B&B overlooking the beach

Photo © Michael Sommers.

Earlier this week, I spent the night at O Veleiro, a bed-and-breakfast owned and lived in by a friendly Canadian-Brazilian couple. This B&B is noteworthy for its location – a sprawling house hugging one of Rio de Janeiro’s jungly mountainsides (iconic neighbors include both Sugar Loaf and the statue of Christ the Redeemer). However, it’s also remarkable for the fact that, according to its owners, it’s the first B&B not only in Rio, but in all of Brazil.

Robin, who (like my mother) originally hails from Vancouver Island, recalls that when he and his partner, Richard, first decided to transform their Botafogo house into a bed and breakfast, he met with officials from the Brazilian tourism agency (Robin is also a licensed tour guide) to find out if there were any rules or regulations governing B&Bs.

Not only had the Brazilian officials never heard of the B&B concept, but they were completely mystified by it.

Not only had the Brazilian officials never heard of the B&B concept, but they were completely mystified by it. Reactions ranged from “Why would anybody want to go on holiday and stay in somebody’s house?” to “You’d really open your home to strangers who could steal all your belongings?”

Despite the lack of positive feedback, Robin and Richard went ahead with their idea anyway and 13 years later, O Veleiro does booming business, luring guests as diverse as members of the Queen of England’s staff to hardcore birdwatchers (who were pleasantly shocked to find an impressive number of rare specimens in the B&B’s backyard).

In subsequent years, dozens of other B&Bs have sprouted up throughout Rio, giving the city’s largely overpriced, underwhelming, and often impersonal hotels – particularly those concentrated in the coveted beach neighborhoods of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon – a much-needed run for their money.

Many B&Bs are located in the charming, hilltop neighborhood of Santa Teresa. In the 19th century, wealthy Cariocas built gracious villas along steep winding streets of this bucolic residential bairro, with terraces and balconies overlooking the city and Baía de Guanabara. After a long period of decline, artists, followed more recently by foreign expats, moved in and began renovating the crumbling old homes. In many cases, they transformed them into boutique hotels and, increasingly, into intimate guesthouses and B&Bs.

I spent a couple of nights at the new and already very popular Casa Cool Beans, owned and operated by a U.S. couple, Lance and David, who live on the premises. Before settling in Rio, Lance spent years working for various Four Seasons hotels. while David toiled in the technology sector.

Their combined professional experiences, along with their American background, give Casa Cool Beans some unique edges. Lance is terrifically efficient and detail oriented – a relative rarity in Rio – while David makes a point of chatting to guests during breakfast to find out what they’re interested in doing before creating customized print-outs (including descriptions, instructions, and maps) of how they can spend their day and/or night. And although Casa Cool Beans incorporates lots of Brazilian elements – from the lush tropical vegetation in the gardens to the funky homegrown art that decorates the rooms – it’s hard to resist Americana such as seriously fluffy cotton towels and morning waffles topped with Aunt Jemima syrup.

While Santa Teresa has no shortage of B&Bs, finding one in the lusted-after, upscale, and touristic Zona Sul beach neighborhoods is still quite a feat. A welcome exception to the rule is the Rio Guesthouse, another pioneering B&B that occupies the top floors of a 1940s Art Deco penthouse apartment on Avenida Atlântica.

The charming Carioca owner, Marta, presides over her home like a Brazilian mom, handing you keys, reminding you to double lock the door before you go out, offering you fridge space for your beers, and encouraging you to mingle with the other guests at breakfast. This communal morning meal takes place on a terrace with insanely photogenic views of the entire sensuous curve of Copacabana beach backed by Sugar Loaf (for this reason, Marta has guests that never leave their adopted home during their entire stay in Rio).

Marta also tells tales of despondent foreigners who call her up from neighboring beachfront behemoths operated by international hotel chains, and beg her for a room because, despite the equally enticing views, the often lackluster digs and service is getting them down. Interestingly, almost all of Martha’s guests are gringos; she doesn’t court Brazilian tourists, claiming that they just don’t get, or appreciate, the B&B experience.

Although many of Rio’s B&Bs are charming and comfortable, few are as luxurious as the one owned by Matt and Susan, a couple of native Californians who spent five long years transforming the hilltop villa they purchased in the upscale resort town of Búzios (two hours north from Rio) into a “luxurious tropical Asian style inn”.

The couple spent years living in various parts of Asia – which accounts for everything from the intricately hand carved four poster beds shipped over from Thailand to the Buddhas in the bathrooms – before deciding to switch gears and open a guest house above Búzios’ horseshoe-shaped beach of Ferradura. While the four guest rooms look out onto a brilliant blue bay, the most astonishing aquatic feature of the Cachoeira Inn are the nine cachoeiras (waterfalls) built into the property’s beautifully landscaped cliffside. Astonishingly “life-like” (i.e. you feel like you’re in a national park), these cascades and rivers transform this B&B into an adults only water world (no kids are allowed).

While Matt and Susan prefer to think of their property as an inn, guest house, or micro-resort, Cachoeira Inn has racked up accolades in the bed and breakfast category, including being ranked as one of the Top 10 International B&Bs 2011-2012 by BedandBreakfast.com. And, indeed, despite the lavish trappings, what really register are home-away-from-home aspects: curling up on a comfy couch with the couple’s cats and dog to read a borrowed paperback; having Matt (a former telecommunications wizard) tweak your laptop settings so you can access the free Wi-Fi; being called “sweetie” by Susan as she plies you with homemade chicken soup and crackers during an afternoon rainstorm in which the weather suddenly grows cold, grey, and un-beachable.

It’s likely that Rio’s B&B revolution will continue – particularly as the city struggles to keep up with demand for new hotels spurred on by upcoming events such as the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Rio can be a complicated place for foreigners to navigate, especially during a first visit. In the end, the personalized treatment – not to mention the memories – offered by many of these B&Bs surpasses that proffered by the most abundantly starred hotels.

Map of Rio de Janeiro City, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro City