Daily Express, September 26, 2009

FLAMBOYANT RIO HAS VOTE OF ROMANTICS

DUNCAN CRAIG visits Brazil’s capital of cool as it bids to host the 2016 Olympics

WHERE you holidayed used to be a question of cash. Now it’s cachet. Affordable travel has rendered the far-flung familiar, the exotic mundane – a testing environment for the holiday show-off. Luckily there are a few destinations guaranteed to deliver. Step forward Rio: glamorous, edgy and spectacular. Drop the R-bomb in any social situation and the room is yours.

From the air, the icons are the first things you see: conical Sugarloaf Mountain, as smooth and incongruous as a giant alien pod; Christ the Redeemer, lording it over the city; the teeming, creamy curves of Copacabana and Ipanema.

The city’s sporting credentials do not take long to reveal themselves once on the ground. The 20-minute drive from the peripheral airport took me within eyeshot of the vast Maracanã Soccer Stadium, proposed site of the Olympic Games’ opening and closing ceremonies should Rio get the nod.

I continued past the favella where national footballing idol Ronaldo grew up. The wall of the makeshift town’s lone, dusty pitch is painted with a single line of Portuguese: “Here was born The Phenomenon.”

The side of the city the Rio 2016 campaign team would rather the world focus on is a short drive further on, accessed via one of 30 tunnels that burrow through the city’s granite escarpments. I emerged, blinking into the sunlight, at mythical Copacabana beach.

In its heyday, this two-mile stretch was synonymous with style, A-listers flocking to neoclassical Copacabana Palace Hotel for famously hedonistic bashes. Commercialisation has dimmed the strip’s appeal, although the Palace is still here, its glinting white facade conspicuous among its slightly tired rivals. It’s still hosting VIPs as well – the luminaries of the International Olympic Committee while I was in town.

For a more authentic taste of Rio at play, continue around the headland to Ipanema in the shadow of the distinctive “Dois Irmãos” (Two Brothers) mountain. Cariocas (residents of Rio) are rebuked by their compatriots for an unwavering devotion to leisure and, particularly, the beach. Visit any time and you’ll find this powder-soft strand hosting a mini Olympics all of its own: futevôlei (supremely athletic, feet-only volleyball); fresco ball (bat & ball, played to Wimbledon standard); surfing; jogging; and some world-class posturing.

Dental floss bikinis and tiny briefs appear mandatory, whether you’re built like Gisele or Gordon Brown

Only two rules seem to apply on the beach: if you’ve got it, flaunt it; and if you haven’t got it, flaunt it. “Fio dental” (dental floss) bikinis and “sungas” (briefs) appear mandatory, whether you’re built like Gisele or Gordon Brown.

Squirrelled away in the tree-canopied roads behind Ipanema beach are some of the city’s best “botecos”, quirky, atmospheric bars that spill out on to the streets. At Jobi, bow-tied waiters served me tangy, intoxicating caipirissimas (the national drink fortified, as if it needs to be, with rum).

From here, I headed on to upmarket Garota de Ipanema (Girl from Ipanema), named after the bossa nova classic and supposedly where the song was penned. The timber-framed interior was a riot of animated family gatherings, many diners feasting on Brazil’s famous “picanha” grilled meats.

Midway through my meal, unheralded and uncontested, the lights went off, the projecter screens were pulled down and the local derby – being played out in front of a frenzied crowd of 90,000 at the Maracanã – annexed the venue. The atmosphere was electric. Passionate local support for the Games, the IOC can take as a given.

Rio has pledged to increase its hotel capacity to 48,000 rooms for the event. My base was the sleek, shore-edge Sofitel. Fishermen land their catches across the promenade from this avocado-hued retreat with its refined, relaxed air. With waves audibly lapping floodlit Copacabana far below, I dined on an exquisite Amazônia taster menu at the hotel’s eminent Le Pré Catelan restaurant.

The highlights in 2016 would not just be sporting. Among the city’s must-dos is the cablecar to the top of Sugarloaf. Both ride and summit are truly jaw-dropping (Jaws dropping too, if I recall my Bond). With the city glimmering far below, I wandered among the lush, mountain-top vegetation, prehistoric pilot birds soaring on the thermals.

Christ the Redeemer, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, is reached via a mile-long tunnel (“Christ is above us,” said my guide at this point, without irony) and the endearingly antiquated Trem do Corcovado mountain railway, which leaves from the ornate Cosme Velho district. The top was abuzz: choppers, hang-gliders, gift sellers, tourists. Everyone is welcomed with open arms by the city’s awe-inspiring, soapstone focal point – a fitting symbol for this most spectacular and welcoming of cities.

 

* GETTING THERE: Steamond Journeys (020 7730 9639/www.steamondjourneys.com) offers five nights, B&B, at the five-star Sofitel from £1,049pp (two sharing), including return flights from Heathrow and private transfers.
Brazil Tourism: 020 7399 9000/www.braziltour.com