Due in large part to the beautiful beaches, coastline, and mountains, Rio de Janeiro is known as “A Cidade Maravilhosa” (The Beautiful City). So what better way to experience this incredible topography than from above. With this in mind I decided to book an aerial tour of Rio by helicopter. So one sunny, clear day, I went to a private airport in Barra da Tijuca (an upscale residential suburb of Rio) where I had booked a private helicopter tour. After arriving at the airport and signing numerous documents and waivers as well as going through some safety preparations and being fit with a harness-like vest which would connect to the seat belt, I was ready to see my ride. And it was a sleek one!

Ready to board my helicopter
Ready to board my helicopter

The only surprise (and in fact, made me a bit nervous at first) was that the helicopter had no doors and was completely open on both sides! But hey, I definitely have “miles to go before I sleep”, so I boarded, and strapped myself in. The pilot explained our itinerary, asked me if I wanted to concentrate on any area in particular and we were off! I pretty much deferred to his expertise (since pretty much my life was in his hands and he knew the weather and visibility better than me) but emphasized that I would like to get as close as possible to the iconic Christ the Redeemer  (Cristo Redentor) statue which stands high  atop the Corcovado mountain as the city’s religious and symbolic guardian. After takeoff, we headed toward the coastline of Barra da Tijuca.


Barra da Tijuca
Barra da Tijuca
Barra da Tijuca Beach

Barra da Tijuca is a mostly upscale residential suburb of Rio with beaches just as beautiful, albeit much less crowded than the ones in Rio proper. It is not as much a tourist destination as Rio since it is about a half hour drive to the main center of action in Copacabana and Ipanema, traffic which can make the commute exponentially worse during rush hour. While the government tried to promote tourist development in Barra after the 2016 Olympics (many hotels were built), it has sort of died down after that due to the terrible recession in Brazil and the desire of most tourists to be closer to the action, resulting in the closing of  existing hotels (including a Trump Hotel) and the abandoning of some under development. All in all, however, this lack of overtourism makes Barra a nice place for the locals to live.

From there, we passed  by Saõ Conrado.

The luxurious hilltop villas of Saõ Conrado connected by a work of art bridge to Barra da Tijuca
Saõ Conrado Beach
Joatinga Beach in Joá near Saõ Conrado

Saõ Conrado is one of my favorite places in Brazil. While home to many of the old money Brazilians, it is also home to Rocinha, one of the biggest and historically, worst favelas (slums) in Brazil. Talk about a snapshot of the wealth distribution inequality in Brazil! Recent police and military intervention as well as a surprising upsurge in tourist development in the favela (restaurants, bars, art galleries hostels, and guesthouses) have made it much safer and the majority of the inhabitants are some of the most hardworking, honest and friendly Brazilians you will meet! For beach lovers, Saõ Conrado’s small beach is one of the best for hang gliding. And its upscale Fashion Mall is one of my favorite places to escape the heat, get a good meal and people watch.

From there we passed by my home in Rio, the Sheraton Grand Rio in Vidigal, which is one  the only Rio hotel with direct beach access as well as being extremely  close to but not in, crowded Copacabana and Ipanema.

Sheraton Grand Rio, Vidigal

From there we passed by Leblon and right next to it, the world famous Ipanema Beach.

Leblon Beach
Ipanema Beach
Leblon with one of the Dois Irmaõs (Two Brothers) Mountains in the background
View of Ipanema from behind
Ipanema Beach

And while Leblon has some of the world’s most expensive real estate and Ipanema has one of the world’s most famous beaches, the latter is mostly known for the famous song, The Girl from Ipanema, written by Antônio Carlos Jobim. And while I didn’t attempt to find her from high above, looking down at the sights, I would definitely bet that she is still there.

From there, we passed by Arpoador (the harpoon thrower) which is a small piece of beach, land and rock jutting out into the ocean and naturally separating Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. It is known for its surfing.


