Greetings from Connecticut! This week, we finish up our trip to South America in style as we travel from Argentina to Rio and check in to one of the world’s most famous hotels: The Copacabana Palace. You won’t want to miss this or one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. We then spend Memorial Day in my favorite place in the world – with friends and family in the Nutmeg State. Shhh … can you hear the music? That’s 50 Cent singing, “It’s my birthday, it’s my birthday!” Dance, everyone! It’s my birthday … on Sunday!
MEMORIAL DAY IN CONNECTICUT
This past weekend, we celebrated Memorial Day in the United States. It’s my favorite weekend of the year and there’s no other place I’d rather be than in Connecticut with my family and childhood friends. I grew up in Norwalk, Connecticut (42 miles outside of New York City) and people who come from this neck of the woods understand that Memorial Day weekend is more than just honoring our soldiers, although that’s the most important part. It’s also the (unofficial) first day of summer as the weather is finally warm, the landscape is full of color, the beaches are open, the boats are in the water and most importantly, everyone is in a great mood, walking around wearing summer clothes and big smiles.
Many of my friends and family live in a section of Norwalk called Rowayton. Anyone with ties to Rowayton knows that there’s no better time of year to come back than Memorial Day. Besides all the reasons listed above, this is the weekend that everyone who grew up here has deemed an annual sort of homecoming. Natives travel from all over to make it back for this one special weekend, which kicks off Friday night with a casual martini party on Bell Island. This was the 35th anniversary of the party and it keeps getting bigger and bigger.
The weekend is filled with countless barbecues and soirées. The granddaddy of all the parties — the Memorial Day Parade — begins at high noon on Sunday. The parade is small. It lasts maybe 25 minutes — but it’s special. The best part is that practically everyone knows everyone who marches. Marchersrange from the Rowayton Fire Department to the nationally renowned Brien McMahon High School band, which has performed at huge venues like the Rose Bowl and Yankee Stadium. After the parade, an emotional ceremony takes place at the canon. Everyone takes their hats off, puts their hands on their chests and pays tribute to our fallen soldiers, as well as all those guarding our freedom right now. If the playing of Tapsdoesn’t give you goose bumps, I don’t know what will.
After God Bless America, everyone walks over to the firehouse for free hot dogs and soda. Then it’s time for me and my friends to head to the field where we play our annual stickball game. Growing up, we played every day in the summer. Now, this is the only time we play all year. The perfectly lined oak trees are slowly disappearing (kind of like my hair), and the field has been turned into a dog park. Nonetheless, this is still the highlight, as the old-timers take on the young guns. Of course, we’re not that young and the old-timers aren’t that old. Just a few years separate the teams. This year, we ‘young guns‘ rallied five runs to tie in the bottom of the ninth and since most of the players had to go home to their ticked-off wives, we called it a tie in the tenth!
After the game, my family and friends surprised me with anearly birthday (it’s on May 31) party in Harbor View. I knew something was going on when Natalie and my sister Carol and her family flew in special for the weekend. But I had no idea so many friends and family who I haven’t seen in years would show up. A special thanks to my sister Georgie Jet for making it happen and Laina for giving us the space.
ARGENTINA TO BRAZIL
We left off last week from the Iguazu Falls, which essentially borders three countries – Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. Natalie and I stayed at the Iguazu Grand, a luxurious hotel on the Argentine side and we headed to Rio before flying back to the States. We left the hotel at 8:30am and the line at the Argentine border, which is 300 yards away from the hotel, was about five cars deep and moving slowly. Our driver took our passports and walked up to the window (he didn’t need us to be there) and took care of our exit stamps. That took just 12 minutes. The next stop was a few hundred yards away at the Brazil border. Here, we needed to get out of the car (he left it running with our bags in the trunk) to get processed and that took about 12 minutes also. Nine minutes later we pulled into the IGU airport.
The Foz Do Iguacu airport is small but appears to be well run. We had a very pleasant experience. There was no line at check-in or at security. Brazil security is easy as can be. Travelers don’t need to take out laptops, take their shoes off or even leave liquids behind. The gate area has a couple of shops including H Stern and a small café. The departure monitor stated we were delayed 10 minutes but we took off exactly on time.
