Despite its proximity to the city, most of the 400km of São Paulo’s coast have, until recently, been overlooked by sun and beach fiends in favour of more glamorous Rio. But don’t listen to cariocas who sniff that the state’s beaches aren’t up to par; by European or North American standards, many are pretty fabulous. Nevertheless, foreign visitors are relatively rare, and most services are aimed at Brazilians. To the northeast, following the coast up to the border with Rio state, the area is developing all too rapidly, but this part of the coast still offers great contrasts, ranging from long, wide stretches of sand at the edge of a coastal plain to idyllic-looking coves beneath a mountainous backdrop. Having the use of a car is an advantage for exploring the more isolated, less spoilt, beaches ( for car rental info); however, if it’s a lively beach resort like Guarujá you’re after, public transport can take you there from São Paulo in less than half a day. Southwest of Santos, tourism remains low-key, in part because the roads aren’t as good, but also because the beaches simply aren’t as beautiful.
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Without a shadow of a doubt, Ilhabela is one of the most beautiful spots on the coast between Santos and Rio, though it can get rather crowded in late December and early January. Of volcanic origin, the island’s startling mountainous scenery rises to 1370m and is covered in dense, tropical foliage. With 83 percent of the island protected within the boundaries of the Parque Estadual de Ilhabela, the dozens of waterfalls, beautiful beaches and azure seas have contributed to the island’s popularity. Old or new, most of the buildings are in simple Portuguese-colonial styles, as far removed from brash Guarujá as you can get. The island is a haunt of São Paulo’s rich who maintain large and discreetly located homes on the coast, many with mooring facilities for luxury yachts or with helicopter landing-pads.