The view from Belmond Copacabana Palace, in Rio de Janeiro, is truly unforgettable. But then the wedding-cake façade is uniquely memorable, too. Architect Joseph Gire based the hotel on the Carlton in Cannes and Le Negresco, in Nice. When it was built in 1923 it stood alone and proud on Copacabana Beach, but it attracted other buildings, and in 1970 Roberto Burle Marx tidied up the four-kilometre-long roadway in front, putting in thousands of black and white mosaic stones, in Portuguese style. Now what is called Avenida Atlantica is side-by-side hotels, says the gal, but it is still ‘the Copa’ that dominates. Over the years it has been so lovingly restored that apparently 11 shades of white are used on its exterior, both the six-floor original palace and, behind it, its 11-floor Tower annexe, added in 1948.
For many guests the 30-metre pool, flanked by both buildings, is the heart of the hotel, and sunworshippers have their favourite chairs from the moment light dawns until early afternoon (those in the know apparently order pizzas, which are said to be outstanding, from the pool bar). This hotel, which has a total of 241 rooms, is beloved of so many. Roughly 20% of staying guests are repeats, and some of the most loyal have formed an unofficial Copa club, to fly in here from Amsterdam, Frankfurt, New York or Rome, or wherever, to party seriously, which they do twice a year. At the same time locals use it, for meals, for special events and just to network.
I missed the 400-person wedding of television celebrity Isis Valverde who had met her now husband at a pool-side function. A photo gallery inside has 128 signed portraits of celebrity guests, the latest being Phil Collins. I did wonder who all the people were around me as I sat by the pool, under the awning of Pérgula, having a simple lunch, just a starter, a simply gorgeous whole burrata, its creamy centre oozing out in a most wicked way. It came with sautéed Mediterranean vegetables and a beetroot reduction, on a most attractive ceramic plate with its edges turned up. They do make basic ingredients look jolly good here.
Andrea Natal has been at this hotel for quite some time (a driver later told me he had worked with her at another hotel in town when she was 18). She looks ageless, in fact. Perhaps it is the Biologique Récherché in the spa or practising for the Carnaval. Every year, on the Saturday of Rio’s worldwide-famous extravaganza, she hosts the best party in town, for at least 1,500, and she dresses up with the best of them. She does actually admit that in another world she would like to have been an actor…
She is certainly always creating (not the same as improvising – everything she does is well thought out).
At the moment the hotel is about to start renovating the 400-seat tiered theatre that is part of the rear of the building. Also in creative mode, the the Copa is about to open a mammoth Gucci store, attached to the front of the hotel and opening on to Avenida Atlantica. This will replace the current H. Stern, which will relocate inside the main building (Ronaldo Stern, by the way, is married to travel advisor Carolina Perez).
Renovations already finished include Pérgula, the all-day restaurant that offers inside and air-conditioned, or outdoor, poolside – the designer here is Muza Lab, no not Inge Moore, who did such a splendid job on Belmond’s Andean Explorer train, but one of her colleagues. They fortunately left in place Pérgula’s splendid local-view trompe l’oeil murals, done in 1997 by French artist Dominique Jardy, who also produced other similarly charming and stylized wall paintings for other public areas. One, for instance, now graces the lobby where the Concierge used to be – cleverly, the Concierge and Reception share a long counter the other side of the lobby. The former conciergiere is now a brilliant and highly successful AQUIM chocolate stall (Samantha Aquim uses cocoa from the Brazilian rainforest that are 50% up to 100% cocoa and her Q Collection is already available in Harrod’s in London). Next visit too, I will hope to dine once again at MEE, the Asian restaurant that is overseen by Ken Hom. And I have promised that I will do a Sugarloaf Mountain climb, going up to the 396m-tall peak – this is the peak, by the way, that appeared in the James Bond movie Moonraker. Perhaps if I do make it my photo might be added to the 128-strong rogues’, sorry VIPs’ gallery elegantly displayed in public areas…
Already there is more to do here than ever before. The hotel always had Caloi bikes which it rented out for the beach circuit, along the length of Copacabana and back, over four kilometres. Now the surroundings are not quite literally but quite obviously littered with drop-anywhere bikes, sponsored by the financial giant Itau. I did not see any drop-anywhere electric scooters, thank goodness. The news that electric scooter startup Bird has been the fastest company ever to reach US$1 billion valuation is scary. The scooters are potentially dangerous and they need armies of workers to find them, wherever they have been dropped, and charge them every night. No, on this trip to this vibrant city I was happy merely walking along Avenida Atlantica and seeing the sights, whether human or weirdly artistic. As always there were opportunists building elaborate sandcastles in the hope of a few bills, especially greenbacks, fluttering their way.
Here is a hint before leaving town. First, allow at least 90 minutes to get to the airport, any time of day. Next, American Airlines’ airside lounge is one of the most gracious anywhere, with super food and a good choice of wines, all served in full-size Chef&Sommelier glasses. And yes, even though I ate, and drank, superbly at the unforgettable Belmond Copacabana Palace, I, like many, was still a little peckish when we got to the airport. My lasting memory, however, is of Andrea Natal miraculously appearing by front desk to say farewell. Now THAT is one of the signs of a true luxury innkeeper.