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In Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, Carnival is a state of mind

William K. WolfrumBy William K. Wolfrum,
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The stereotype of beautiful Brazilian girls rings true in Salvador da Bahia. (GolfPublisher.com)

SALVADOR DA BAHIA, Brazil - Standing in the middle of Aeroclube Plaza Show - a former airport turned into an entertainment mall, with several dance clubs - travel agent Vladimir Ilitch looked around, soaking in the crowd and the thumping drums coming from a live band playing nearby.

"This is great, it's paradise," said Ilitch. "I've lived in the U.S., Argentina and all over Brazil, but when I came here, I knew Salvador was my place. I'll die here."

Salvador just seems to have that effect on people. Especially during February, when Carnival takes over Brazil. This year's event is scheduled for Feb. 25-28, though activities for Carnival will likely be spread throughout February. And in Salvador, Carnival is more a year-round state of mind.

"There is always a party, every day of the week, all year," Ilitch said.

Carnival

For many outsiders, the image of Carnival comes from the spectacular shows put on in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. There, Carnival is built around dance contests between samba schools. Huge floats dominate the proceedings, with scantily clad women and amazing costumes everywhere. It's a spectator's dream.

In Salvador, however, the spectators themselves are the show. Here, Carnival is a week-long street party. Live bands spread throughout the city, traveling from neighborhood to neighborhood via truck. Nicknamed "Trios," the trucks will stop in an area, cordon off a large spot for people to dance, and the party begins.

In the most popular areas the trucks will remain in the same spot throughout the week. You'll have to pay to get a special T-shirt to get into one of the cordoned areas, but it's well worth it, and generally much safer. You can also rent hotel rooms to witness the action from above, or pay to get into a party at a hotel, which combines the best of both worlds.

The music of Carnival and of Brazil tends to be drum-based, upbeat and relentless. The current dance craze among Brazilian youth is the arrocha (think Dirty Dancing but much raunchier), but purists consider it brega (tacky). The classic samba beat remains the soundtrack of Carnival.

Brazil's dances are like jazz and blues in the United States, the legacy of an African heritage. Much of the population of Salvador's state, Bahia, is descended from slaves brought to Brazil by the Portuguese, and many of the dances are based on African religious ceremonies. It's a style of music and a form of expression that has kept a people strong for centuries and continues to thrive today.

"Carnival is like life here," construction worker Joao Chaves said. "It is all about the music and dancing."

Where to stay

The Hotel Sofitel Salvador is a remarkably nice place, with a strong resort feel. It has an excellent pool area, a sprawling workout room, restaurants, several bars and a dutiful staff. Rooms will run from $100-$200 U.S., with plush suites available. Located conveniently near the beach and Salvador's many tourist areas, it's a very solid base for a Bahia vacation.

The Catussaba Resort Hotel down the street is the only hotel in Salvador with full beach access. Four interconnected pools are the main hangout for guests, with the Atlantic Ocean less than a minute's walk away. While it doesn't quite measure up to the Sofitel as a hotel, the Catussaba's beach access and scenic qualities make it an outstanding place to stay, for roughly the same price.

If you're going to golf in Costa Do Sauipe, you have nearly a dozen options for lodgings, from major resorts like Marriott, Renaissance and Breezes Super Club to smaller pousadas (bed and breakfast-type establishments).

Dining out

As befits a beach city, Salvador is seafood lover's paradise. If you insist on sticking to beef or chicken, even the best cuts of meat at Brazilian restaurants will run you much less than at their U.S. counterparts, with a large serving of filet mignon often running less than $10.

Top places to dine in Salvador include Mistura Fina and Yemanja. Both specialize in seafood and are short trips from most major resorts. Try the mocequa, a large stew made with onions, tomatoes and coconut milk that will be combined with huge portions of crab, shrimp or lobster. It's a true Brazilian dish that easily transfers to international palates.

Another Salvador delicacy is acaraje, a slightly spicy snack made from deep-fried black-eyed peas and often stuffed with shrimp. Acaraje da Cera has two locations in town, and they are where the locals go to fill up on their favorite snack.

What to see

One must-do side trip from Salvador is Avenida Otavio Mangabeira, which runs parallel to the ocean. Finding a driver to take you on a tour and point out historical locations is usually easy and cheap.

The trip should take you down past the famous lighthouse and to Mercado Modelo, a great flea market where you can buy whatever handicrafts you are after. There are also areas for food and live music throughout the day.

For serious shoppers, options range from large modern malls (known just as "shopping" in Brazilian Portuguese) to mini-malls to street vendors. Don't be afraid to take a look at what street vendors are selling, and don't be afraid to haggle: The first price you hear will likely be high, and haggling is a part of life in Brazil. The vendor won't be insulted if you try to talk him or her down.

Golfers, however, may be disappointed with the offerings in Salvador. The Sofitel offers a nine-hole course, the Itapua Golf Club, that's best avoided until the hotel puts some money into it. If you really need to get on the course, you'll have to travel a bit, either by car to Costa do Sauipe Golf Links or by plane to the Comandatuba Ocean Course. Both are championship courses and highly regarded by golfers both local and visiting.

Fast Fact

An area off of Itapua Beach in Salvador is known as Plakafor. This derives from the Ford Co. advertising sign located here when the area was less populated. People would often say arrange to meet at the sign; even though it eventually came down, the slang-ified name for the Ford sign stuck to the area.

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William K. Wolfrum keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation. You can follow him on Twitter @Wolfrum.

 
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