Mary Gostelow heads to Rio’s Copacabana Beach

Girlahead checks into the classic Belmond and the recently opened Fairmont on the iconic beach

First-time visitors to Rio de Janeiro should probably take an organised tour all day, to see Corcovado Mountain with its Christ The Redeemer statue, and Sugarloaf Mountain, Selarón Steps, Maracana Stadium, and the Sambadrome. Others might head straight to the four kilometre-long Copacabana Beach, justifiably rated one of the world’s best, with absolutely clean pale yellow sand and, from daybreak on, a magnet for the fit and healthy, sports people and sun worshippers.

Dozens of hotels line the beach front but here are two of the most significant.

Belmond Copacabana Beach

Belmond Copacabana Beach is the doyenne, the iconic old lady. It was designed in 1923 by Joseph Gire, who was inspired by the Carlton in Cannes, and the Negresco, Nice, both in France.  Along the way it has housed a casino and hosted Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers while shooting the 1933 film Flying Down to Rio. Today the hotel has 241 keys in two adjacent blocks, nestling around a 30-metre outdoor pool bordered by beautiful bods soaking up the sun.

Stay here for tradition, and a sense of the past. This time I was in suite 303, looking across the dual-highway beach road at the sand and sea.  I had white-painted walls stretching high to the ceiling: double-glazed white-painted window frames could be easily opened. There were three bright-painted local art works in Cezanne style. Pretty blue-on-white china somehow complemented a book on life in Japan. Local Granado toiletries feature Brazil’s fruits.

The Copa, as it is generally known, shines for its public spaces and eating and drinking.  This is where the annual Carnival Ball, overseen by stylish GM Andrea Natal, is held every February. Year-round, some Saturdays there could be half a dozen weddings, with the happy couples staying over.

Don’t worry that the Technogym does not open until 8am. Join the locals running or walking along set beach-side lanes, or hop on a green grab-and-go scooter, or orange rent-a-bike. Yes, you’ll feel part of the city. Whatever, you are working up an appetite for outstanding food offerings. Every day, the buffet breakfast in Pergola is deemed one of the world’s very best – oh the well-labelled fruits, the cheeses and cold cuts, the guacamole (try this on lightly toasted walnut bread that you have dribbled with olive oil).  At lunch you have the choice of snacking in your pool lounger, off a cushion-based tray, or Pergúla, now à la carte, or Italian at Cipriani, which has a female chef, and a Michelin star. Dinner can be Italian, or Asian, at MEE, another Michelin star, another Brazilian chef, this time male.

Fairmont Rio de Janeiro Copacabana

The far end of the beach, by Fort Copacabana, is the 13-floor Fairmont Rio de Janeiro Copacabana, run by GM Netto Moreira, a youthful leader whose childhood ambition was medical, with Médecins sans Frontières.  After a two-year closure, the 475-room newly rebranded hotel opened its doors 5th August 2019 and immediately attracted millennial-at-heart guests, roughly 33% of whom are discerning São Paulo or other Brazilian residents. The heart of this house is the sixth-floor podium, with two 20-metre outdoor pools, for morning and evening sun, and a massive Technogym, open from 6am, and a Willow Stream Spa and eatertainment.

About 70% of diners at the all-day Marine Resto are locals, attracted by eating outside, for pool and sea views, or inside, to look at two Josper grills and a working herb garden.  This is family-style, sharing platters, say fish of the day crudo followed by Jospered octopus with fermented pepper aioli, and 25cm lengths of heart of palm, and glasses of powerful Ruttini Cab-Sav blend from Mendoza (don’t miss the dark bread loaves with addictive seaweed powder-topped butter). There are seating areas, and bars, around the pool, with live jazz Friday evenings and piano-rock on Saturdays, both from 8pm to midnight.

Best suite here is the two-bedroom, 220-square-metre #1301 but any 13th-floor room has access to the superb fourth-floor Fairmont Gold lounge, with big terrace and day-long presentations that include a mixologist at cocktail hour.  I was in #1375, one bedroom with a compact bathroom (superb shower, Le Labo toiletries and Trousseau linens). The mattress, locally made specially for the hotel, was as good as my own, at home. The sitting room, with Nespresso and a tea kettle, had an admirable supply of Assouline and Taschen hardbacks, on Rio and the world.  I had four terraces, each big enough for a table and two chairs.

Of course the world does hear about Rio’s crime, Netto Moreira admits, and yes, 30% of the city’s 6 million live in favelas. But the challenge is that Rio is the television production base for the whole of South America, and also, foreign correspondents, faced with the choice of living in Brasilia, Rio or São Paulo, choose Rio, which means they tend to feed out negativity. He prefers to think positively, and, honestly, to read Tripadvisor comments many of his hotel guests are so happy at Fairmont Rio de Janeiro Copacabana they simply stay put, and enjoy the city from here.  One of my own many happy memories from this return visit to wonderful Rio is listening to the 6am Reveille wake up for the military in Fort Copacabana down below my room.  You ARE part of the city, staying at either of these two luxury hotels.

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