This is the final weekend of a month-long trip through Brazil – a luxurious sign-off before returning to our real lives. As expectations go, ours are at ‘ridiculously high’. Security guards set a VIP tone and motion our driver through to a quiet residential street. We fall out of our cab, dusty and travel-fatigued, in front of a large, faceless, nondescript grey door – disappointment looms.
Our casually dressed host, Rodrigo, opens the door and swiftly La Suite’s seductive charm and sweeping sea views come to the fore. It’s a clifftop villa in Joatinga – the Beverly Hills of Rio – where floor-to-ceiling windows and a huge grandstand terrace give way to a panorama of Brazil’s high-drama megalopolis. To one side, the turquoise blue of the Atlantic encircling the Cagarras islands; to the other, a jungle-fringed swathe of Rio’s trademark beaches – Leblon and Ipanema. Sugar Loaf Mountain with Christ the Redeemer is in the distance – Baz Luhrmann couldn’t have created a more magical backdrop.
La Suite is a guesthouse rather than a conventional hotel, belonging to charming Frenchman François-Xavier Dussol and his Brazilian partner Rodrigo Harold. Dussol fell in love with Rio a decade ago and moved here permanently from Paris to set up Rio’s first boutique hotel, La Maison, and, more recently, La Suite. Both are styled with his unique blend of contemporary LA chic and classic Gallic elegance, imbued with red-hot Brazilian passion. Louis XV chairs in rich vibrant colours, a Murano-glass chandelier and local graffiti art add flair to this modern residence. What makes François and Rodrigo the perfect hosts is that they are as excited about their city and pool-party paradise as us newcomers. Between them, they know Rio’s every secret – invaluable when you have only one weekend to get under the skin of this larger-than-life destination.
All seven of La Suite’s guestrooms are themed by colour, and we’ve plumped for purple. Rodrigo shows us to our elegant, wood-floored suite; it’s decorated in bold stripes, complete with walk-in wardrobe, antique French dresser and sumptuous pillow-covered king-size bed. All of this is almost eclipsed by the bathroom. Resplendent in opulent amethyst marble, it comes with a two-headed lovers’ shower – though, in truth, it’s so huge that any amorists in there might not even find each other in all that steam.
On François’ recommendation, we take a cab along the coast to the city centre. We hop on a tram up cobbled streets to the bohemian hillside hangout of Santa Teresa – a maze of crumbling former colonial residences and favela-supplied arts and crafts boutiques. We’re here outside of carnival season, but the bars and cafés are packed with locals and tourists spilling onto the streets, live music pouring from every window and doorway. A local band keeps the crowd on its feet – just a typical Saturday afternoon in Rio. We find a free table at Espirito Santo, and soak up the views of Lapa and Copacabana beyond before our next adrenalising activity. In any other circumstance, a soccer game would be the last thing optioned on a romantic getaway, but this is Rio: normal rules don’t apply. We have tickets for Flamengo v Botafogo at the Maracanã stadium. We arrive having never heard of the teams but, after a dose of the samba drums, flares and fireworks – staple accessories at every Rio match – we leave hoarse, arm in arm with new amigos.
Rio has restaurants for every taste, but dinner back at La Suite is the most beguiling option. We cosy down on velvet sofas in the sitting room and Rodrigo brings us a couple of caipirinhas – Rio measures. We sip them, entertained by Jolie, the lady of the house – La Suite’s pet dachshund. It feels as though we’re staying with close friends, and dining here just reinforces that. You’re simply asked if there’s anything you don’t eat (my list is extensive: allergic to this, intolerant of that) – and are served the most deliciously imaginative, tailor-made delights from La Suite’s resident French chef. We tuck into salads of mixed greens, warm figs and strips of Parmesan (a real rarity in Rio), then fillets of mahi-mahi, topped with peppery shrimp pieces, and creamy mashed baroa potatoes. All is enjoyed at a private table on the deck overlooking the twinkling lights of Rio. There is no months-in-advance booking required and, even better, our bedroom is but a wobbly walk away.
Breakfast, eaten on our private terrace the following morning, is most soothing. Just-squeezed exotic juice, fresh fruit, cheese and cold cuts, home-made pastries and scrambled eggs – is this fair in the land of the world’s skimpiest bikinis? After a dip in the Playboy-mansion-worthy circular pool (regulation swimming attire donned; tummies sucked in), we head for the beach. Posto 9 on Ipanema? That is so last summer – Joatinga beach is where those-in-the-know top up their perfect tans. It’s only a 15-minute walk but our ‘could he be more lovely?’ host François insists on driving us.
Word-of-mouth exclusivity gives Joa an unspoilt charm and we skip over the rocks to the white sandy cove to join the only other person – an Adonis running lengths (no Rio beach is complete without one). We slap on the factor 20 and get supine. A word of warning – in our blissed-out state we didn’t notice the tide coming in. Suffice to say, no one looks sexy in a too-small bikini, panicking, clambering from rock to rock with beach bags aloft. In the drama, we were hoping we’d miss our flight. No such luck. Like old friends, François and Rodrigo give us hugs goodbye with promises of an invite to their next pool party. We’re back home saving up for our next trip already: they’d better have meant it.