Villa a world away from Copacabana
IT has the whiff of heresy: Rio de Janeiro without a beach. Santa Teresa, a hilly district of cobblestoned streets, elegant mansions and lush gardens, is a world away from the statuesque sunworshippers who strut Ipanema’s waterfront. But that’s the point.
First populated in the 19th century by wellheeled businessmen, Santa Teresa remained an exclusive enclave until rising crime sent the wealthy fleeing to the southern suburbs in the 1960s. Artists led the first wave of its regeneration, snapping up low-cost studio space in the grandiose abandoned mansions.
More recently, a slew of stylish B & Bs and hotels, along with security cameras and better policing, have brought foreign tourists to the area, drawn by its artistic heritage and village feel. ‘‘ You can walk safely on any street around here,’’ a local artist tells me. ‘‘ You might get lost, but you’ll be lost in paradise.’’
Santa Teresa’s steeply inclined streets twist and turn past creeper-covered mansions, washed in rose, ochre and salmon. Verdant gardens of flamboyant and Indian laburnum, their boughs festooned with epiphytes, lianas and mistletoe, provide a home for hummingbirds and flycatchers.
Unexpected views open up at every street corner of the Sugarloaf Mountain, Mt Corcovado and Guanabara Bay.
The Solar de Santa is set amid a garden bursting with mango, starfruit and banana, and alive to the whistles, hoots and croaks of subtropical birdsong. Stone steps rise through this symphony of nature to a colonial-era mansion, its fortress-thick walls washed in brilliant white.
Quebec-born owner Gwenael Allan, who helped set up the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil empire, restored the property in 2006 and opened it as a conventional hotel. From March 31, however, the house will be available for holiday rentals only, making it Rio’s first fully staffed private villa.
‘‘ There just aren’t many houses left in Rio, and none at all in Copacabana and Ipanema,’’ explains Canadian-born manager Jennifer McLaughlin. ‘‘ Most were torn down long ago to make way for apartment buildings.’’
My footsteps echo beneath soaring ceilings as I venture into a light-filled sitting room scattered with traditional ceramics and conceptual works by Brazilian artists. Beyond, a glassed-in breakfast terrace opens on to a deck and alfresco bar and dining space, each overlooking the lush garden.
Four vast rooms line the first-floor corridor, each named after a local bird species (murals of them are painted beside the bed) and sparsely decorated with locally designed furniture and a discreet scattering of naive art. Each opens on to a deep veranda. Outside, a separate bungalow nestles in the garden.
Common spaces include a swimming pool and guests’ kitchen, complete with instructions on making a caipirinha. A delicious breakfast of fresh fruits and juices, locally grown coffee and freshly baked breads, is provided daily, while housekeeping is also included.
The Solar de Santa’s real strength is its concierge service. Staff match guests’ interests to experts in Brazilian culture, setting up events or meetings with specialists in food, music or the arts. Additional help, such as an Englishspeaking chef, butler, chauffeur or babysitter, can be procured on demand.
Sunny side up: Solar de Santa in Santa Teresa