NEW YEAR'S EVE: Each New Year's Eve, Brazil boasts one of the largest and most spectacular displays on the planet as more than a million people (some reports say closer to two million) gather on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro to watch fireworks launched from barges off shore. On New Years, 2012, we watched the 20-minute festivities from the balcony of our stateroom on the Royal Caribbean ship, Vision of the Seas. This is by far the least stressful way to participate in the one-of-a-kind event. Brazilian tradition calls for the wearing of white clothing, believed to bring good luck in the year ahead, and indeed, most folks on both ship and shore were so attired. The ships you see are those that were anchored closer to shore than ours.
A COASTAL CRUISE
Travel and lost luggage go hand in hand. I know that. Nonetheless, when we checked into our cabin after 13 hours in the air and a two-hour bus ride, I confidently expected my luggage wouldn't be far behind. And, as it turned out, it wasn't. However, it didn't seem that way. As the dinner hour approached, my traveling companion's luggage arrived. Neighboring cabins took in their bags. But none for me. Crew members were questioned. "They're still bringing luggage aboard, ma'am" was all I got until finally, frustrated, I pointed out there were no more porters dragging luggage down the hall. We finally found my bag, confiscated by security, who confessed somewhat sheepishly that it probably didn't contain any truly lethal weapon, their concern having been triggered by a small pair of scissors in my make-up kit. A rocky start but things improved from there.
While the fireworks were the most fantastic event of our 10-day trip, there were other highlights--a half-day tour of Rio de Janeiro, for instance, which included . . .
• A cable car ride to the top of Sugar Loaf with panoramic views of downtown Rio, the beach, and Corcovado Mountain topped by the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer
• A visit to Sao Sebastiao Metropolitan Cathedral, a cone shaped structure, approximately 350 feet in diameter and 315 feet high, that can seat 20,000 people
• A drive through downtown Rio and some of the older residential areas
Leaving Rio, we next dropped anchor at Cabo Frio. We had signed up for what was billed as a "trip by schooner that will take you on a journey full of sun, water and beautiful landscapes.” Disappointingly, the schooner wasn’t a schooner at all, but an aging party boat, and the journey was full of water all right—in the form of a cold pelting rain that persisted throughout the tour which wound through canals in residential areas of Cabo Frio and then out to some nearby islands. Cold and wet by the time our “schooner” returned us to shore, we immediately took the tender back to the ship.
Other stops were at Buzios and the island of Ilhabela. After our experience in Cabo Frio, we chose to explore these locales on our own, visiting street vendors and little shops that featured work by local artisans.
Life onboard was wonderfully relaxed. We read, napped, played the slots, took in some of the shows, and—most importantly—learned the basics of the tango, the samba, and the hustle. Informal dance lessons were given in the atrium in the center of the ship each evening, and we and other brave souls provided amusement for those too timid to make fools of themselves.
Since I had inadvertently made plane reservations for us to return to the States two days later than originally scheduled, we had a couple of days in Sao Paulo, about which I knew practically nothing. Making hotel reservations had been intimidating. Knowing nothing about the geography of Sao Paulo and constantly stumbling across websites that warned it was a dangerous place to be, I researched the area until I ran out of patience, then reserved a room in a hotel which was part of the Mercure chain. It turned out to be an excellent choice—good location, a suite (not just a room as I had expected), and very comfortable at a reasonable price. (Meanwhile, on the ship, we had learned that Sao Paulo varied from “the most dangerous city in Brazil” to “perfectly safe,” depending upon the experience of the speaker.)
With such a short time, we could see only highlights of the city, one of the largest in the world, so the hotel staff arranged a private tour with Sonia, a local guide. She turned out to be an excellent choice and led off by taking us to the rooftop of the Unique Hotel (and it was unique, all right, with room prices starting at $1500/night). From the rooftop, we got a sense of the immensity of the city. For 360 degrees, buildings were all you could see.
We also visited . . .
• the transit center, covered but otherwise open air
• the large metropolitan park (Iberapuera, Sao Paulo’s answer to New York’s Central Park)
• a couple of art museums
• an upscale shopping area crowded with locals who congregate there not only to shop but to see each other
• visits to a variety of shoe shops, shoes being one of Brazil’s major exports
Throughout the tour, Sonia peppered us with information, including . . .
• Sao Paulo, population 20,000,000, is the third largest city (behind Tokyo and Mexico City) in the world. (I’ve seen other rankings, but who really knows?)
• It is multi-ethnic, but residents don't congregate in ethnic neighborhoods. Instead, neighborhoods tend to be segregated not by economics, not ethnicity.
• Though settled by the Portuguese, the country gained its independence from Portugal in 1822. It has large populations of Italians, Japanese, and Germans.
• Brazil has a large middle class, though there is also much poverty.
• The country is 75% Catholic and 15% Protestant.
• Sao Paulo has 15,000 pizzarias and 12,000 bakeries.
Unexpected pleasures were the bus rides from Sao Paulo, where our plane had landed, to Santos, the port city where we embarked on the cruise—and of course the return trip to Sao Paulo afterwards. We traveled through mountainous terrain via a sweeping multi-lane freeway that provided gorgeous vistas of spectacular scenery. The return trip was a particularly welcome interlude as we transitioned from the relaxed, no-stress life aboard ship to the noise and bustling of Sao Paulo and, soon, to the workaday world of home.