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Paradise regained in a bikini-land

Rio de Janeiro - It’s the weekend on one of the most famous beaches in the world – and the Cariocas (as the citizens of Rio de Janeiro call themselves) are relaxing and enjoying their beautiful city.

On the Copacabana, people are coming in for Sports Day, an annual event held right on the beach.

A woman sun bathes on the Leblon Beach in Rio de Janeiro.The Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado Mountain.Maracana stadium, one of the main venues for the 2014 Fifa World Cup later this year.Angela Bismarchi and Elaine Ribeiro of the 'Porto da Pedra' samba school pose during Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro.A couple in clown costumes touch noses during the Boitata block party, a pre-Carnival celebration in Rio.A girl poses for a photo to display her tattoo at the Piscinao de Ramos artificial lake in Rio.

The sights on the beach are interesting – the bikinis are almost invisible from certain angles. People on the beach are carefree and just having fun. Tanning is huge here and the shades go anything from golden dark brown to a shiny shade of black leather... the darker the better!

I’ve been in the travel business for more than 20 years and now, as managing director of Trafalgar in South Africa, my husband and I joined one of our tours in Rio.

The city named Rio de Janeiro, or “River of January”, is quite simply one of the most beautiful and vibrant cities I’ve ever travelled to.

It’s not only the dramatic mountains and beaches at the very centre of Rio that set it apart, but the lovely laid-back way of the cariocas, the warm and friendly people and that beautiful mix of the samba and the bossa nova that set it apart.

What a great place to have as the venue for the 2014 Fifa World Cup later this year. Brazilians love life but they love football even more .

The colourful beaches are lined with palm trees and the pavement is adorned with a signature pattern made of black and white swirls, symbolic of the waves that constantly roll up onto the white sands.

As we meet the others in the tour group, I am delighted that many fellow travellers are from SA, with a couple of guests from the US and Australia – most of whom are well-travelled and prepared for an exciting holiday across South America.

Friday is also the day of the week to try Brazil’s national dish feijoada. This rich black bean stew is far more chic in this day and age but it has its humble origins in the kitchens of the country’s slave quarters. To make a meal with the leftovers from their masters’ tables, the slaves improvised by combining the cast-off bits of meat into a hearty stew with black beans, flavoured with garlic, onion and bay leaves.

There are two main styles of eating out in Brazil. The first is the Churrascaria Rodizio, or large steak houses, found throughout the country. Here a fixed price covers the starter and main course. The only extras will be for drinks and dessert. Go to a Churrascaria Rodizio when you are really hungry as they will keep bringing you succulent pieces of grilled meat until you succumb by turning over the red “no more!” indicator on your table. Leave the green side up if you want more... and the waiters will bring you mountains of meat.

The other style of eating is the “por kilo” type at self-service restaurants with a buffet. You can choose from salads to an assortment of hot and cold courses. What you pay for will be based on exactly what the food on your plate weighs. Hence the name, “by the kilo”.

Other popular snacks include Salgados, which are deep fried pastries stuffed with cheese or meat. And you have to try that world renowned Brazilian cocktail – the caipirinha – made with lime, sugar, ice and cachaca (sugar cane liquor).

After a drive around the city as an orientation, we head up Sugar Loaf Mountain by cable car with a local guide who regales us with stories about Rio.

The first navigators who, in January 1502, arrived at Guanabara Bay in the belief it was the mouth of a huge river, were surely fascinated by the stunning 395m-high rock. Due to its shape, it was called Sugar Loaf and the city founded at this mountain’s base was named Rio de Janeiro.

Once back down from Sugar Loaf we can’t resist a quick visit to the night market directly in front of our hotel and on the beachfront. The wander around gives us time to settle our dinner before heading back to our beachfront hotel.

Sunday dawns and with it a stillness across the city and wonderful weather for our visit up to the Corcovado, or hunchback mountain.

The iconic Christ the Redeemer statue towers over Rio and is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. The statue is the largest and most famous Art Deco monument in the world. This is undoubtedly Brazil’s most recognisable landmark and is situated in the centre of the gorgeous tropical jungle of Parque National da Tijuca.

The cog train-ride through the dense forest is a bonus – and on the way back, the sound of local musicians puts a smile on everyone’s face... and in return it’s heart-warming to see all the smiles of appreciation of the local musicians.

After sundown we head off to discover the legendary Ipanema beach and the Hippy Faire – an eclectic market – followed by a visit to the original “girl from Ipanema” bar for our first taste of caipirhinas – the drink made famous by Brazilians the world over.

Our walking city tour is led by one of Trafalgar’s top Travel Directors. Zeca Cordeiro is a true carioca – born and bred. We are advised to wear good shoes and dress lightly (the weather is a scorcher) for a wander through the streets of Rio. We take in the 18th Aqueduct, the colonial Candelaria Church, and the city Cathedral.

At Flamengo Park we visit Rio’s striking Metropolitan Cathedral which, with its truncated conical shape, has a seating capacity of 5 000 and can accommodate up to 20 000 standing. Then it’s off to the Theatro Municipal Theatre built in 1905 – the main venue for the city’s ballet, opera and orchestra events.

I am totally entranced by this gorgeous city, and a place like Rio de Janeiro will never bore you. And you’ll always remember it.

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