Then we quickly turned the corner and arrived at the world famous Copacabana Beach.

Copacabana Beach

And while known the world over and loved by both Brazilians and foreigners alike (especially first time visitors), I would not stay in the Copacabana area due to some of its seedier side streets and more crowded beach. But I definitely visit it at least once every time I go to Rio, whether to walk along its mosaic covered promenade on the Avenida Atlantica or to get a bite to it.

And now to the part of the tour for which I was waiting….. Christ the Redeemer statue. We quickly went from overwater to overland and began to ascend rapidly over Rio de Janeiro. And as we approached the Corcovado Mountain, the magnificent statue grew closer and closer.

Cristo Redentor
Cristo Redentor
Cristo Redentor
Cristo Redentor
Cristo Redentor
Cristo Redentor

And as we pulled away from the statue, one which is illuminated at night and which can be seen from all over Rio, I realized it is watching over and protecting Rio at all times.

From there we passed over the upscale Lagoas (Lagoon) area.


And on the way back to the airport I saw many more panoramic city views of Rio (note: the first one is the same view used on many of the Spanish language telenovelas (soap operas) when showing Rio.

Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro

And just like that we were ready to land!

Touching down!

My helicopter tour of Rio de Janeiro was incredible and exciting. I highly recommend it for getting a one of a kind, bird’s eye view of this marvelous city!






Eating Rio…..So Many Meals, So Little Time!


Pão de queijo

Brazil in general, (and Rio de Janeiro in particular), is a foodie’s paradise. If you want delicious sushi, well Brazil has the largest population of Japanese outside of Japan. The same thing goes for Italians, Germans, Portuguese, Afro-Brazilians, Arabs and Jews….substantial populations and of course, their respective cuisines. Into meat? Brazil has some of the best beef on the planet. Seafood? Thousands of miles of Atlantic Ocean coastline supply any type of fish and shellfish that you could ask for. Fruit lover? Brazil has hundreds of delicious and nutritious fruits and vegetables (including the popular acerola and açai) that not only can you have a sweet, fresh, piece of fruit, but you can have it  mixed with other fruits in a “vitaminas”, or fruit shake. Street food? Some of the most delicious (not synonymous with healthiest) you can find anywhere. And the lovely dichotomy about Rio in particular, is that you can stroll along the beachfront promenade going from Leme to Leblon beaches (which bookend the famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches) and see locals (with bodies straight out of a Michaelangelo work of art), walking, running, biking, skating, playing volleyball and then stopping at a street kiosk for a cold “chopp” (draft beer) and “acarajé”, which is a dish of peeled beans rolled into a ball and deep fried in dendé (palm oil).

And believe me, I tried to eat and drink as much as possible of this deliciousness during my month in Rio. Starting with the basics, every morning I started out my day with a “cafezinho” (small espresso) or “cafe com leite”(coffee with hot milk) as well as a hot serving of “pão de queijo” (Brazilian cheese bread,the picture of which is under the title of the article above). These small baked cheese rolls are popular for breakfast or for a snack and they are delicious! Before finishing my breakfast, I would also have a fresh fruit juice or a “vitamins de mamão” (fresh papaya shake)

Vitaminas de mamão

Then feeling energized, I would walk from Vidigal, where I was staying, to Leblon, Ipanema or Copacabana (between a half mile, mile and two miles, respectively), in search of action, fun and you guessed it…my next meal! One such day, I walked the two miles to Copacabana, in search of Cervantes (no,not the writer) Restaurant. Cervantes is a Brazilian institution around for more than a half a century and famous for its sandwiches in general, and steak sandwiches in particular. But this is Brazil, so you don’t think it will be any ordinary steak sandwich, do you? No, Cervantes is famous for its filet mignon steak sandwich with melted Brazilian cheese and topped off with a hefty slice of sweet pineapple (abacaxi) and served between two slices of Brazilian bread flattened and toasted on a panini press. And believe me, after tasting this masterpiece, you will never be the same again!

