Rio's Belmond Copacabana Palace Hotel: The original rock star hotel

Night is an excellent time to arrive at Rio's historic Belmond Copacabana Palace Hotel. She's illuminated like a 1930s screen legend on a red carpet, all her art deco curves and accoutrements accentuated as she poses on Copacabana's beachfront.

She's learned from the best. Down the years, countless stars of the silver screen, royalty, music, sport, art and politics have been drawn like moths to the flame of her extravagant sophistication. 

As if not stunned enough by this display of late-night brilliance, we're offered a thing of beauty as we step into the hotel lobby – a perfect caipirinha, Brazil's national cocktail made from cachaca, lime and sugar, powerful enough to blow a traveller's head off.

Apparently 1960s rock legend Janis Joplin fell into the blue lagoon-like swimming pool that nestles in the hotel's centre. Perhaps she, too, had been offered a welcome caipirinha or three. 

We've come to Rio for three nights as part of a Captain's Choice private jet three-week tour of South America. Our journey takes in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Chile's Easter Island.

It's a pleasure to explore this dynamic tropical city of granite mountains, lakes, forests, lagoons and bays, this city of samba and gateway to Brazil, knowing we will return each evening to the Belmond Copacabana Palace. 

Yet it is a slightly guilty pleasure because our hotel represents the opulent face of a city where the wealth is as obvious as the poverty. The waterfront playgrounds of Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana embody affluence, glamorised by the 1960s Brazilian bossa nova jazz hit, Garota de Ipanema (Girl From Ipanema). Property prices are some of the world's highest. 

Beyond this golden-sand slice of privilege, Rio roars with sound and fury – seven million people, hectic favelas that snake up mountains, Brazilian funk, samba and hip-hop, art, architecture, and what cannot be ignored – unruly, corrupted politics and a degree of lawlessness. 

My room, though, is a cool and airy escape from 33-degree heat and humidity, with its oblique view of the beach, and the Avenida Atlantica with its black-and-white-mosaic Portuguese pavement representing the Amazon's tributaries – the dark Rio Negro and sand-coloured Rio Solimoes – that meet but don't mix.


The white-and-pink Brazilian marble bathroom is luxurious, the Brazilian freijo wood furniture stylish, the gift chocolates quickly gobbled, the thoughtfully provided Havaianas donned with a view to a later beach sortie. 

We're warned that the famous beach harbours pickpockets, but the hotel's beach service offers sun loungers, beach umbrellas, even platters of fresh fruit. In the meantime, the king-sized bed is so comfortable, Keith Richards' wife wanted to buy some after a Rolling Stones tour. 

The windows can be shuttered and soundproofed, which isn't a bad thing given the star-studded clientele. Utter mayhem can eventuate and the hotel has its own stylish, logoed-up barriers for just such occasions.

Justin Bieber's arrival, for example, prompted the arrival of hundreds –  nay thousands –  of shrieking, fainting, wailing teenagers. The doorman needed painkillers for his headache. 

And if the stars aren't drawing the crowds – the likes of Nelson Mandela, Madonna, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, the late Michael Jackson, Orson Welles, Arturo Toscanini, Robbie Williams, Pavarotti, Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe, and kings and queens to name a few – they're packing it in on the beach below.

Reportedly the world's largest concert, Rod Stewart drew 3.5-million people to Copacabana beach for New Year's Eve 1994. The Rolling Stones attracted 1.5 million in 2006. No wonder Keith needed a decent bed.

The Belmond Copacabana Palace, with its 243 rooms and suites, is also a cinematographic landmark. In 1933 it was the backdrop for Flying Down to Rio, where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced together for the first time.

So extensive is the list of famous guests who have signed the hotel's Golden Book, initiated in 1923, it is now locked in a safe and handlers are required to wear protective gloves. Eminent guest photos line the walls of the mezzanine's reception salons.

While you know that every one of the world's celebrated landmark hotels has similar claims to guest fame, human nature makes sticky-beaking hard to resist. And it's true to say that when the hotel opened in 1923, Copacabana beach was unknown. It was the hotel, now named a national treasure, that first brought the cachet. Although property developers wanted to demolish it in the mid-1980s.

French architect Jose Gire modelled it on the Mediterranean style of hotel – specifically the Negresco in Nice and the Carlton in Cannes. Initially a retreat for European nobility, the 1933 film drew the world's glitterati to infuse the hotel's soaring ceilings, columns, chandeliers, marble and hardwood floors with memories of intrigue and desire.

In the 1930s, the hotel's Golden Room was Latin America's premier show venue with the likes of Dionne Warwick, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Marlene Dietrich, Ray Charles and Nat King Cole performing.

The hotel, which Belmond renovated last year, has several restaurants and while the Cipriani, named for Belmond Copacabana's sister hotel in Venice, is known for its innovative Northern Italian cuisine, it's hard to go past MEE, which opened in 2014 and won one of South America's first Michelin stars in 2015.

MEE was Rio's first pan-Asian restaurant, with chef Ken Hom and Brazilian chef Kazuo Harada creating dishes from Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. There's a dedicated sushi bar and a sake sommelier to guide diners through the 25 imported varieties.

Michelin recommends the restaurant's spicy Thai salad with tangerine, quail's egg sushi with truffle and Kobe beef tataki with ponzu sauce. Very tempting, but I go with the sublime Hong Kong prawns with honey-glazed walnuts, then the Wagyu sirloin with seared foie gras and spicy miso sauce. 

I can't resist tasting fellow diners' choices – the crispy Sichuan confit duck with pancakes being the standout. Rock star food, indeed.




Captain's Choice Discovery of South America is a 22-day journey by private jet from Sydney to Buenos Aires, Iguassu Falls, Rio de Janeiro, Havana, Machu Picchu, Panama City, the Galapagos Islands, Cuzco and Easter Island. It leaves Sydney on August 23, 2018, and is priced from $89,500 per person twin share. See or phone 1800 650 738. 

Alison Stewart was a guest of Captain's Choice