Hovering over Rio de Janeiro's Guanabara Bay like a giant flying saucer is a stunning spheroid structure, seemingly more sculptural than functional. The Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum rose from the creative imagination of arguably one of the world's great modernist architects – Rio's Oscar Niemeyer.
Niemeyer's MAC has had a "Bilbao effect", attracting visitors (although in a smaller-scale way) just as Frank Gehry's curvaceous Guggenheim Museum attracts hordes to Bilbao in Spain.
This 16-metre-high elegant, cantilevered concrete dish, whose swirling, curling lines are aeons away from modernism's harshness, is the centrepiece of our excursion with a difference – an "Oscar Niemeyer adventure" to explore the string of Niemeyer buildings in Rio.
And not just any old excursion. Our guide is Paulo Niemeyer, Oscar Niemeyer's architect great-grandson and assistant, who worked with him until Niemeyer's 2012 death, aged 104, and who bears an uncanny resemblance to his famous ancestor.
This is one of the many optional adventures offered on our Captain's Choice all-inclusive, business-class Ultimate South America by private jet three-week trip, which takes in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Chile's Easter Island.
In Rio, guests are offered several options. Many take up the "Finding Niemeyer" opportunity to learn about this remarkable man who in 1988 won architecture's Nobel Prize equivalent, the Pritzker Architecture Prize, and whose mentor was the French-Swiss modern architecture pioneer, Le Corbusier.
Niemeyer designed according to Le Corbusier's five principles – rigid sun shading, full-width strip windows, roof gardens, pillars that raised the building above ground and free-form plans within a grid of columns.
We have already had a Niemeyer introduction to Rio, experiencing a samba extravaganza and buffet meal at the home Niemeyer built in 1951, Casa das Canoas. This domestic masterpiece has a free-flowing style that is a perfect counterfoil for our vivacious parade of samba dancers.
On our tour, the assistant guide and translator is practically genuflecting in the presence of a Niemeyer. Oscar Niemeyer's iconic status in Brazil equals that of soccer legend Pele or Bossa Nova pioneer Antonio Carlos Jobim.
"For Brazilians, he's still alive, still with us," our guide explains.
His distinctive sculptural glass and white concrete masterpieces appear in 23 different countries, but his tour de force is Brasilia. The city in the centre of nowhere became Brazil's new capital in 1960, and its experimental civic buildings with their common elements were Niemeyer's creations.
Niemeyer was an intern in the mid-1930s, working on the design of Rio's Gustavo Capanema Palace, the first state-sponsored modernist building in the Americas. Our cruise past the building shows a fine example of Brazilian 1930s modernist architecture, which reflects Brazil's evolution from the Eurocentric, post-colonial "old" Brazil.
We are headed across the Niteroi Bridge for Niteroi – the city across the bay from Rio and home to the 11-kilometre Niemeyer Way, inaugurated in 2002, possessing more Niemeyer buildings than anywhere else except Brasilia.
But first, any self-respecting Niemeyer tour must visit Rio's Sambadrome, where 90,000 spectators gather for Rio's annual Carnival to watch the colourful parade of samba schools.
In only a few months, Niemeyer designed the structure with its 700-metre-long Parading Avenue that leads to the grand arc in Apotheosis Square. Sambadrome represents Niemeyer's first major work after the 21-year Brazilian dictatorship collapsed in 1985.
Paulo Niemeyer explains that Niemeyer's curves derived from the curves of Brazilian women and of the mountains and rivers of the Brazil he sorely missed when he was exiled during the military dictatorship for his communist views.
Our attention is drawn to the grand arc whose lines and curves are "a sensual representation of a mulatto girl".
Once we cross the 13-kilometre Rio-Niteroi Bridge across Guanabara Bay, we arrive at the Niemeyer complex – a cluster of four buildings orbiting Niteroi's foreshore. They have a distinctive space-age feel, something Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin noted after flying over Niemeyer's Brasilia creations.
"The impression was like arriving on another planet," he said.
The Niemeyer complex centrepiece is the curved yellow and white Teatro Popular whose roofline reflects Rio's mountains across the bay.
Then there's the Roberto Silveira Memorial, which emerges like a white eyeball from the ground alongside the Oscar Niemeyer Foundation that spirals above a water pool.
Further along the way in Juscelino Kubitschek Square, Niemeyer and the former president appear in deep, bronzed conversation on one of the benches.
Finally, we arrive at the beautiful MAC – widely accepted as the jewel of the Niteroi Camino – with its amazing views across to Sugarloaf, Rio's port area, mountains and favelas.
Hard to believe Niemeyer, then aged 84, made the first sketches for the building on a tablecloth. Today, it's closed but we are guided up its curving red ramp, a sculptural feature in itself, to meet the museum's curator-director, Luiz Guilherme Vergara. He is eloquent on the subject of the integration of the exhibited art and the sculptural qualities of the building.
He gives us a private tour of the exhibitions whose artworks compete for attention with the breathtaking views of Christ the Redeemer on Mount Corcovado and Sugarloaf Mountain from the second floor glass balcony.
Then its off to lunch at Restaurant Olimpo, housed within a familiar Niemeyer structure – spherical and airy – before we hop on a ferry back across the bay, a little wiser about the architect whose sensuous, hedonistic structures are considered to be "as smooth as Brazilian jazz".
GETTING THERE AND TOURING THERE
The Captain's Choice 2018 private jet program offers four unique journeys on board a newly chartered Boeing 757, customised to seat 50 people in fully reclinable, Italian leather seats. An on-board chef provides meals accompanied by a curated wine list of premium labels. The next itinerary to feature South America, Equatorial Explorer, departs London on July 7, 2018, for Bermuda, Havana, Antigua, Cartagena, The Amazon, Atacama Desert, Easter Island and Tahiti, ending in Sydney. This tour is priced from $77,600 per person twin share. For more information, or to order a brochure, see captainschoice.com.au/ or call 1800 650 738 for a brochure.
Alison Stewart was a guest of Captain's Choice