Steak,cheese and pineapple sandwich at Cervantes

While still on the topic of meat, you cannot leave Brazil without eating at a traditional “rodizio”, which is a typical restaurant serving skewers of barbecued meat in an all you can eat setting. The server will place a circular chip on your table with a green side and a red side. While the green side is facing up, other servers will keep bringing you different kinds of meat, so please keep an eye on that chip (for your waistline’s sake!) One of the best meats you can eat at a rodizio (besides the chicken (“frango”) wrapped in bacon, of course) is the “picanha”. Picanha is a very popular cut of Brazilian steak (known as sirloin cap in the United States) which is perfectly grilled and seasoned. Here is the delicious picanha I ate at the Casarão (Big House) Rodizio which is a beachfront buffet restaurant. Not only did I eat some mouthwatering picanha

Picanha at Casarão

but I also partook in enjoying some lamb chops with mint jelly and sirloin steak.

Lamb chops with mint jelly and sirloin steak
Casarão Brazilian Rodizio
Casarão Brazilian Rodizio

But don’t even think for a moment that a non meat eater can’t find delicious food all around Brazil. Besides the numerous vegetarian options, Rio has some fresh and delicious seafood.

Langostino e camaroes

The above picture was a plate of grilled langoustines and shrimp which I ate at Bene, another beachfront restaurant. And was it good!

But with what can we wash down all of these heavy meals? Well, when in Brazil, of course, you must drink the national cocktail, the “Caipirinha”, which is a simple drink made of “cachaça” (sugar cane hard liquor), limes, sugar and ice. Thirst quenching, refreshing and delicious!


And after dinner, you can get delicious dessert anywhere in Rio. From their “sorvete” (ice cream) to their most famous”brigadeiros” (bite sized chocolate balls made of sweet condensed milk, eggs, sugar, butter and covered in sprinkles) all the way to their fine pastry scene with a local twist on some traditional favorites:

Brazilian dessert
Brazilian dessert
Brazilian dessert
Brazilian dessert

And something which I had never seen before and tasted really great was the Brazilian take on cappuccino, which had all of the elements of a traditional cappuccino with one delicious addition, a piece of dark chocolate melted in it. No words!

Brazilian cappuccino with melted dark chocolate

I’ll bet you would love one of those right now!

And for those of you who are lighter eaters, well, Rio has you covered too. Take this delicious brick oven pizza for example.


Remember I said there were thousands of Italian immigrants in Brazil!

On a final note, after all of these heavy breakfasts, lunches,street snacks and decadent desserts, your dinner can be a light affair. And what better way to have a light evening meal (as well as a great palate cleanser) than with the incredible, ubiquitous, delicious Brazilian fruit. Since much of Rio de Janeiro is beachfront, you know there are coconut trees. So you can definitely refresh yourself with one of these:

Brazilian coconut

Not a bad way to watch the sunset, eh?Or one of my favorites:

Manga (mango)

I have never tasted such sweet, delicious mangoes anywhere in all my world travel!

I hope that you enjoyed my whirlwind culinary tour of Rio de Janeiro (it has probably gotten you very hungry) and I hope it inspires you to visit Brazil and eat around Rio!








At the Hotel

The Sheraton Grand Rio

I have been to Rio de Janeiro many times, both for work and pleasure. So I know all of the hotels. Based on all of the variables, I chose the Sheraton Grand Rio. The designation “Grand” has only been given to about 20 Sheraton hotels worldwide (out of more than 500) based upon their location (near a beach), hard product (physical structure) and soft product (service). And the Sheraton Grand Rio is the only Sheraton Grand in South America. One of the main things I like about this hotel is that it is the only hotel in Rio which is directly on the beach and has a really nice pool area.

In addition the hotel was recently remodeled. They moved the Executive Lounge (which I had access to as a Starwood Platinum member) from a small space on the 3rd floor to a former suite on the 26th floor, which is the top floor of the hotel.

