently tap on your head. Found on the edge of the rainforest, in the artsy town of Trancoso, arriving at UXUA Casa Hotel & Spa is like opening a magical, rainbow-hued box of treasures.
It’s not easy to get to. Three flights from London – you go via Lisbon to São Paolo and on to Porto Seguro – plus a rambling country drive – make for 24 hours in transit. But, the minute you arrive, you forget all that.
Trancoso in the Bahia region, in the north-eastern part of Brazil, is itself layered with the heritage of voyaging. Perched on a long, dramatic, UNESCO-protected swathe of Atlantic coastline, this is the place where Brazil was first ‘discovered’ by the Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral in 1500. By 1583, the remote spot was formally founded by Jesuit priests, and originally named São João Baptista dos Indios. Their church still stands as the town’s centrepiece – making it one of the oldest in the country. By the 1970s, Transcoso was all but forgotten by the outside world, until a set of hippies and artists – known as bribandos(who were, in fact, middle-class drop-outs from São Paolo, wanting to escape the military rule) – arrived and bought up the decrepit fisherman’s houses from the bemused nativos. A scene was set and soon artists and free-thinkers were hearing about the impossibly pretty spot with its laissez-faire attitude.
Its transformation into one of the world’s most bohemian-chic destinations is largely down to the former creative director of the fashion label Diesel. Wilbert Das, and his business partner, Bob Shevlin – who also worked at Diesel – first arrived in 2004, burnt out from 20 years at the helm of a major label. They fell in love with the place, and with an already flourishing side-line in renovating historic properties, they purchased one of the original fisherman’s casas, with the dream of making it into a holiday home. By 2006, this had morphed into the starting point of UXUA– pronounced Oosh-wa – and which now encompasses a collection of 11 beautifully-curated casas, as well as the just-launched UXUA Alma Collection of seven private homes – also available to rent.
“We saw the potential in Trancoso but it was important to do something with heart, with meaning,” says Shevlin. “What we saw here, we fell in love with so while we wanted to build a hotel that would satisfy our creative needs, we knew it had to be sustainable and in partnership with the locals.”
Many of the casas belonging to the hotel collection are found dotted around the Quadrado – a large square of grass that is the heart of Trancoso. Here, they sit amid tangerine-hued boutiques, selling itsy-bitsy bikinis, and parrot-green painted pousadas. Candy-pink restaurants lure you in with the melancholy singing of a Brazilian balladeer, while in a cobalt-blue house, with a canary-yellow door, you’ll be entranced by kitsch terracotta dolls which have made into table-lamps. By day, locals ride around on horseback, the kids play football and models from Rio parade up and down like it’s a catwalk. Come evening time, shops and restaurants are open late into the night, and, lit by lanterns in the jack-fruit trees, the Quadrado is a dreamy place to be.
“We’re all about low-impact, high value tourism,” adds Shevlin. “The whole project has been one founded on soul. What does this mean? For us, this is about collaboration with the local community. We saw straight away that it is in our interests to keep Trancoso as it is now – to be part of and to help the micro-economy that exists here. After all, if the artists and artisans go, it will lose its essence.”
As a consequence, the hotel is immersed in Transcoso and its laid-back way of life. This is not only down to its geographical layout and the inside-outside feel of each casa, but also the fact that all the fixtures and fittings are made by local craftsmen and women using reclaimed and recycled materials. The result is a multi-layered, rustic-luxe finish, with juxtaposed textures, tropical colours and vintage pieces found throughout each house.
In the Gulub Mahal casa, for instance, there is pastel-coloured stained glass set into original wood-framed doors, sofas are lined with pillows made of Italian linen and illustrated with primitive drawings by a local artist and lamps have raffia shades and coconut shells as bases.
Das has also created an UXUA Casa collection of textiles, furniture and ceramics so if you are coveting the indigo-dyed throws or a rough-hewn dresser, then your luck is in. It is the perfect way for Das to continue his passion for design and to employ local craftspeople. Close to the lobby, for instance, working a traditional wooden hand-loom, Evandro sits, weaving bags, blankets and pillows. Taught by his mother, he comes from a long line of weavers from the nearby state of Minas Gerais. Having first arrived in Trancoso to work as a waiter, he has now been able to return to his family trade by working with Das. It’s just one of a myriad stories of connecting locals with age-old crafts that form part of their heritage.
While UXUA’s vibe may be down to earth, you’ll soon realise that there’s also a rock-star quality to proceedings. After all, Trancoso isthe place beloved by the likes of Leonardo di Caprio, Calvin Klein and Beyoncé. The new Alma Collection of high-end properties seem perfect for this level of visitor. Found in and around Trancoso, they are privately owned by people such as the CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and art collector Ivor Braka. Filled with tropical inspiration and imaginatively curated, interiors have mostly been conceived by Das in collaboration with the owners, yet keeping an intrinsically Bahian feel across all.
From horse-riding along the glorious beach to enjoying a mango caipirinha in UXUA’s beach bar carved out of a fishing boat – it doesn’t take long to get under the skin of the place. “UXUA means ‘wonderful’ in the native Pataxó Indian language,” says Shevlin. “We wanted UXUA to capture the elusive magic of Trancoso. We think we’ve done that.”
Room rates at UXUA Casa Hotel & Spa are from US$410 (approx. £315) per night. This is based on double occupancy and includes breakfast, taxes and fees. To book, visit www.uxua.com
TAP Portugal flies daily from London City, Heathrow, Gatwick & Manchester to Salvador via Lisbon, prices start at £665 return including all taxes. For further information, visit www.flytap.com or call 0345 601 0932.
*This article was also published in the Jewish Chronicle on the 23 November 2018 and can also be read here