For the short, one-hour, 40-minute flight, Natalie and I flew on TAM Airlines (www.tam.com.br ). They are Brazil’s largest carrier and I flew them internationally a couple years ago in their comfortable business class from Miami to Sao Paolo and back. This experience was just as pleasurable as the A319 aircraft plane was brand new, passengers boarded from both the rear and front so it took half the time and the plane was half empty so we had plenty of space. The flight attendants were young, cool and spoke perfect English. They came around twice with drinks and once with free hot ham and cheese sandwiches. Just beforelanding, they went down the aisle with a basket of candies. The highlight, besides landing safely, was seeing an amazing view of Iguazu Falls right after takeoff. TIP: Sit on the right side of the plane for the view!
AIRPORT (GIG) TO COPACABANA
The only bummer about TAM is that they made us check our carry-on bags and it took 20 minutes for them to come out. But I made the most of the time by walking a few steps from the baggage claim to the Transcoopass desk. My Frommer’s guidebook recommended Transcoopass for airport transportation. Although they charge 30% more than a regular taxi, you don’t have to worry about getting jumped or being ripped off. Transcoopass (Tel: 021-2560-4888) sells pre-paid taxi vouchers and their agents were very friendly and spoke better English than me. I paid an 80R ($39) fee to Copacabana Beach by credit card (there is no tipping). The vehicle was new and clean but the driver didn’t speak English and he wasn’t that friendly. The drive from Antônio Carlos Jobim Airport (also known as Galeão Airport) is about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the beach and it took roughly 30 minutes.
The most prestigious hotel in Copacabana, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil and South America is the Copacabana Palace. It was built in 1923 and practically every celebrity (Tom Cruise checked in just after we checked out) or dignitary who has visited Rio has stayed here. They have a wall of photographs on the second floor of many of famous people who have stayed here. The hotel is located in the middle of the horseshoe curve of Copacabana Beach. There are 222 rooms, all large with high ceilings. Natalieand I got upgraded to a suite in their newer tower, several floors above the Cipriani restaurant, where we enjoyed killer views of the pool and the world famous beach down below.
The service was excellent. A bellman greeted our taxi with an umbrella the moment we pulled up and you can feel the history (and stuffiness!) the moment you enter. The rooms are built solidso you don’t hear any hallway traffic or next-door neighbors. The only thing the room needed was new TVs. I know it’s a historichotel but it’s time for flat screens. However, the rooms at the Copacabana do come with a unique amenity: a pair of colorful his and hers Havaianas flip-flops. They aren’t fitted so mine were too small for my size 13 dogs but Natalie’s fit perfectly. There’s no charge for Internet but wireless works only in the lobby and on the fifth floor. Ethernet cords are provided in the rooms.
COPACABANA LATE NIGHT SWIM
Unfortunately, we had terrible weather for the three days we were there so I don’t have many stories or pictures. There’s not much to do when it rains in Rio so we basically just hung out in our cozy room and caught up with work and sleep. However, we did manage to go for a night swim in the pool (it’s open 24 hours). It was raining but we couldn’t pass up a dip. But I gotta tell you: It was kind of awkward walking by the fancy Cipriani restaurant and their piano player with everyone dressed to the T and we were in our bathing suits and robes. They all watched in amazement/horror but it was so much fun!
We had breakfast and dinner in the hotel’s other restaurant,Pergula Restaurant. It’s situated poolside and serves typical Brazilian dishes. I had the Picadinho Copacabana, which was diced beef stew served with rice, manioc flour, mushrooms, peas, fried banana and fried egg. Yum! It’s not cheap eating in a hotel restaurant – that dish was 65R ($31) and a half-liter of fresh coconut water was 12R ($5.88). If I hadn’t been feeling so lazy because of the rain, I would have gone to some of the (places) I hit last time I was in Rio, which are much more affordable. The service at the restaurant was pretty good but would have been even better if the staff had told a local businessman sitting three tables away, talking loudly on his Nextel cell phone, to shut up. Don’t you hate these walkie-talkie phones? The beep is so annoying and who wants to hear someone else’s entire conversation?
