Villa a world away from Copaca­bana

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - Colin Bar­r­a­clough

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

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