The Sheraton Grand Rio

In addition, my Platinum status allowed me to book the cheapest room in the hotel and get upgraded to an oceanfront room on a high floor

View of the Ipanema beach from my room

My room had two queen beds and 3 balconies, one which was a wraparound oceanfront balcony. The hotel had a great spa, with complimentary use of the steam room, sauna and gym.

Spa waiting room
View from Spa

The hotel also has several restaurants, including a Brazilian Churrascaria, a poolside restaurant, an Italian restaurant, and a critically acclaimed French restaurant on the top floor (across from the Executive Lounge).

Brazilian Churrascaria

Many people react negatively to the fact that across the street from the hotel is the Vidigal favela (slum). But most of the people living in the favela are hardworking and honest but happen to be poor due to the widespread inequality of wealth distribution in Brazil.

Vidigal favela

As a matter of fact, most of the hotel workers are from the favela and are the ones responsible for the quality service it provides.

I was really looking forward to my month long stay in the hotel!

Wheels Up!

My flight was leaving from New York’s JFK Airport at 11pm and arriving in Rio de Janeiro at 10am the following morning. I arrived at the airport about 3 hours early as my business class ticket got me access to the American Airlines Flagship Lounge, which is the lounge for business and first class travelers if flying “internationally” or “transcontinental” (New York to L.A.). The entrance is the same as the general Admiral’s Club Lounge but once inside you enter through a special roped off section. The lounge is intimate and quiet, especially at night. Here are some pictures:

There was a bar with a selection of complimentary champagne, wine, liquor and beer as well as some interesting food (ordered from a menu, not buffet style). Two of the delicious offerings that night were delicious Korean Tacos and Bruschetta.

Korean Tacos

Wanting to leave some space for eating and drinking in-flight, I started heading toward the gate. The good thing is that this flight was going to be on a Boeing 767, which is a large, wide body aircraft used for long haul flights (like this 11 hour one). The bad thing is that this flight was going to be on a Boeing 767, as its business class product hasn’t been updated in several years. While it does have a lie flat bed seat, it is not state of the art compared to most other Asian, Middle Eastern and even many European Airlines.

My lie flat business class seat
Storage space in my semi- enclosed suite
Mood lighting in my semi-enclosed suite

The flight crew was mainly American with 2 “locals” (Portuguese speaking). They brought out the menus. I ordered a steak with potato and vegetables and it was so good that I started eating before I remembered to take a picture☺. I ordered a Coca Cola with my meal and I was hardly ever asked if I wanted a refill. There was not only a problem with the soft product (service) on this flight but also the hard product (seat). My seat would either recline as a bed but then wouldn’t return to the seat position or I would have had to leave it in the seat position and not be able to sleep or lie down for the duration of the flight. One of the flight attendants (who seemed to be the only one working) felt bad and couldn’t move me because the flight was completely full, so offered me 10,000 American Airline miles as compensation (which actually due to an error was credited twice (as in 20,000 miles….Sweet!) Other than that, I watched a couple of movies, read, and lied down for a bit…besides requesting the special ice cream sundae. I also spent a lot of time following the flight path on my screen.

And before I knew it, 11 hours had passed and I was landing in the “Cidade Maravilhosa” (Marvelous City) of Rio de Janeiro.


Destination Rio

Summer in New York City means winter in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. So why would anyone want to travel there during this time? Well, first of all, although it is winter in the Southern Hemisphere and Argentina, Chile and Southern Brazil can get quite cold, the winter in Rio and the northern parts of Brazil are quite mild. Heck, I could permanently live in a place like Rio where the daily winter temperatures hover between 66 and 80 degrees fahrenheit! In addition, the Brazilian currency, the real had depreciated against the U.S. dollar and was now trading at a nearly all time high of 4 reais (plural of real) to 1 dollar (translation: things were really cheap!)

