South America’s capital of glamour

With its sprawling sandy beaches, iconic landmarks and buzzing atmosphere, Rio de Janeiro is in a league of its own, says Gabriel O’Rorke

WITH the World Cup and the Olympics on the horizon, Brazil is preparing to become the focus of the world’s attention. One city that is used to the limelight is Rio de Janeiro. Driving through the tropical rain, I followed the curve of the 4km bridge that connects Rio with its sister city Niterói. Passing electric green parks and high jungled hills, I arrived at Copacabana Palace.

A cream-coloured 1920s mansion, the grand dame of Rio hotels sits in prime position halfway along Avenida Atlantica. Copacabana Palace is to Rio what caviar is to a blini: you could have salmon and cream cheese instead, just as you could stay in one of other hotels along this same stretch, but it’s just not the same.

With a history of hosting the world’s rich, famous and powerful, the hotel has just undergone a £2m refurbishment that freshens things up without changing the traditional, old-school feel.

The view atop the 350 metre rock reminds you that this city was quite literally built in a jungle. Some may recognise it from the 1979 James Bond, Moonraker; it’s the place where Roger Moore slogs it out with Jaws.

It’s normal for crowds to gather outside the hotel. When I arrived back they were there in full force flocking around the entrance. Pushing our way through, I came across more people at reception.

“Tom Cruise is coming downstairs,” whispered a fellow guest, keeping his eyes fixed on the lift like a spaniel watching a stick. I waited 10-minutes but Tom Cruise was nowhere to be seen.

Giving in, I headed to the large swimming pool located in the hotel’s inner courtyard. Open 24-hours, it is lined with chic sun loungers and guests of varying degrees of fame, some with body guards standing by.

When I headed out to enjoy the white sands of Copacabana Beach, Cruise did so at the same time. I gave him a wave and headed to the beach, high on stardust.

There’s a lot more to Rio than its beaches. I spent the afternoon riding bikes from the hotel along Copacabana to Ipanema Beach, taking in the spectacular views. Lake Rodrigo de Freitas nearby is lined with boathouses and towered over by the statue of Christ.

In the evening I headed to Cipriani restaurant for dinner. Named in honour of the Cipriani in Venice, the mood and food are sophisticated and elegant.

Encouraged by a couple of caipirinhas, I ordered a Brazilian wine, Dom Cândido Marselan 4a Geração, to go with lobster and lemon risotto. A three-course dinner including cocktails and a bottle of wine comes to £240. This is one of Rio’s top restaurants, after all, and you’d be pushed to find better service.

After dinner, I headed to Lapa to sample the nightlife. A very different scene; locals cradle caiprinhas in plastic cups, sitting on the colourful Selarón Stairs. These are the work of Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón, who called them his “tribute to the Brazilian people”.

A trip to Rio isn’t complete without a visit to the statute of Christ the Redeemer. Hoping to beat the crowds, I headed there early. The morning sun casts a soft glow over the statue, and the panoramic views over the hilly, green, jungle-city make up for any sleep deprivation.

The afternoon was spent exploring the bohemian area of Santa Teresa, a little like Valparaiso in Chile. I drank fresh, foamy juices at Cafecito, a crumbling colonial house with seating around two flights of exterior staircases.

Lapa sits below Santa Teresa and is known for its iconic arches and the Metropolitan Cathedral. Passing through the 18-metre bronze doors, I entered a circular room filled with enough pews to seat 20,000. Grand in scale, the high walls are lined with three beautiful, bright stain-glass windows.

I spent our last evening at Rio Scenarium, a bar with a buzz and a 100m queue to prove it. Brandishing a letter from Copacabana Palace, I headed straight to the front, despite not having a reservation.

Yes, this is a place to see and be seen, and with Rio Scenarium the hype is totally justified. A converted 19th century mansion in Lapa, it spans three floors and has two stages with live music ranging from rock to choro, Música Popular Brasileira and samba.

When I exited into the sticky, tropical night, a line of people were still waiting to get in. If it’s like this now, I thought, imagine what it’ll be like when the football starts. From the lobby of the Copacabana Palace to the steps of Christ the Redeemer, those crowds are only going to get bigger.

NEED TO KNOW

ACCOMMODATION
Abercrombie & Kent (abercrombiekent.com; 0845 485 1140) arrange three nights for £1,495 per person based on two people sharing a deluxe room at the Copacabana Palace Hotel Rio de Janeiro (copacabanapalace.com.br) including flights, transfers and breakfast.

RIO DE JANEIRO
■ Official language is Portuguese

■ The Brazilian currency is the Real (made up from 100 centavos)

■ It takes roughly 45-minutes from Rio GIG Airport to Copacabana

BARS, CAFES AND NIGHTLIFE
Confeitaria Colombo confeitariacolombo.com.br

Cafecito
cafecito.com.br

Rio Scenarium
rioscenarium.com.br

USEFUL WEBSITES
Corcovado: corcovado.com.br

Brazil Tourist Board: visitbrasil.com