The Sheraton Rio de Janeiro sits at the tip of a pleasure playground stretching for kilometres along the golden sands and superb surf of upbeat Copacabana and trendy Ipanema.
Girls in string bikinis, bronzed volley ball players and accomplished roller-bladers throng the boardwalks and beaches that skim the Atlantic Ocean shoreline. The scene is sheer fun; I couldn’t wait to join in. But the concierge who greeted me just inside the Sheraton’s foyer was anything but carefree: Don’t dream of going out, he warned, while you’re wearing those gold earrings; you could have them stolen. “Oh, they’re just costume jewellery, not real gold,” I laughed; “No one would want them.” But thieves don’t know the difference, he argued. I could be mugged, and injured as well, he declared. Unconvinced, I dumped the earrings anyway, he was so insistent.
Rio’s a city of some six million people that easily lives up to its reputation as a fascinating destination – vibrant, colourful, exotic – home of samba and the famous Carnaval, held annually 40 days before Easter (next year, from February 13). There’s the bonus that Brazil’s southern hemisphere weather is similar to ours at similar times of year, so there’s no real “climate change” to suffer.
Scenically, the massive statue of Christ the Redeemer, reached by train up a mountainside, is truly awesome and Sugarloaf, via cable car, is breathtaking. At wonderful markets, such as the Feira Hippie at Ipanema, true artefact souvenirs can be found at great prices. Nightlife is fun – risqué or romantic depending on your choice – invariably running til dawn. There are gardens, zoo, museums and beautiful historic churches to visit to break the relentless pace.
For me, the rich amalgam Afro-Portuguese cuisine, its mix of bitter kale, black beans and chunks of pork was way too strongly flavoured, to put it delicately. And Portuguese-speaking locals left no doubt my elementary Spanish was useless, dismissed completely out of hand.
Yet neither cuisine nor language posed a problem. I took many meals at my hotel, Rio’s biggest – a time to be thankful for that immutable international cuisine that populates the menus of hotel chains the world over. I enjoyed lunch by the oceanside pool, the wonderful mix of nationalities and personalities I met there, and the delectable national drink, caipirinha, of crushed lime with sugar and sugarcane rum. And English was widely spoken. When it’s not, resort to the lingua franca that lubricates understanding around the globe – cash.
But then there are the risks the concierge warned of. Sadly, the favelas (slums) of Rio are ever-present, crawling across the hillsides adjacent to the wealthy areas of town, a constant reminder of the poverty and crime here. No more so than when a little girl begs for coins when your cab stops at traffic lights … you open your heart and purse … and find her big brother steps out of the shadows, not nearly so endearing.
Yet Rio oozes brio, an energy eclipsed by few places outside New York. Sensible precautions will keep you safe in a thrilling, enervating, unique city.