How to get there? As an avid collector of airlines miles and credit card points, I naturally try to fly in a premium class (first or business) for as little miles and money as possible. Since I had a stash of American Airlines miles, I started searching for availability about 4 months before the trip. In order to spend as few miles as possible, I searched on the American Airlines website for “saver”(less miles) business class availability (on American Airlines there is no first class on flights to Brazil) from New York City (JFK) to Rio. While I found availability from New York to Rio at the one-way saver price of 57,500 miles, there was no saver availability on the return flight, nor was there any award availability (even at the higher “anytime” (more miles) level) from Rio to New York. There was, however, “anytime” award availability from Rio to Miami and onward to New York at a one-way price of 150,000 miles (ouch!). Since these flights cost between $5,000 and $8,000 round trip, I happily spent the extra miles. But wait! For the next 3 months before the flight departure, I kept checking to see if any “saver” award availability became available. Sure enough, two weeks before the departure date, “saver” availability opened up. I called American Airlines and told them to change my return flight to a “saver award”. The agent told me “There will be a $300 reservation change fee”(ouch!). I responded “Yes, but you will also have to return 92,500 miles to my account.” (the difference between the 150,000 anytime price and the 57,500 saver price) Score! With a business class ticket averaging $6,500, and a round trip saver award costing 115,000 miles, I will gladly make this $300 for 92,500 mile trade any day of the week!

So the flight portion of my one month vacation in Rio was all taken care of! Stay tuned for more!


Why take an MD80 when you can fly a 767 for the same price!

I recently flew an American Airlines domestic first class flight from NYC to Miami. As an experienced aviation geek, I always choose the best airline configuration for my flight. But on this flight, I hit the jackpot! There were about 10 flights flying that day, most being on 737’s or MD 80’s (which had the normal domestic first class configuration). But I noticed one flight was on a 767-300, which has an international first class configuration. Meaning for the same price, I would be flying in a flat bed seat! The reason is that many of these planes will be taking off from Miami for an international destination. The seat was great, the meal was surprisingly good (chicken breast over couscous and pretzel bread) but the service was not good! The flight attendants would constantly tell us to wait when requesting something and they would hide and talk in the galley. There was no Wi-Fi and most surprisingly, there was no screen on the seat back for IFE- only overhead screens above every few seats. Since the flight was only two and a half hours, these things were not that hard to endure because the seat made up for it!

Atlantis…..a Fading Star!

The Cove Atlantis lobby area

I recently came home from a nearly 3 week stay at the Cove Atlantis. I come every year. Before the Cove was built, I had stayed at Atlantis once, at the Royal Towers. It was so crowded that it seemed like Grand Central Station in New York at 4pm on a summer, Friday afternoon (you get the picture) and because of this, I vowed never to return. Then the Cove was built. More expensive meant it was less crowded. It was also located away from the other hotels which meant a pretty quick escape from the madness. The rooms were new and beautiful, there was a private beach and adult pool, and Mosaic, a gourmet buffet which is constantly voted one of the best restaurants in the Bahamas, was located on site. That was then!

My recent trip was not bad, but given the cost was not good enough a value proposition to justify returning. The Cove touts itself as part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, but gives no recognition or benefit to Marriott highest tier frequent quests (I am a Marriott Platinum, the highest tier and got no upgrade, no Club level access, no late check-out….nothing). And if you don’t book directly with the hotel, you won’t even earn Marriott points for your stay! The rooms were nice ten years ago, but are starting to show their age. And the hotel was taken over by a private equity firm investor after the original Atlantis owner defaulted in making payment on its note. And as all private equity firms, only interested in an exit strategy on their investment, begin to cut the amount of employees at the property to save money, are not willing to make any further investment and thus the service suffers.

In the past, this would not have really affected Atlantis, as it was “the only show in town”. However, with the recent opening of Bahamar, which has the largest casino in the Caribbean, and when all is finished will have a Grand Hyatt, Rosewood and SLS hotels (all luxury), this is no longer the case. The counter argument is that Bahamar is for single adults and couples and Atlantis is for kids, so it will always make money. But Bahamar recently bought the former Wyndham Crystal Palace and will turn this property into a water park, so it is challenging Atlantis on all levels.

