by Claire Wrathall, The Telegraph, June 7, 2017
It’s 10 days before the first paying guests are due to arrive at Palácio Tangará and, back of house in an unassuming office behind the grey lacquer reception desk, Camila Tenório, the front office manager, is addressing a staff meeting. She runs through the day’s news and reminds us that a phone must be answered within three rings. But first she has introduced me to the assembled reception, concierge and door staff as one of the ‘task force’ who have flown in, as she puts it, ‘to look for the overlooked’ and ‘find the forgotten’.
More than three years in the making, and occupying an imposing mansion at the centre of Burle Marx Park, a 27-acre stretch of dense Atlantic rainforest 10 miles southwest of the centre of São Paulo, where you may still spot white-tufted marmosets, pointy-snouted opossums and legion exotic birds, the hotel is arguably the most luxurious in Brazil – even perhaps South America.
Hence the ‘task force’. We are a SWAT team that includes Frank Marrenbach, CEO of the Oetker Collection, the German company behind Le Bristol in Paris and the Lanesborough in London, which has created and is managing this hotel; Oetker’s chief project development officer, Philippe Perd, who is also general manager of another jewel in its crown, the justly fabled Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes; the starry French-born, New York-based chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who is overseeing the restaurant; several of their respective senior teams; and, er, me.
Over the next few days, each of us will sleep in a different room every night, savour and critique all our meals and be attentive to every detail and imperfection: an unflatteringly distorting mirror; an over-sensitive motion sensor; a missing shelf in a shower; a balcony bereft of furniture; the fact that the milk accompanying breakfast coffee is served cold in a glass carafe, not hot in a china jug; not to mention multiple mispronunciations of the word ‘fruit’...
‘The high expectations of our guests are the benchmark of our service,’ Tenório reminds us, quoting one of the core values of the Oetker Collection Constitution. ‘We do not seek applause but rather continual improvement.’
The day I arrive the ‘punch list’ has more than a thousand items still to be attended to. (By the time I leave three days later, it will be down to 350.) So there is still time to put everything right. And perhaps because their jobs have been hard won – on the day it was announced the hotel would be opening, its HR department received more than 2,500 CVs (out of an eventual total of 6,000) for 277 positions – the mainly Brazilian staff, whose keenness to please is palpable, strike me as determined it will be.
The estate on which Palácio Tangará stands was a riverside ranch that was bought in the 1940s by the Italian-Brazilian tycoon Francisco ‘Baby’ Matarazzo Pignatari. He planned to have Oscar Niemeyer, the arch-modernist architect of Brasilia, build a house there and Roberto Burle Marx – best known for the esplanade that runs from Ipanema to Copacabana in Rio – design the gardens, in order to woo Ira von Fürstenberg, the Austrian princess he hoped would become his third wife. She did marry him, but she wanted to live more centrally, and though Burle Marx planted an avenue of royal palms, configured a water garden and laid out a chequered lawn, all of which survive, the house itself never broke ground.
In time the land was sold and, in 1995, another more conventional mansion – a great neoclassical wedding cake – was built and then abandoned. It wasn’t until 2013 that the US firm GTIS bought the site and resolved to turn it into a hotel. ‘I guess the aura and appearance complement the Bristol and the Lanesborough,’ says Marrenbach. ‘Even though Palácio Tangará is not in Europe, it has a lot of European heritage.’
Marrenbach has first-hand experience of every aspect of running an establishment of this calibre, having had a career that has taken him from an apprenticeship in Düsseldorf to a receptionist’s job at the Berkeley in London, to the Crillon in Paris and the Steigenberger Frankfurter Hof in Germany. By the time he was 30, he was managing the German government’s official guesthouse in Bonn. ‘There were lots of state visits, so I learnt about protocol,’ he says. For the past 20 years, however, Marrenbach has worked for the hotels division of the huge family owned conglomerate, the Oetker Group, establishing hotels everywhere from St Barts in the Caribbean to Courchevel in the French Alps.
So why São Paulo? ‘First,’ he says, ‘because the Oetker Group has a longstanding relationship with South America due to its shipping company, Hamburg Sud. The family is very familiar with the economics of the country and owns real estate here, so there is, let’s say, an affinity. And also, because of Brazil’s economic magnitude.’ Of the Oetker Collection’s most loyal repeat guests, 3,000 live in São Paulo and will, I’d hazard, become regular users of Palácio Tangará’s restaurants, Sisley spa and two heavenly 25m swimming pools, indoor and out.
For the rest of us, the hotel is in itself a compelling reason to visit the city, which may not rival Rio’s seaside setting, but more than makes up for it with its culture, restaurants and excellent shopping. The hotel will run a shuttle to two of the principal high-end malls, Cidade Jardim and JK Iguatemi – and the hotel’s own boutique is curated by Daniela Ott, former CEO of Tomas Maier and strategy director of Gucci.
Palácio Tangará also makes an excellent introduction to São Paulo’s vibrant art and design scenes thanks to Patricia Anastassiadis, the Paulistana architect who designed the hotel’s public areas. Her scheme is inspired by the paintings and lithographs of life in Brazil made by the French artist Jean-Baptiste Debret, a pupil of Jacques-Louis David, who travelled to Brazil in the early 19th century, and favoured a subdued, often monochrome palette.
