Brigit Grant took her family to check out the buzz in Brazil ahead of the 2016 Olympics
Did you have a good time?” is generally the most people want to know about your holiday. Unless it was a disaster the details are of no interest and a tan acknowledgment is the most you can hope for. But not if you go to Brazil and Argentina. Evidently there is something so magical and far away about South America that everyone has questions about the food, weather, music and accommodation.
It wasn’t an obvious choice as a family destination with an eight-year-old in tow; but as our oldest son has been living in Buenos Aires improving his Spanish, Argentina was a must and the forth-coming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro gave us a reason to make it a two-centre affair. It was a good decision as both places offer so much enjoyment, but I would urge anyone toying with the idea of attending the Olympic games to book it now as the host nation will provide a warm, dance-driven welcome fuelled by passion fruit caipirinias. Of course you need to plan such a trip wisely and the expertise of independent travel company- Bespoke Brazil – ensured we had the holiday of a lifetime.
So I’m really going to Rio?
One email exchange with Simon Williams who owns Bespoke Brazil with his wife Kirsty was enough to know we were in good hands. Specialising solely in Brazil means they know this vast country like the back of their hands and their vast array of contacts are also friends who help to give clients special treatment in Rio and often it’s a free hotel upgrade. Bespoke Brazil make you fill like an A’lister and they will amend your itinerary – which comes in an information-packed binder – as many times as you like prior to departure. With only eight days in Rio and a flight pre-booked for Buenos Aires, Simon really wanted us to see Rio and set us up with one of the city’s best guides Marcelo Fontes and booked us into three very different hotels.
The Belmond Copacabana Palace Hotel is almost as famous as the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio and its art deco grandeur dominates the Avenue. Atlântica. Like all good hotels with a rich history (it opened in 1923) it operates like clockwork and nothing is too much trouble for any of the staff. As we were escorted to our ocean front junior suite I had to wait until we were on our own to squeal, though containing my excitement the next morning at the impressive breakfast buffet was trickier when I tasted my first Brazilian mango.
Though I’m no nectar connoisseur, the fruit I ate in Rio is the closest you get to food for the godsand when its squished and mixed with vodka its sublime. Lunching on the terrace of the Pérgula restaurant by the vast swimming pool you get to sip caipirnihias beside Rio’s cognosecenti (a fascinating mix of handsome retired polo players and silicon-enhanced Barbies) and for evening dining there is the Rio branch of Venice’s famed Cipriani restaurant or the Michelin-star pan-Asian restaurant, Mee with a menu devised by celebrity chef, Ken Hom.
For real Rio, the beach is a hop, skip over the road, though the pool offers welcome afternoon shade in 40 degrees as well as a three-piece band playing samba.
• Belmond Copacabana Palace – from £215 a night
The Santa Teresa Hotel which has a panoramic view of the city, harbour and Guanabara Bay couldn’t be more different to the Palace. Uber stylish with lots of wood about the place to reflect its previous incarnation as a colonial farm, Santa Teresa is a hip residence beloved by the late Amy Winehouse. I couldn’t find anyone who looked after her, but they looked after us pretty well and the yummy artisanal-style breakfast was served to the sounds of the Bosa Nova.
The pool – black tiles and decking – is pure Elle Interiors, but it is also a heat conductor that is tough on the feet, though the Watermelon Ginger Martini is a great rescue remedy. This is a very specil boutique hotel and its bohemian location in the hillside which is filled with unusual handicraft shops, galleries and even a tiny foreign film cinema is somwehere that stays in the memory.
• Hotel Santa Teresa – from £195
Miramar by Windsor
Champagne on arrival, L’Occitane products in the spacious bathroom, huge beds and an unprecedented view of Copacabana Beach from the rooftop pool certainly puts you in the right mood at the Miramar.
As with all the hotels we stayed in the staff couldn’t do enough and at the busiest time of year. Ditto the ever-expandconstantly replenished along with the unbeatable Brazilian coffee.
A contemporary hotel that doesn’t rely on designer pizzazz to impress, the Miramar is well-located ( Ipanema Beach is a walk-away) really relaxed and ideal for tourists on the go which will no doubt make it a firm favourite with Olympic games visitors.
• Hotel Miramar by Windsor from £175
The Man to Know
I balked when I saw the words ‘Full Day Tour ‘ twice on our Bespoke Brazil itinerary as I know how hit and miss the guide experience can be; particulary with an eight-year-old. Marcelo Fontes instantly allayed my fears by presenting my daughter with his self-penned children’s book, Leo the Penguin in Rio. Poet, musician and proud Rio native, Marcelo is the guide of your dreams as he goes at your speed, tells you as much as you need and takes you off the beaten track to visit places like Prainha Beach (just past Barra da Tijuca) to eat freshly barbequed fish at a restaurant-owned by a pal.
With Marcelo we went to Corcovado on the train to see the intimidating statue of Christ do a disappearing act behind the clouds and had a face to face with the forest monkeys by Praia Vermelha (Red Beach). At the Maracanã football stadium which will host the opening of the Olympics, an imaginative local allowed us to pose with his replica World Cup and then we stopped at a fruit market to sample Jaca (Jackfruit) ; remarkably sweet bananas and saw a carnival band in rehearsal. As a Rio resident Marcelo was also handy at meal times.
Food, glorious Food
The food at all three hotels was well above average with a good choice of international cuisine as well as traditional dishes. Outside the speciality is BBQ restaurants (not kosher) shich offer an endless parade of meat on rotisserie sticks and Marcelo took us to feast at one of the largest the Churrascaria Palace. Garota de Ipanema (Girl from Ipanema) restaurant is where composer Tom Jobim was sitting with poet Vinicius de Moraes when they spotted the beauty who inspired that legendary song. Sadly long queues sent us to the Vinicius café across the road which was no bad thing as the Bosa Nova club upstairs permits entry to eight-year-olds.
Cue the Music
“I want to go to a bar where they play samba,” said I to my husband. After one day in Rio you realise there isn’t a bar that doesn’t play samba. And everyone owns a drum which they bring to the beach.
Wherever you stay in Rio for the Olympic and Paralympic games – if it isn’t in Barra da Tijuca, it will take some time to reach the park. Think Cockfosters to Stratford in terms of distance but with beaches when you get there. Marcelo was kind enough to take us on that trek to see the venues in various states of completion along with the metro extension and athletes village.
The area is so different to the rest of Rio, it could be Florida with all the minute-old architecture and absence of favelas. Forget what the doubters say it will be ready for August 3 and the sale of mascots – Tom and Vinicius – is under way along with a Rio fragrance and obligatory caps. We bought them all and I only wish we could go back for the games and once again see the sunset on Ipanema beach sitting on the Arpoador just as Marcelo recommended.
Bespoke Brazil can get you there for the Olympic Games in August and any other time.
With itineraries that encompass trips to Rio, Pantanal, adventure tours and family focused holidays they can tailor Brazil to your taste.
Visit bespokebrazil.com or call T: +44 1603 340680/T: +44 7786 325215