I have many find memories of my stays at the Cove Atlantis but for now it is just a fading star!

If This Hotel Works Out a Few Kinks in its Service, It Will Put All of the Other Disney Hotels Out of Business!

 I recently had a 9 night stay at the Four Seasons. And things started out on the wrong foot. I know service and luxury and “luxury service” well having recently done a 90 First Class Five Star Trip around the world (see my blog: www.toscanoworldtrip.blogspot.com). And I stayed at the best hotels in the world, one of the best being the Four Seasons Florence, Italy. So for me luxury service starts when you arrive at the hotel and when you check in. The Disney Four Seasons is definitely not up to snuff in its front desk staffing. Some don’t have a clue, others give you wrong information because they probably don’t know the answer and are nervous. In any event this is not acceptable at any luxury hotel much less at a Four Seasons! Aside from that hiccup, the hotel has been great! The hard product (rooms, pools, lobby, outdoor areas) are fabulous! The location is great! Any room would be nice (I am in an Oak View Suite). The food is good. The bus which takes you to the Disney Parks is prompt and luxurious compared to any other bus line at the parks. And the spa is incredible-the staff, the masseuse and the facility is better than any hotel in Orlando! I will be staying here for 8 more nights and thus will probably know every aspect of this hotel as well as anyone by the time I leave (and I will be sure to write
another review then). As a frequent guest at the Grand Floridian and every other luxury hotel in the area, I can only say that once the Disney Four Seasons cleans up its front desk service act, these hotels better watch out because this will be the only real luxury choice in the Disney area!

Burj al Arab-still the world’s best luxury hotel!


Burj al Arab

I have been a guest at the Burj al Arab every couple of years over the last few years. And yet every time I come to the Burj, I desire to return. There are many great hotels in the world. There are many great hotels in Dubai. But for the Burj, any one of these other hotels could be the world’s best. But the Burj is in a class by itself. There is the Burj and then there are all of the other hotels. The Burj does it with its unmatched hard product- every room is at least a duplex one bedroom suite (many are two and three bedroom suites), beautiful spa, pool and beach and a variety of restaurants serving distinctly delicious food. But what really sets the Burj apart is its unrivalled soft product-its service and its people. A team of polished butlers outside your door 24 hours to fulfill nearly any request. Every employee greets you with a smile, many by your name. This is what differentiates the Burj. And this is how the Burj is able to become not only the hotel in a destination, but the destination itself! And this is the most sought after branding accomplishment, yet the most difficult to achieve. Since the Burj is firmly anchored with luxury hotel veterans such as Mr. Ahmed Ereiba and Ms. Stephanie Zawada, I am sure that it will continue to be the World’s Best Luxury Hotel for years to come!

Intercontinental Tahiti Resort and Spa



Tip #1- Don’t skip Tahiti on the way to the other islands. Tip #2- Stay at the Intercontinental Tahiti!

I recently arrived in French Polynesia. Everyone was telling me to skip Tahiti (land there and take a plane to Bora Bora or a ferry to Moorea (my response was that I did not come only to see tourists on their honeymoon-I came to see French Polynesia (meet the locals, hear their language and music, eat their food, learn their customs) So glad I did! And the best choice when in Tahiti is the InterContinental Resort and Spa. Beautiful setting (a view of the volcano mountaintops of Moorea), 5 minutes to the airport, 10 minutes to the capital of Papeete, great restaurants and spa and really helpful and friendly staff. And with the new GM, Mr. Thierry Brovelli (who is a hotel industry expert and veteran, I can only see this hotel going from good to better! So instead of saying “Nana” (goodbye) to Tahiti, say “Ia Orana” (welcome and hello) to the InterContinental Resort and Spa Tahiti!