Falling under Rio's sultry spell

Falling under Rio's sultry spell
A boy jumps on Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 3, 2016.
PHOTO: Reuters

The samba, the beach, the fresh coconut juice - in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, virtually everything ignites a tireless passion for living.

Each time I hear the seductive rhythms of Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova classic The Girl From Ipanema, it feels like the perfect embodiment of Rio: sexy, spontaneous and incurably romantic.

Brazil has always captivated me. I'm also a huge fan of its national sport, football.

From an early age, I grew up playing football competitively, and even today as an adult, I still play it recreationally.

During my career in marketing at a leading sports brand, my passion for football took me to Rio on business on many occasions, especially when the company was starting to invest heavily in the sport.

Many years later, when I moved to Singapore, it was no coincidence that I decided to open a Brazilian fashion boutique.

It gave me the perfect excuse to fly back to Rio, several times a year, to purchase a selection of their trendiest Fashion Week offerings. And when Brazil hosted the football World Cup in 2014, I felt Rio's seductive siren song once more. It was time to fulfil a lifelong dream of mine - to watch the final of the World Cup in Rio's legendary Maracana Stadium.

No matter how often I visit Rio, also nicknamed A Cidade Maravilhosa or "The Marvellous City", it takes my breath away every time. There is so much on offer, and as the city prepares itself to welcome the 2016 Olympics, it is poised to become even more electrifying.

The landscape and the beaches

With its 37 white-sand beaches, terraced cafes overflowing with beautiful people and nightlife that never stops - this is a city that lives on the edge and in the imagination like few others.

The landscape around Rio is what sets it apart. The massive, granite peaks that shoot out of the Atlantic Ocean are breathtaking, and as you gaze south down the coastline, you can see the Sugarloaf Mountain and the cable cars sleepily ferrying passengers to the summit.

Behind you, Christ the Redeemer gazes onwards as always from Corcovado.

Ipanema and Copacabana beaches are among the best stretches of sand in the world, and I recommend you start your day with a delicious breakfast at Pergula at the Belmond Copacabana Palace Hotel.

Since 1923, this shorefront wedding cake-looking hotel has been the place to stay for royalty, heads of state and film stars.

Since part of the Rio experience is, well, the view, head to the beach next. Beauty fits into a wider spectrum in Brazil, with the beautiful people more attractive than anywhere in the world and the ugly, more shocking.

Naturally, this is exacerbated when you are on the beach and everyone is wearing next to nothing. But that is part of the beach culture here. People come to the beach just to loaf around and socialise, and there is an entire economy dedicated to revellers.

If you have forgotten to bring a towel or umbrella, you can rent one on the beach. In addition, food, drink and trinket vendors snake through the crowds hawking their wares. On a busy warm Saturday, it can be hard to find a seat or a spot to pitch your umbrella.

Local colour

Continue along the promenade in front of the Copacabana hotel and head to Ipanema for some shopping and local colour.

All lifestyles are here, from Gucci-clad grannies to wannabe Neymars practising Futevolei - a combination of beach volleyball and football widely played in Brazil.

Afterwards, head to Azul Marinho for a delicious lunch. This is a traditional beachfront restaurant at Praia do Arpoador, which serves an excellent range of seafood dishes.

Whenever I visit, I order one of the moquecas - a Brazilian fish stew made with onions, garlic, tomatoes, cilantro and coconut milk, or the restaurant's famous wholefish baked in salt. Both dishes are superb.

Try to get seats at one of the outdoor tables facing the ocean - they offer the best beachside setting you will find in the Zona Sul area of Rio.

The beautiful game

Football is like a religion in Brazil, in the words of Pele, the greatest player of all time. The Brazilians play the Jogo Bonito - the Beautiful Game - so a visit to Rio's world-renowned Maracana Stadium is an absolute must.

It boasted a record paid attendance at the final game of the 1950 FIFA World Cup of nearly 200,000 fans, but today it seats around 79,000 spectators. Despite the reduction in capacity, it remains one of the largest stadiums in South America and will be the site of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Olympic Games.

After an excursion to this football hub, it is time for a well-deserved, ice-cold Caipirinha cocktail - Brazil's national tipple - which is made with cachaca, a type of local rum, sugar and lime.

My husband and I like to have drinks at the trendy rooftop bar of the Fasano Hotel, one of Philippe Starck's design creations in Brazil. Here, we chat, relax and people- watch with the added bonus of a spectacular view of Ipanema beach.

Famous attractions

Visit the Christ the Redeemer statue on a rail trip up Corcovado, the mountain where it stands, or take a guided tour of one of Rio's notorious favelas.

As with any crowded city, there is always a downside and Rio is no exception with its high crime rates and alarming social inequalities. It is better to leave your valuables in the hotel safe as a precaution.

Another must-do when in Rio is to go to the top of Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) to catch a sunset view. Take a cable car at the station at 520 Avenida Pasteur and slowly ascend the great hunk of rock. There is nowhere better to appreciate the natural beauty of this city's spectacular landscape.

Rising 396m above the boats that come into the harbour, its name is said to refer to its resemblance to the traditional form in which refined sugar was produced and sold.

For a taste of local culture, try the trendy Lapa district and Rio Scenarium on Rua do Lavradio 20. It is one of the best bars in the world, and a space dedicated to Brazilian music and antiques in the historic city centre.

Music is the meeting ground for some of Brazil's most creative artists and nets an audience as diverse as the city. This is another of Rio's disarming traits: its rich melting pot of cultures.

You can have breakfast after a night of dancing at Confeitaria Colombo Restaurant at the city centre or at the Copacabana Fort. This place is a perfect example of the belle epoque Carioca style - its Art Nouveau decor is part of the cultural and artistic heritage of Rio.

When you leave…

Although they say that la joie de vivre is a French invention, it is the Cariocas - the local Rio dwellers - who have made it their own. How else would you explain the zeal with which the city's inhabitants celebrate their days?

While large-scale festivities like Carnival have made Rio famous, there are countless occasions for revelry.

Just be warned, Rio's powers of seduction will leave you with a bad case of saudade - indescribable longing - when your visit comes to an end.

Getting there

We flew from Singapore to Paris on Singapore Airlines and after a few days in Paris, we took the overnight Air France flight to Rio.

Traveller's tips

- Try Farm Rio boutique for beautiful local beachwear and Forum de Ipanema for other famous "Carioca" brands.

- For dinner, try the Aprazivel restaurant in an old house in Santa Teresa. Take the bonde (tram) there. This 19th-century wooden tram once took wealthy residents down to the city. Now locals and tourist take the bumpy ride through the cobbled streets of this boho enclave.

- For information on the Zika virus, ask your doctor and visit the Ministry of Health website at www.moh.gov.sg

This article was first published on July 26, 2016.
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