Alex Hamilton sets sail from Rio de Janeiro with 550 Brazilians and cruises - and sambas - his way from port to port

Ship's log

Ship's log

"Are you Mr Hamilton?" asked the deck-hand. "How did you know?" I replied. "It is on your bag," he explained. "I am Lima." "I know," I said. "It's on your shirt."

I was having coffee on the poop deck of the Rhapsody. Lima turned about and leapt in the air with arms outflung, crying exultantly, "Brazil!". While technically correct, since Rhapsody was in Brazilian waters and Brazil was what we'd come to see, there wasn't, just then, any coast in view.

The Tannoy repeated in six languages that, having left Rio yesterday, we were 557 nautical miles from Pÿrto Seguro, air 26C, sea 24C, humidity 72, wind NE by E force 2. We could also see aerobics throbbing with 84 per cent springy women and 16 per cent massively overweight men, and caipirinha caipirosak being mixed by Mandrake the barman, who is writing the world's first book of cocktail recipes geared to drinkers' star signs.

Lima returned from his lyrical outburst. "My friend wishes to photograph us together," he announced. "I've already been done by the ship's photographer," I said. "Checking in, coming aboard, looking through a lifebelt, having dinner, being cuddled by his assistant dressed as Columbine, shaking the Captain's hand, walking the jogging track..."

"Good," said Lima. "Very good. But please, photograph of me pouring coffee for you. For job document." I said, "But my cup's full." Lima waved his friend forward, saying, "No problem, the pot is empty". The picture taken, Lima picked up his paintbrush. "Fantasy," he said, "in Brazil is fantasy."

Pÿrto Seguro

Small town with a unique selling point: it's where Brazil began, in 1500. Its claim rests on its choice by the Portuguese navigator Alvarez Cabral as the safe harbour for his 13 caravels. Those little ships could enter behind the reef, but Rhapsody's 17,000 tons had to wait outside while we went ashore in a dandy tender called Delirio. ("In Brazil is fantasy.")

Our goal was the old colonial town up on the bluff. I ran with a pack of disco-fit Argentine girls, who nevertheless wilted in the heat and demanded short cuts. The guide ignored their whining, but adopted a policy of dashing from one shady tree to another, with lecturettes on the provenance and industrial uses of the latex, the palm and the jacaranda - all imported, so Cabral wouldn't have seen them.

I liked that, and also finding the Pau do Brasil tree, from which the settlers got a red dye. Glowing like an ember - brasa - it gave Brazil its name. These and flamboyants and hibiscus hedges, plus the bush weighed down with parasitic orchids that encircles the town, added grace to the patriotic motif.

Here is the oldest church in Brazil (1526), proto-baroque but plain; here the barn-like college where Jesuits "catechised" the native Guarani; and here is an 18th-century terrace of artisan cottages, painted with pastels like Neapolitan ice-cream to distinguish them for people who knew neither letters nor numbers. We had a beach afternoon beside a mangrove swamp five miles away. The lurching of the bus seemed to herald the samba. The beach resort was boom-box heaven for our Argentine lovelies, and after musical chairs in the sand they were shipshape again.

Ship's log

Cruising with Brazilians (550 - not one American) is travel-enhancing. They do know how to party. They clap everything: winners, losers, lifeboat drill. They give it 100 per cent, the children cranking slots till midnight, the older kids working on new crazy dances, their mothers gliding about the dance floor in the embrace of our tireless Italian captain.

Then, at classes on T-shirt decorating, total commitment. That goes for the gamblers, too. Seven growly, jowly men who never quit the baccarat table, staking $500 a play, while dealers came and went.

Salvador de Bahia

For land-lubbers, this is the piÿce de résistance, capital of the north-east, melting-pot of magic and religiosity, imperial superbia and African defiance. Given a few hours among plateresque and heavy baroque art, quizzing ancient bones, walking on cobbles laid down by slaves in the notorious Pelourinho district of the acropolis, and being confronted with the blood-boiling beauty of Bahianas in full fig, you're bound to seed a novel. And then of course think better of it, because Jorge Amado was here before you.

A colonial house showcases Amado, filled with eulogies and worldwide book-jackets and pictures of the great man meeting other great men. It's less a shrine than a giant walk-in scrapbook - his real home is some miles down the coast.

