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Energetic Rio

 

As anyone who follows World Cup "futeboll" (a.k.a, "soccer") knows, 2002 has been a great year for Brazil; it is difficult to describe the Brazilian love of "o jogo bonito," and the importance of Brazil's unprecedented 5th World Cup victory last month in Japan (a two-nil thumping of the Germans) on the Brazilian national psyche. Until the next World Cup is held four years from now, everything will be better in Brazil. People will be happier, business will boom, and the power of positive thinking will be apparent in all walks of life. And now, thanks to VARIG's inauguration on July 4 of daily, nonstop service between New York City and Rio de Janeiro, things are getting even better. 

According to Carioca folklore, a famous French author visiting Rio in the 1930s was asked by his hosts to name the most beautiful city in the world. His immortal reply: "By the hands of man, Paris. By the hands of God, Rio de Janeiro..." While this famous French author has long since faded into some obscure literary book nook, his words today ring as true today as they did some 60 years ago. Rio de Janeiro, home of the samba, the bossa nova, and Carmen Miranda, remains the most physically beautiful city in the world. Sprawling along a sensuously undulating shoreline of white sandy beaches and luxury skyscrapers, the city is divided by startling green-crested mountain peaks with names like Corcovado and Sugarloaf.

Rio's Guanabara Bay, wrote Viennese author Stefan Zweig, is like "a giant seashell, broken open to spill its pearls in the ocean, each island different in shape and color..."

And, while Rio is today undeniably a big city, it also has more tropical trees and shrubs per capita than any city of comparable size (pop. c. 9,000,000) in the world. Indeed, in the chic southern part of the city known as Zona Sul, the Atlantic rain forest of Barra de Tijuca is as close as the nearest window.

Ironically, it is this very pastoral and idyllic quality which has caused some visitors to erroneously view this great metropolis as a beach resort. True, the legendary beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, and their luminous beach culture featuring the national game of futeboll, acrobatic volleyball, and multicolored hang gliders fluttering down from the sky like butterflies seeking blossoms, are extraordinary experiences. 

In recent years, things in Rio have definitely been looking up. The stability provided by the capable leadership of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and massive foreign investment have had a remarkable effect on the lives of many Brazilians, and Rio de Janeiro has been no exception. Residents of the city's favelas can now actually save money and purchase household commodities and other necessities, and the result has been a sharp drop in street crime-a development which has made life a lot more pleasant for everyone, especially tourists.

What has become popular among American tourists is the Tijuca National Park. While Rio may be one of the world's largest metropolitan centers it has, Tijuca, the largest urban extension of tropical forest on the planet. The park, which protects more than 3,200 hectares of forest, is part of Brazil's famous Atlantic Rain Forest, nature's greatest genetic reserve of flora and fauna, a high percentage of which are native only to Brazil. 

Other noteworthy attractions for American tourists include Rio's museums, such as the Museu da Republica and the Casa Franca. However, while these museums are superb, and the Teatro Municipal in Rio Centro is a world-class institution in every respect, the main attraction for the average foreign visitor probably remains the popular culture of the bossa nova (who can forget Tom Jobim's "Girl From Ipanema?"), the samba, and the lifestyle as exemplified by the beaches and the incomparable yearly celebration of the Carnival at the end of February. Bossa nova lovers still flock to the Garota de Ipanema Cafe in Ipanema and pay homage to the table where, according to myth, Jobim wrote his legendary song. Directly across the street, there is the Bar do Vincius, named for Jobim's colleague and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes, and where the bossa nova still flows sweet and smooth in the evenings. And, a few minutes away, there is an excellent bookstore named Toca da Vincius, where you can find rare old recordings and books about Brazilian music and culture.

For those interested in Brazilian history and gemology, there is the fascinating H. Stern Museum and workshop. H. Stern emigrated from Germany in 1939, and built a worldwide jewelry empire based in Rio, and his story alone makes this well worth a visit. There are many other nuggets of Carioca culture worth exploring. For example, there is the surreal Carmen Miranda Museum in Parque do Flamengo. A moving tribute to Brazil's greatest international film star, this unique institution features items from La Miranda's wardrobe sponsored by her many fans, and is open daily except for Mondays. And, for aficionados of horticulture, a pilgrimage to the Sitio Roberto Burle Marx in Guaratiba is essential. Formerly the home and private gardens of the world's most famous landscape architect, the Sitio Burle Marx is now a foundation dedicated to continuing the work of the former owner. Covering over 100 idyllic acres, this estate can only be visited as part of a scheduled tour, and should ideally be combined with a visit to the spectacular Jardim Botanico in Gavea, and a lunch or dinner at the superb Claude Troisgros, Brazil's best French restaurant.

Rio has many other excellent restaurants to satiate all palates. Particularly recommended are Porcao in Ipanema, a great churrascaria (steakhouse); and the delightful Bar Lagoa in Lagoa, one of Rio's oldest and most popular hang-outs. And if you are sightseeing in Rio Centro downtown, be sure to stop off at the beautiful Cafe Colombo for lunch.

World Class Hotels

Fortunately, as might be expected in a city of Rio's international stature, there are many other world-class hotels. When making a selection, location is worth considering, since it can take a while to get from one end of the city to the other. Perhaps the best located of all of Rio's five-star hotels is the excellent Caesar Park in Ipanema, where, among other luminaries, American media mogul Ted Turner and wife Jane Fonda stayed when they visited Rio. Another intriguing option in Copacabana is the newly renovated Excelsior Copacabana Hotel, located next to the Copacabana Palace on Avenida Atlantica.  

There is also the Hotel Inter-Continental Rio in Sao Conrado. Located in a quiet residential area just south of Ipanema in Zona Sul, this 437-room five-star hotel is a deal for the business traveler or tourist, and hosts a famous masked ball during Carnival.  

And, last but not least, there is the beautiful Copacabana Palace, popular with President Clinton, Mick Jagger, and other Hollywood stars and celebrities. Fully renovated by Orient-Express Hotels over the past several years, the Copacabana Palace is once again one of the world's great hotel experiences. 

Other noteworthy places to stay in Rio include the Rio Othon Palace, Le Meridien Copacabana, Marina Palace Hotel, Pestana Rio Atlantica, Rio de Janeiro Marriott Hotel, Hotel Rio Internacional, Sheraton Rio Hotel & Towers, Sofitel Rio de Janeiro and Ipanema Plaza Hotel.

Flying down to Rio is a pleasure, thanks to the nonstop service provided by VARIG, Brazil's national carrier, which now offers daily service from New York and Miami directly to Rio de Janeiro and nearby Sao Paulo. Flights leave in the evening and arrive in the early morning about 10 hours later. Jet lag is not a problem, since the time difference is only one or two hours, depending upon the season.  

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