24-Hour Room Service: Copacabana Palace, Rio de Janeiro

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The Independent Travel

It seems strange to think that Cariocas (as Rio's inhabitants are known) once lived facing away from the sea and that swimming in the Atlantic was outlawed.

It seems strange to think that Cariocas (as Rio's inhabitants are known) once lived facing away from the sea and that swimming in the Atlantic was outlawed. When Sarah Bernhardt sailed to Rio from France in 1886 to perform at the Teatro Sao Pedro, she shocked the locals by, of all things, bathing at Copacabana beach. As late as 1917 it was considered unacceptable behaviour unless under medical advice, and the mayor issued a decree stating that, even then, it was only permitted between the hours of 5-8am and 5-7pm. Moreover, bathers had to "use appropriate clothing, and observe the necessary dignity and decorum."

Cut to the legendary sweep of fine white sand today, and you'll find some of the most entertaining beach theatre on the planet. As the waves crash on to the shore (this is no lily pond), Cariocas play volleyball, surf, sunbathe, swim, jog, cycle or walk poodles along the graceful curve of the bay, sip on fresh coconut milk and create ornate sand sculptures. And all in outfits that might now be deemed appropriate, but by no stretch of the imagination could be considered dignified.

Presiding over the scene is a hotel legend - an elegant wedding cake creation, its white stucco façade a sharp contrast to the neighbouring high-rises. The Copacabana Palace, which opened in 1923, was designed by French architect Joseph Gire and based on the Negresco in Nice and the Carlton in Cannes. Its owner, Octavio Guinle, whose family was once the wealthiest in Brazil, managed it himself for almost half a century (it stayed in his family until it was bought by Orient Express in 1989). He was passionate about the hotel and ran a tight ship with a strict code of conduct. An 18-rule diktat included the instruction to "behave correctly in the presence of all guests, irrespective of who they are, how much they spend, how long they stay". Which, when you see the photographs of past guests lining the wall leading into the ballroom, becomes more understandable. From royalty to heads of state, Hollywood stars and sports legends, the names in the hotel's Golden Book include Edward and George, then the Prince of Wales and Duke of York, but soon to become King Edward VIII and King George VI, Noël Coward, Orson Welles, Errol Flynn, Dame Margot Fonteyn and Nelson Rockefeller. In the Sixties and Seventies guests included The Supremes, and in the Eighties Mick Jagger. And flying down to Rio while we were there? In the cosily lit piano bar Naomi Campbell was surrounded by her entourage, while Formula 1 names David Coulthard and Flavio Briatore lolled by the pool.

LOCATION

Copacabana Palace, Avenida Atlantica 1702, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (00 55 21 2548 7070; www.copacabanapalace.orient-express.com).

Time to international airport: it's 20 miles to Rio's Tom Jobim airport. A taxi costs 70 Brazilian Reais (£13.50) and takes 30 minutes.

COMFORTABLE?

There are 226 rooms and suites, 147 of which are in the main building and 78 in the annexe. The seven penthouse suites on the sixth floor share a rooftop black-granite-and-glass-tiled swimming-pool and tennis courts. My room on the first floor overlooked the beach, and the French windows opened on to a mini balcony. Inside, the parquet flooring was softened by a huge oriental rug, while the room was decked out with elegant period furniture.

Freebies: toiletries, fruit bowl, plate of petits fours.

Keeping in touch: two phones in each room, internet link and satellite television.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Doubles cost from $330 (£236) without breakfast, which is $22 (£13). If you want a package, four nights at the Copacabana Palace and three nights at Casas Brancas in Buzios, (made famous by Brigitte Bardot) with Escapology, in association with British Airways Holidays (0845 0700 601), costs £1,282 per head with flights, transfers, and a room on a bed and breakfast basis.

I'm not paying that: the Arpoador Inn (00 55 21 2523 0060) on Ipanema Beach has doubles from 363 Reais (£70), with breakfast.

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