The art in the hotel, however, is mostly contemporary. Enter its imposing lobby, and your eye cannot fail to be drawn upwards to the glittering golden installation by the artist Laura Vinci that hangs from the ceiling, a subtle reference to the fact that Brazil’s economic and cultural wealth was largely founded on gold. (You’ll find more of Vinci’s work in Galeria Nara Roesler, one of the city’s many outstanding commercial galleries, and well worth a visit.) On the far wall from the entrance are two hand-woven wool hangings by Fernando Arias, to put one in mind of rivers or alluvial plains, for what is Brazil famous for if not the Amazon? And in the snug Burle bar, there’s an extraordinary four-part painting of a tree in ink on glass by Claudia Melli, as well as captivating photographs of bosky Brazilian landscapes.
The furniture Anastassiadis has commissioned also makes reference to Brazil’s topography and history. Behind the fireplace there’s a screen made of the stretched skins of tilapia fish. Nearby is a coffee table of inlaid bullhorn, a nod to Brazil’s ranch culture. (I have rarely tasted better steak than the filet mignon I ate here, alongside a râgout of wild mushrooms.) Almost all the furniture is Brazilian and bespoke, with Pedro Petry using the roots of a pequia tree to striking effect in the tasting table of the wine cellar.
The wines, too, are likely to be a draw; not just the revelatory list of 17 Brazilian labels (try the excellent Vallontano unoaked chardonnay from Vale dos Vinhedos in the far south of the country), but also the French premiers crus, many of which are – astonishingly – sold by the glass. That means 100ml of Chateau Pétrus can be yours for about £1,620, versus £11,300 for the bottle, next to which £330 for a glass of Cheval Blanc or £150 for a snifter of 1997 Château d’Yquem, seems almost a bargain.
Tellingly, the wine list doesn’t reveal the ages of all the reds, an omission that makes me suspect they may not yet have reached maturity. Though you can always ask and make that call yourself when the young chief sommelier, Gabriele Frizon, shows you the bottle before she opens it. In the overall context of this magnificent opening, it’s a fairly trifling criticism – and was honestly about the worst I could find.
Double rooms from around £400, including breakfast and city tax; palaciotangara.com
WHERE TO TRAVEL ON TO
Casa Turquesa, Paraty
About four hours’ drive east of São Paulo, Paraty is a picture-book Portuguese colonial town on the coast, the location of choice for Paulistanos with seaside houses and boats, and packed with agreeable restaurants, shops and galleries. Its beaches are nothing special, but its bay is full of tiny islands among which to sail and off which to moor and swim.
Stay at Casa Turquesa, an 18th-century mansion with just nine rooms and suites, run as an enchanting upscale bed-and-breakfast. The town’s cobbled streets are inclined to flood at high tide, but they provide you with Havaianas and Wellington boots so you can paddle through it.
Rooms at Casa Turquesa from £385 including breakfast and afternoon tea, casaturquesa.com.br
No longer the backwater it was a decade ago, Trancoso, which stands on a cliff above miles of perfect sandy beach, remains the loveliest resort in the state of Bahia, and Uxua, which belongs to Wilbert Das, sometime design director of Diesel, is its finest hotel.
It consists of 11 houses, four of them historic structures on the grassy main square known as the Quadrado, the rest newly constructed from timber in the cultivated jungle of its grounds, where capuchin monkeys cavort on your roof in the early morning.
It also has a number of private houses that it rents out, notably Casa Anderson, which belongs to the US news anchor Anderson Cooper and sits in a third of an acre of secluded tropical gardens containing a substantial lap pool with a swing over it. That it made the cover of the US interiors magazine Architectural Digest tells you all you need to know about the beauty of its design.
Trancoso is about 80 minutes’ drive from the airport at Porto Seguro, itself a couple of hours flight from São Paulo. Casas at Uxua from £425 including breakfast, uxua.com
Belmond Hotel das Cataratas, Iguassu Falls
The sight of a luna rainbow when the light of the full moon catches the mist above the Iguassu Falls is surely a wonder of the natural world, and the only hotel you can view it from is the Belmond Hotel das Cataratas where, incidentally, Palacio Tangara’s general manager, Celso do Valle, used to be in charge.
Taller than Niagara and almost twice as wide, these falls are the largest in the world, and straddle the border between Brazil and Argentina. The national park is open from 9am to 5pm and draws thousands of visitors, but guests at the hotel have the run of it before and after hours.
The hotel is 10 miles from Foz do Iguassu airport, a 105-minute flight from Sao Paulo. Rooms at Belmond Hotel das Cataratas from £395 including breakfast plus park fees of about £15 per person per day, www.belmond.com/hotel- das-cataratas-iguassu-falls/
• For advice on travel to and within Brazil, I have always used Dehouche ( dehouche.com ), a British-run specialist based in Rio de Janeiro, whose recommendations have never disappointed and whose network of contacts is exemplary.