Lack of time haunted me. I suffered tourist overload. It's a city of nearly three million people and more than 200 churches. See here: rails that once carried trams. See here: skeletons that once carried the flesh and hopes of wealthy colonials. See here: tiled panels round a cloister, carrying cartoons of moral saws such as "Virtue is envy's target", and "The fruit of labour is glory".

"Enough is as good as a feast" might be worth a few tiles. But next door is the extravagantly decorated Franciscan church. See here: wooden angels with sour expressions, perhaps because slaves carved them. See down a steep hill: a grandiloquent church that the slaves made for themselves, taking a century over it, but happy.

You often hear the Salvador word axe used for a frantic bouncing dance. I asked a policeman what axe means. "It means," he replied, "like a spread, a place, an idea ... of happiness." His face became suffused with a bonhomie not often seen in coppers. Maybe my coming to Salvador ignorant of axe amused him.

An evening excursion had offered a capoeira, a fighting dance developed by slaves and, until recently, illegal. I'd already chanced on one performed by a group beside the Mercado Modelo - where a bottle of cane liquor containing a large crab tempted me - but the excursion was cancelled because no one else cared. So I dined in the market's restaurant upstairs, which declares, "Oxossi rules this house and protects his clients". Nice to have made a powerful invisible friend. ("In Brazil is fantasy.")

Ship's log

Long reach south to Vitória. The ship's Columbines teach us to dance the Mango No 5, the Pam-Pam, the Copa de la Vida, and La Vuelta. Disco till 4am. A whiskery Neptune is elected and a stout Carnival Queen. I am plucked from the audience and required to sing "O Sole Mio". Succÿs fou. Our officers are mostly from Sorrento. Not from Naples, they stress. The barmen are Bulgars who speak none of the six languages - "cocktails are international," says one dismissively.

Vitória

Dramatic entry, but a bit off the leisure map, not fully focused. So the purser would substitute Maceió. Having once lived in Vitória, I'm glad he's not had his way. My fantasy is that I'll see again the rock on which our house stood by the beach, and reassure myself that there really was a convent dominating the harbour entrance. I used to watch for the dust rising inland that signalled the vast procession of pilgrims coming to clamber on their knees up 365 steps crowded with candles and beggars.

The convent was itself a fantasy realised by an evangelical friar, Pedro Palacios. The painting of the Virgin, which he kept locked up below the mountain, removed itself to the peak and inspired him to build. A further miracle followed in the 17th century, when another Franciscan friar confronted an invading Dutch fleet. He raised a cross and they had a vision of an army in the sky, and sailed away.

It was all as I remembered, just tidier. Pilgrims still clamber, beggars beg, candles gutter. A copy of the painting hangs in the gallery beside a little chapel - the original is again locked away. But they've not preserved our house by the beach, though it too was a miracle of sorts, being the destination of a transatlantic cable. From the convent I could see our beach, lined now with condos. Vitória has been transmogrified.

Ship's log

One port remaining: time to think tips. High ratio of staff to guests. The food was good, the courses following like items at a supermarket checkout. Our chef de rang expects poor tipping, because of the charter discount element. He shrugs, he's on a monthly salary of $2,000, but it's sad for 50 Malagasie cabin staff. The ubiquitous snapper, having shot some 10,000 pictures, proposes bargains.

Buzios

No historic tours, just schooners visiting 27 beaches. I reached six on foot, slowly. They were pretty little coves, with men grilling fish under almond trees, and tattooists busy among the crowds. Buttocks are in - or rather, out. It's a callipygean paradise.

Though long gone, Brigitte Bardot is the reigning goddess. She built a cottage with her Brazilian lover in the Sixties, and her beachside idyll turned this sleepy peninsula into the St Tropez of Brazil, easily reached from Rio. Among the bijoux villas, with terracotta roofs and jalousies, is a Brigitta restaurant and a BB cinema.

And I found a recent statue, life-size, of BB sitting on an old-style trunk with reinforced corners, trailing a straw hat and looking out to sea. Men sitting on her knee to be snapped have already worn the blue of her jeans to copper. The work has been criticised by locals who feel she's entitled to a larger bust.

Back on board, we're advised to wake early to catch Rio's skyline. But first some memories. A new friend recalls being romanced on a beach by an officer. "Lovely picnic," she said. "He'd brought everything. They're all the same, Italian men, don't take no..." "So what was the sea like?" I asked quickly. "Like bacon..." "The sea was like bacon?" "Firm and very salty." Lovely concept; could win the Turner Prize. In Brazil is fantasy.

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