By Dave Guenther, President of Roadtrips Inc.
Rio De Janeiro is an amazing place that is used to attracting huge crowds. During this year’s Carnival the world once again descended upon the city. Millions filled the streets to engage the festivities or start some of their own. There were, of course, all kinds of VIPs and celebrities including Kim and Kanye, Will Smith and squeeze and many Brazilian actors and athletes unrecognizable to me. Visitors were estimated at more than 500,000+ and who knows where they all stayed. Rio is a world-class destination without a lot of world-class hotels.
As a luxury travel guy with clients that have very high standards, knowing the city’s accommodation inventory and visiting a lot of hotels is essential. My current trip is the first time that I’ve stayed in the city without staying in a hotel. Being with my family and here for a month we’ve rented a villa in Joatinga, a hillside enclave just before the southwestern suburb of Barra, where the Summer Games will be headquartered. However, on my other visits, I’ve sampled some of the city’s best hotels and on this trip, as with all others, I’ve spent significant time in each of the city’s best properties either eating, lounging or being toured around.
With that introduction, here’s my take on Rio’s best accommodation options.
The Top Tier
I only put three hotels in this category: The Fasano, the Copacabana Palace and the Hotel Santa Teresa. With each of these you can’t go wrong.
My favorite is The Fasano. The hotel is perfectly located on Ipanema and it excels in service, comfort, design and a view from its rooftop pool that can be found on magazine covers and postcards. The Fasano’s Philippe Starck stylings make it the choice for the hip (not me), fashionable (again, not me) and jet set; including Will Smith who happened to inhabit the Presidential Suite this past week. Rooms from deluxe category up all have balconies overlooking the beach and since the Fasano group is just as concerned with running their high-end restaurants as they are their hotels, excellence in food and beverage is assured.
The Copacabana Palace may be of a different style but it is tops on many peoples’ lists. This classic Orient Express hotel is in the center of the action on Copacabana; mere meters from where the Olympic organizers plan on creating a stunning beach volleyball stadium for the 2016 Games. When I first looked at the Palace two years ago it was grand but kind of tired. It’s amazing what six months off and $50 million will do. Now this queen of the beach is back to full glory with vastly improved reception areas and each guest room fully worthy of the luxury traveler. The Grand ballrooms of the Copa host Rio’s most prestigious parties and weddings. During major events you are sure to see the red carpet rolled out and flash bulbs popping. Expect a true five star experience.
A completely different luxury experience but also a must do is the multi-award winning Hotel Santa Teresa. This Relais and Chateaux property set in the eclectic and charming neighborhood of Santa Teresa feels a world apart from Rio’s manic beach scene but its only minutes away from the surf and sand. The sensation here is of being a guest at the country home of a South American land baron; except that in reality you are perched at the edge of the jungle and at the top of the city with all the amenities you could desire: a delicious gourmet restaurant, smooth jazz in the lounge, a spa and a verandah, quiet pool and tropical gardens overlooking sandy crescents, the mighty Sugar Loaf and twinkling lights below.
As mentioned above, each of the above is excellent. The problem is that collectively they have just over 300 rooms in total! With huge events like the World Cup and the Summer Olympics coming to town there will be a lot of VIPs scrambling for a very limited number of rooms. Roadtrips holds a huge advantage for our customers as we have key room blocks at The Copacabana Palace for the World Cup and at the Hotel Santa Teresa for the Summer Games.
Below the top tier, the hotels are larger or smaller; depending how you look at it.
Smaller, first. Recognizing that there are not enough quality hotels a number of hospitality entrepreneurs have done residential conversions into small boutique hotels. Leading the pack in this category are the La Suite and Mama Ruisa. The former is set in the residential area of Joatinga just down the street from where I am staying and the latter is in the Santa Teresa neighborhood. Both are small (seven and eight rooms respectively), French owned and both put high values on design in a quiet and sophisticated setting. However each come with limited services and trade-offs. La Suite has an utterly fabulous view back at the Sao Conrado beaches but, as the only ‘hotel’ tucked away on a residential street 20 minutes away from Ipanema, can feel a bit remote. Mama Ruisa enjoys the vibrancy and excellent location of the Santa Teresa neighborhood, but it lacks the public spaces of a true hotel. Both hotels come inclusive of breakfast and can facilitate catering but neither have a proper restaurant on site. Ideally, either hotel would be great for a larger family or small corporate group that wanted to use either property in total.
That brings us to the larger hotels in our second tier: the Sheraton Rio, the Sofitel, the Windsor Atlantic and the JW Marriott. All are good and each has something special going for them but all do have to be identified as being a step down and would be identified as good four star hotels in North America.
The Sheraton sits in a prime location uniquely on its own private beach and point just beyond Leblon. It has fabulous views and is great for families. The Sheraton is the only Rio hotel that has a resort feel. Rooms and food and beverage outlets are in the midst of a needed refresher that will make this hotel ‘hot’ for the upcoming mega-events.
The Sofitel also enjoys a prime position at the end of Copacabana closest to Ipanema. The challenge here is ownership; which apparently has Accor Hotels (the owners of the Sofitel chain) selling this property and taking over the Ceasar Park hotel on Ipanema. If the French chef leaves and the hotel name changes it could be more than just excellent pastry that has traded beaches.
The Windsor Atlantic is the flagship Windsor property at the north end of Copacabana. There are almost a dozen Windsors in Rio now and this family owned chain is trying to move from a mid-market brand to something that includes upscale properties like the Atlantic.
Normally there needs to be something truly special and luxurious to turn a Marriott into a JW Marriott. In Rio that’s probably best defined by location. The JW Marriott Rio is located in the heart of Copacabana Beach area. The hotel has grand common areas compared to all other Rio hotels and at least you can be assured of a JW Bed.
Of course, there are a few other hotels that have wrangled an inconceivable star rating out of the Brazilian tourism folks and who would like to be considered as an upper tier hotel. In reality though, for the time being at least, nothing else makes the grade or is worthy of our list.
Sky high real estate prices and, ironically, extremely high occupancy rates have conspired to limit hotel investment in the highly prized areas of Copacabana and Ipanema. In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss hotel developments and the serious accommodations challenge for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.