On a sunny day, there are times when Rio de Janeiro really does become the Cidade Maravilhosa, the “Marvelous City,” a place where nature is resplendent, the climate is benign, and the people are startlingly beautiful. From the 2,316-foot summit of the Corcovado, the panorama is truly astonishing. No other city in the world has a setting of equivalent splendor. Only Cape Town provides any serious competition.
Of course, the reality of Rio is considerably more nuanced than it appears from this lofty perch. Notoriously, there are the favelas, the slums that are home to around 1.4 million of the city’s inhabitants. There is the endemic street crime that affects even the central business district, where workers hurry to leave their offices before nightfall. And then there is the sprawling concrete architecture, which may look unexceptional from above, but which, on closer inspection, is often ramshackle and depressing.
Currently, Rio is in a ferment of reorganization in anticipation of the 2014 soccer World Cup and the Olympic Summer Games in 2016. This has caused some unrest, owing to the perceived waste of public funds. The lavishing of $100 million on the new Museum of Tomorrow — designed by Santiago Calatrava, gleefully dubbed “the architect of yesterday” — has been the object of particular ire and ridicule. Rio’s pugnacious mayor, Eduardo Paes, forges on regardless, but there is an unmistakable sense that the city’s regeneration has wandered some miles from the intended script.
Both the World Cup and the Olympics will take place during Rio’s “winter,” the cool, dry season that extends from June to September, when it is reliably sunny, there is relatively little rain or humidity, and the temperature averages 70 degrees. For American travelers who wish primarily to sightsee and explore, this is undoubtedly the most pleasant time of year for a visit. However, there is a school of thought that insists Rio is at its most inimitable during the “summer” from December to March, when the average temperature is 10 degrees hotter and showers are frequent. This is the time of the Rio Carnival (February 13-17 in 2015) and also is the season when the famous beaches are packed. Personally, I enjoy Rio most when it is humid, tropical and in a festive mood, but the weather can be capricious.
In preparation for the upcoming sports festivals, the city’s most famous hotel, the 232-room Belmond Copacabana Palace, recently underwent a $20 million renovation. Designed in 1923 by French architect Joseph Gire in imitation of The Negresco and the Carlton on the Riviera, it is one of those grand hotels around which innumerable myths and legends have accrued. The property comprises the original eight-story art deco building and an adjacent tower. The former has been comprehensively refurbished and is definitely to be preferred. Our Deluxe One-bedroom Suite came with high ceilings, traditional furniture, fabrics in pleasing pastel shades and tall windows that overlooked the beach. The bath had been completely redone, and although it lacked natural light, it was adequately spacious with a separate stall shower. The only drawback to our stay was an inability to communicate with the housekeeping staff, who spoke only Portuguese and demonstrated a degree of exasperation when we attempted to converse in English.
The Copacabana Palace is one of those grand hotels around which innumerable myths and legends have accrued.
The focal point of the Copacabana Palace is its large swimming pool, which lies between the main building and the annex. Although it becomes shaded early in the afternoon, it is still one of the great hotel pools of the world. At one end, the informal Pérgula Restaurant overlooks the Avenida Atlântica and serves Brazilian and international cuisine, while the other end is taken up by the Hotel Cipriani Restaurant, where we ordered a delicious appetizer of grouper carpaccio and green asparagus, followed by disappointing langoustines that were hopelessly overcooked. A third option is provided by the pan-Asian cuisine at Mee. Other amenities include a rooftop tennis court and a lavish spa.
In many ways, the Copacabana Palace is a wonderful old hotel. In fact, I would recommend that you never stay anywhere else in Rio were it not for its location. The surrounding area of the city is rather down-at-the-heels, and there are security concerns that cannot be lightly dismissed. Simply put, the Copacabana Palace is the right hotel in the wrong place.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Comfortable and stylish accommodations in refurbished main building; glamorous pool; sense of history.
DISLIKE: Cramped lobby; the run-down Copacabana location.
GOOD TO KNOW: The social highlight of the Rio Carnival is the hotel’s “Magic Ball.”
Belmond Copacabana Palace 92 Deluxe Beach View Room, $800; Deluxe One-Bedroom Suite, $1,230. Avenida Atlantica 1702, Rio de Janeiro. Tel. (55) 21-2548-7070.
