The Rio grand

Rio's Copacabana Palace, shown here in 1941, boasts an impressive guest list. Photo: Corbis
Think of Rio de Janeiro and in all likelihood images of Sugar Loaf Mountain spring to mind, and in an instant all you'll be probably be humming the melody of The Girl From Ipanema or another of Tom Jobim's annoyingly catchy bossa nova hits. But Rio, arguably Latin America's most glamorous of cities, boasts many other icons - Christ the Redeemer statue, samba and the pulsating beat of batucada percussion and some of the skimpiest swimwear on the planet. And then there's the Copacabana Palace: since its doors swung open to the public almost 90 years ago, the stylish hotel has consistently been considered one of the places to stay in Rio.

In 1923, Rio's southern beaches had only recently been fully incorporated into the city. With the clean water of the open Atlantic and sea breezes, Copacabana seemed to offer the best features of both resort and city living. Villas mushroomed similar to those in the then fashionable French seaside resorts of Deauville and Biarritz, but it was only after the Copacabana Palace was built that the neighbourhood - and, in a way, the city - really emerged on the international tourist scene.

Designed by the architect Joseph Gire in an eclectic blend of neo-classical, art nouveau and art deco styles, the Copacabana Palace was modelled on the lines of the luxury hotels that he created in his native France: the Negresco in Nice and the Carlton in Cannes. Though Rio may have always been considered seductive, the city finally boasted a world-class hotel in the grandest of European styles. Even so, it was not for some 10 years after the hotel's inauguration that Copacabana became something of a global household name thanks to the property being a backdrop for the film starring the great Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

Over the decades, Copacabana - indeed Rio generally - has changed considerably. The once stylish villas have long-since been bulldozed, replaced with anonymous-looking apartment buildings and hotels. During the 1960s the neighbourhood entered a period of steady decline with the elite of Rio pulling up sticks and heading to the beach suburbs to the south. Today Ipanema, Leblon and Lagoa are firmly established as Rio's most exclusive neighbourhoods and the location of the finest restaurants and fashionable nightlife spots.

But despite Copacabana's slightly worn and rather scruffy look and feel, somehow the Copacabana Palace has retained the mantle of being the city's pre-eminent luxury hotel. Its now very unfashionable location means that the hotel has not been able to rest on its laurels. Over the years the Copacabana Palace has been regularly up-dated, while service and attention to detail have always been a justified source of pride. But there are also strikingly few competitors. Despite Rio's ever-growing importance as a business and leisure destination, one would be hard-pressed to come up with more than a handful of hotels that match the city's stature. Yes, in Ipanema there's the hip, Philippe Starck-designed Hotel Fasano, while in the hills overlooking the city centre there's the ultra-cool Hotel Santa Teresa. Whereas the likes of Amy Winehouse and Katy Perry have been attracted to these boutique properties, they lack the distinguished presence of the Copacabana Palace. And just as the hotel can reel off an impressive list of famous guests from the past (see breakout story), it's still confident that it will remain the number one choice of celebratory visitors to Rio.

In November the hotel is scheduled to complete one of its most extensive makeovers ahead of its 90th anniversary celebrations next year. There will be a bigger lobby and changes in the lighting design, furniture and fabrics throughout. While the new environment will reflect the laidback nature of the city, old-world elegance and exclusivity remain the abiding motifs.


Since the Copacabana Palace opened its Art Deco doors in the roaring twenties, the hotel has hosted a who's who of stars.

A quick glance through the legendary Golden Book during the past 90 years includes royalty, politicians, film stars and rock stars. From stars of the screen including Brigitte Bardot (left), Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Grace Kelly to personalties such as Kiri Te Kanawa, Michael Schumacher and world leaders including Nelson Mandela.

This is the hotel where Frank Sinatra dumped Ava Gardner who responded by throwing furniture at him. Orson Welles wrecked his room after a fight with the actress Dolores del Rio. Dolores led the billing for the film Flying Down to Rio that also had two other famous stars, the legendary Fred Astaire and his new partner, Ginger Rogers. It was during this film that Astaire and Rogers danced together for the first time on the silver screen. Made in 1933, it's the only film in which Ginger Rogers was billed above Fred Astaire.

Although the guests don't throw the furniture around like they used to, the hotel has had a long list of high-profile guests: the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bono, the Princess of Wales and the Black Eyed Peas have all checked in.

The marble floors of the famous Nobre Room, the dance floor of the Bar do Copa, and the pool, which was once the largest in Rio, continue to be graced by the glamorous. The iconic hotel is still considered the best address in town and the Golden Book continues to fill with names of the rich and famous. If walls could talk …


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: The Rio grand

Rio's glamorous Copacabana Palace has undergone a major facelift as it prepares for its 90th anniversary, writes Oliver Marshall