Famed Hotel a Rio Charmer

Famed Hotel a Rio Charmer

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - "Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl ... At the Copa, Copacabana ..." There is only one drawback about staying at Rio de Janeiro's spectacular Copacabana Palace hotel - you can never stop humming that old Barry Manilow hit of a few decades ago. If I could only remember the words.

And while Manilow's song had nothing to do with the regal hotel - which has played host to many queens and kings over its more than 80 years in business - it has always hit the right note with guests.

Owned and operated by the world-renowned Orient-Express group (the same people who own the legendary train), the Copacabana Palace is regarded as the top hotel in Rio - a five-star, white stucco edifice that was patterned after Nice's legendary Negresco and the Carlton in Cannes.

But unlike its stuffy French cousins, the Palace is relaxed and reflects the mood of fun-loving Rio, where a party can break out on the Copacabana beach opposite the hotel at any moment.

People lounge around the palatial pool, sipping what one writer described as "Brazil's greatest contribution to mankind," the caipirinha, a bold little drink that is made from cachaca (sugar-cane liquor) and mixed with lots of lime slices, sugar and ice cubes. Think tequila, with a kick.

There are those who point to the caipirinha as the source of many memorable, and not so memorable, moments at the hotel, a favourite of Hollywood types who would fly down to Rio on a regular basis in the golden era of the film industry.

People like actor Orson Welles, whose behaviour during his stay here was described as "outrageous" in historical documents kept on the hotel. Marlene Dietrich and Jayne Mansfield reportedly shed their dresses while partying at the pool. Hey, it does get hot around the pool at mid-day - especially after a few caipirinhas.

The list of people who have stayed at the hotel reads like a Who's Who of the rich and famous. Their visits here are remembered in a photo gallery on the hotel's first floor. Black-and-white photographs of Rudolf Nureyev, Janis Joplin, Mick Jagger, Prince Charles and Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire - they starred in the 1930s classic film Flying Down to Rio - and many others adorn the walls of the stately old Palace.

And they kept coming back - mainly to enjoy the hotel's opulence and be waited on by an army of attentive staff who cater to your every whim. Many rate the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok as the No. 1 hotel in the world. That may be true, but in my opinion (I have stayed at both) the Copacabana Palace is a close second.

The property is also the place where the most exclusive and colourful ball of the Rio Carnival is held.

The hotel is split into two buildings. The most luxurious accommodation in the main and original building is located on the fifth floor, which recently underwent a $2 million (U.S.) facelift. The floor houses 26 oversized apartments and suites and an executive lounge with all the latest electronic gadgets (each room also offers Internet access) and a kitchen that serves finger food all day.

All the rooms and suites offer CD players, VCRs and the latest television designs. The bathrooms have all been refurbished to North American standards and are wrapped in Brazilian marble.

In all, there are 225 guest rooms, 147 in the main building and the rest in the annex located across from the Olympic-sized swimming pool - the largest in Rio.

Most of the rooms in the annex are small suites - they were once used as apartments - and those looking out onto the swimming pool also give guests a great view of the Copacabana beach, the busiest in Rio.

The hotel's patio restaurant opens onto the pool and most guests like to linger there after enjoying a sumptuous breakfast buffet or lunch of feijoada, a traditional dish from Rio of blended black beans and pork served with rice, kale and pieces of orange. The grilled shrimp dish will have you hooked on this casual dining spot.

For something a little more distinguished, you might like to pull up a chair at the hotel's newly opened Cipriani restaurant, which features northern Italian cuisine prepared under the expert guidance of Francesco Carli. The chef extraordinaire arrived in Rio after a stint at another famous Orient Express-owned property in Venice.

For those who would prefer to hang out at the beach across the street, the hotel's great service even extends there - a roped-off area is exclusive to Palace guests, who are served complimentary water and fruit while basking under the Rio sun.

The Copacabana Palace is one of Rio's most historic buildings and has been listed as a national treasure. Its famous white facade - which, thanks to a special painting process actually glows at night - has been used as a backdrop for many Hollywood movies.

It's a hotel really worth flying down to Rio to enjoy.

Room rates at the Copacabana Palace start at $320 U.S. a night, but the hotel offers special rates throughout the year. The hotel is located at 1702 Ave. Atlantica. For information on this or any of the other fine properties in the Orient Express inventory, go to www.copacabanapalace.orient-express.com.

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