All large cities have an area of privilege, and in Rio, this is to be found at the southern edge of the so-called “Zona Sul,” in the districts of Ipanema and (especially) Leblon, as well as the leafy areas adjacent to them. The latter are close to the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas — a lake fully five miles in circumference — and afford views of the 8,000-acre Tijuca National Park, the largest urban forest in the world.
Paradoxically, Rio’s most fashionable hotel, the Fasano, is located at the “wrong” end of Ipanema Beach — the one closest to Copacabana — but this does not seem to trouble the A-list international crowd generally to be seen thronging its lobby. I have recommended the Fasano since shortly after it opened in 2007, and indeed, there are many things in its favor, notably the helpful English-speaking staff, an excellent restaurant and a sublime rooftop pool terrace with a panoramic view of the beach and the dramatic Dois Irmãos (“Two Brothers”) peaks. However, it is a Philippe Starck-designed property of a type that will not appeal to all Hideaway Report subscribers. It is also extremely expensive, with Oceanfront accommodations costing upward of $1,200 a night. The hotel’s bar, Baretto-Londra, is widely considered to be the most glamorous in Rio, but during my recent stay, its music was distinctly audible on lower floors at 2 a.m. Still, in a city with astonishingly few luxury hotels for its size, the Fasano will be many people’s first choice. With the caveats noted above, I am inclined to agree.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Ipanema location, charming reception staff; fine Fasano al Mare restaurant; spectacular rooftop pool terrace.
DISLIKE: Only expensive oceanfront rooms and suites are worthy of consideration; noisy bar/nightclub.
GOOD TO KNOW: One of the Fasano family’s Gero restaurants is five minutes’ drive away.
Fasano 93 Oceanfront Room, $1,200; Suite Oceanfront King, $2,110. Avenida Vieira Souto 80, Rio de Janeiro. Tel. (55) 21-3202-4000.
If staying on the beach is not a priority, a stylish alternative is provided by the Hotel Santa Teresa, a 41-room boutique property set on a hillside overlooking the historic center of Rio and housed within a century-old mansion. A hundred years ago, Santa Teresa was the most desirable place to live in the city. Today, the district is known for its steep, winding streets and spectacular views, as well as a bohemian quarter, home to artists, studios and galleries. The eponymous hotel is surrounded by a well-tended garden where frangipani and morning glory flourish in glorious profusion. A large part of the old mansion has been hollowed out to create a dramatic and imposing two-story lobby, with exposed brickwork, sophisticated modern furniture and refined artwork. As might be expected in an old building, the accommodations tend to vary in layout and size. Our Deluxe Room was attractively furnished in a style that mixed both traditional and contemporary elements — for example, framed drawings of 19th-century Rio provided a counterpoint to abstract sculptures and tables hewn from massive blocks of tropical wood — but for two people, it was a little cramped. On a future occasion, we would definitely opt for a more spacious suite. The bath was equipped with a powerful shower, but was rather dark and provided only a single vanity.
Amenities at the Hotel Santa Teresa include a small spa and a long, narrow swimming pool. The latter is ideal for early-morning laps, but is less well-suited to daytime lounging. Steep stone steps lead down from the pool terrace to the lively Bar dos Descasados, housed within the cavernous interior of the mansion’s former slave quarters. This is a place for light meals, as well as cachaça (sugarcane spirit) cocktails. The adjacent Térèze Restaurant serves “World Cuisine” against a backdrop of Guanabara Bay. There, I thoroughly enjoyed my lobster with asparagus and hearts of palm in a light curry sauce, but the cod risotto was far too salty for my taste. However, my chief complaint concerned the noise level, which, thanks to concrete floors and tall glass walls, was deafening at times.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Sense of place and connection to Rio’s history; stylish interior design; pretty garden.
DISLIKE: Extremely noisy restaurant with indifferent service; lack of lounging space beside the pool.
GOOD TO KNOW: The magnificent 1,300-square-foot Loft Suite has a stupendous 180-degree view.
Hotel Santa Teresa 92 Deluxe Room, $335; Junior Suite, $640. Rua Almirante Alexandrino 660, Rio de Janeiro. Tel. (55) 21-3380-0200.