Breakfast was included in our rate and they had the most incredible selections of fruit: watermelon, kumquats, lychee, sweetsop, oranges, grapefruit, passion fruit, baby bananas, mango, kiwi, pineapple … Their fruit juices were equally as good and in addition to the usual breakfast fixin’s, they had a wide variety of breads and pastries. They just need to cover everything with screens as there were a lot of flies and gnats flying around.
COPACABANA PALACE OVERALL
I loved the Copacabana Palace! I would go back in a second but the problem is that it’s filled with a bunch of rich Americans, which completely turns me off when I’m overseas. Don’t get me wrong! I’m proud to be an American but when I’m out of the country, I want to feel like I’m out of the country so hanging out with loud Americans is not my idea of being away. Copacabana Palace, Avenida Atlântica 1702, Rio de Janeiro; Tel: +55 21 2548 7070.
LIVE LIKE A LOCAL
If you don’t want to pay the high prices of hotels and live like a Carioca, a resident of Rio, there’s a booking service called Cama e Café (which means “bed and breakfast”). This service matches travelers up with one of 50 homeowners who rent out one or two (but no more than three) rooms in the artsy, hilltop neighborhood of Santa Teresa. The most fun and cheapest ($0.60) way to get up to this historic and charming town is to take the bonde – an old tram that cruises through the windy streets that are filled with unusual gift shops and quaint restaurants. Cama e Café offers four ranges of accommodations: Economic (90 BRL for a couple or 70 BRL for a single), Tourist Class with A/C andprivate bath (125 BRL for a double, 95 BRL for a single),Superior which comes with Internet and TV (180 BRL for a double, 140 BRL for a single) and Premium (220 BRL for acouple, 180 BRL for a single). All options offer travelers a clean house and breakfast. I toured four of them in 2007 and they looked good. Long-term rates are available and monthly rentals begin at approximately 1,000 BRL ($490). NOTE: During New Year’s and Carnival, rates double, which is not bad considering that the rates at most hotels can rise up to five times the usual cost. Cama e Café, Tel: 55-21-2224-5689; camaecafe.com.br.
THE MOST FAMOUS BEACHES
When you think of Rio de Janeiro, you probably think of three things: crime, the Christ statue and the beach. Rio has 45 miles of white sand beaches and Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches are the most famous. Of course, all Natalie and I had planned to do was hang out on the beach (Copacabana is the more “touristy”, nearby Ipanema Beach is more hip and the locals are friendlier). Both beaches have long sidewalks where many Cariocas are busy exercising — when it’s nice out (even at 6am) in their little bathing suits. Warning: All the men wear banana hammocks and the women wear Brazilian-cut thongs on the beach (they don’t go topless which is a bad rumor). Most bodies are incredible and I have know idea how the women get these round butts?
LOCAL TAXI DRIVER
A Brazilian friend of mine recommended I hire her friend as a taxi driver since taxis in this city are a bit iffy. Mr. Ubiratan wasn’t available when we arrived but I did hire him to take us up to Corcovado to see Cristo. He charged 70R ($34) and 60R ($29) to go back to the GIG airport (cash: Reais only). He’s very friendly but doesn’t speak a lick of English so if you call him (8164-2921), it’s best to have someone who speaks Portuguese on hand.
GETTING UP TO CORCOVADO
One of the most famous statues in the world is Rio’s Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer). It soars over Rio atop Corcovado Mountain ( Corcovado means “the hunchback”). In fact, in 2007 it was named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. I had always wanted to see this famous statue up close and in-person, so when I spotted it from afar in 2007, I got goose bumps. Then, standing two feet away from Cristo Redentor, it was everything I had imagined … and more. To get up the mountain (situated 2,330 feet above sea level) requires either a 30-minute drive up the winding road or a 20-minute cog railwayride. An adult return ticket will cost you 44R ($21). This trip, Mr. Ubiratan took us three quarters of the way up the hill. From there, we were forced to buy tickets (cash only) for a shuttle van run by the city for a 10-minute ride. It cost 13R ($6), which is good for the entry and trip back. Neither drive was scary at all, nor is the cog train.