Where better to savour the sun than South America? Dance away your winter blues on board MSC Opera as it takes in all the colour of the carnival in Brazil.

Walking along the Rua das Pedras, one of the main streets in the chic, tranquil Brazilian beach resort of Buzios, I had one of those ‘this is what life should be all about’ feelings. I knew I was not alone in these thoughts when I began to engage in conversation with Geraldo, an artist originally from Santiago de Chile, the other side of the Andes mountain range. He was so taken with Buzios that he moved here 12 years ago and now couldn’t bear to leave this paradisiacal town.

So how did I end up in Armação dos Búzios (to give this charming locale its full name in Portuguese), some 121 nautical miles north-east of Rio de Janeiro? I was, in fact, halfway through a four-night South American cruise on the MSC Opera and currently on a shore excursion to Buzios. As it turned out, I had taken a slightly wrong turn, owing to the fact that I had been there some years before and thought the tender had landed at the north-east pier (Porto Veleiro) rather than the central west pier. This sent me off into an even more serene corner of town than the centro.

One of the first gringos (strangers) to discover Buzios was the French actress Brigitte Bardot in the 1960s. Back then it was a quiet and relatively remote fishing village but this siren of the screen soon put it on the map as one of the world’s chicest spots. Today it is an essential port of call on every Brazilian cruise during the Southern Hemisphere season, which has been growing over the last 10 years and now runs from just before Christmas until early May. And with Brazil hosting the World Cup in 2014, there is talk that it could become a year-round cruise destination. However, for the ultimate explosion of colour, plan your visit around the world-famous Brazilian Carnival. This four-day dance and party extravaganza (starting on 5 March in 2011) sees eye-popping parades and floats take to the streets alongside the sound of samba day and night.

From MSC’s Opera – which has been positioned in Brazil for three consecutive years – you can take one of several excursions to various excellent beaches in the environs of Buzios, with scuba diving an added option. If you want to discover the peninsular in a more independent mode, you could rent a beach buggy and probably cover many of the 24 beaches. Alternatively, you can shop in the various boutiques, eat in the many fish restaurants, or admire the range of life-like statues, which you suddenly, and surprisingly, keep stumbling upon.

Out in the bay are several islands and – for a price – colourful schooners are available to whizz you out to see them up close. One of them is, ironically, called Ugly Island (Ilha Feia), but there is nothing ugly about these islands, or anything connected to Buzios.

Although this beautiful town was my highlight of this cruise, for most passengers it was the visit to Sugarloaf Mountain and Rio de Janeiro in general. On this occasion, the excursion to the Christ the Redeemer statue was not on the itinerary as it is currently undergoing a facelift and was surrounded by scaffolding. However, this iconic, 79-year-old, 130-foot-tall statue will be available for visits again once the next Brazilian cruise season starts – with the MSC Armonia – in October.

Rio is often, rightly, described as, one of the most spectacular cities on the planet. For a true taste of this South American gem, don’t miss Ipanema, a neighbourhood located in the southern region of the city; the beach at Copacabana; Santa Teresa (via an old tram service); the Botanical Gardens, Gavea (near the famous Jockey Club Hippodrome); and even selected parts of downtown Rio (near Rio Branco and the Pier Maua cruise terminal). Be warned though, the area directly in front of Pier Maua is still being ‘revitalised’ and passengers can be targeted by muggers.

The third destination on this MSC cruise was supposed to be Ilha Grande with Angra dos Reis – more playgrounds of the Carioca (people from Rio de Janeiro) elite – but owing to unseasonal flooding in the area, the piers there were closed and the call cancelled. Instead we docked at Ubatuba where many went on a tour of the historical centre of Ubatuba or a longer tour taking in beaches near Picinguaba. Some ventured to the Atlantic Rain Forest and hills of the National Park, or went scuba diving off one of the nearby islands.

The final day of excursions took in Santos and the options were the beach resort of Guarujá or Pitangueiras, and the historical centre, including a visit to Santos football club, famously associated with Pelé. As well as being Santos’ star player, scoring more than a thousand goals throughout his career and helping Brazil win three World Cups, Pelé also had a spell as Sports Minister of Brazil.

On the MSC Opera herself, there was certainly no shortage of things to do and there was a real buzz to the cruise, which was apparent right from the word go. Even before the vessel’s engines had revved up for its departure, the Brazilian beat was in full flow in the Spinnaker Bar. Brazilians, who comprise most of the passengers on board, are among the friendliest, most outgoing and sociable people on the planet. From the youngest to the oldest, they love to party, dance and sing.

In fact, the ship certainly lived up to her name, with music everywhere and some fine shows in the stateof- the-art, 713-seat Teatro dell’Opera every evening. There was also an Italian pianist, Charlie, who belted out some fine variations of songs by Eros Ramazzotti and Antonello Venditti (Italian pop stars). However, it was the first-night blasts of Brazilian forró music (like salsa but slightly slower, and, therefore, slighter easier to learn to dance to) that set the scene and the pace for much of the cruise. It is difficult not to join in the lessons in samba, forró, Latin music and merengue (more Colombian than Brazilian but still a good vibe) and after my first foray into forró I was dragged – not that reluctantly, to be fair – onto the dance floor by fellow passenger Fabiana, who, along with her group of friends, was always at the heart of the various dance scenarios on the ship.

If you don’t fancy dancing, there are plenty of other ways to spend your time. Deck 13 boasts an eight-hole mini-golf course and if you’re feeling fit, Deck 12 has a running track. For those in search of some pampering there is a spa, which becomes a secluded spot when others leave the ship for shore excursions. While fellow passengers explored Ubatuba, I decided to treat myself to a relaxing Bali massage, and wow, was that a worthwhile experience. My Balinese masseuse, Sandra, quickly created a serene, tranquil atmosphere with music (everything from Enya to traditional Balinese music) and her sheer presence. Using oils and a fantastic touch, Sandra gave me a foot, body and head massage and I was as close to sleeping without sleeping as you can be.

On-board dining was also of a high standard, especially in the evenings when I ate in the Art Deco surrounds of L’Approdo. Up to seven courses are served each night, but four were always sufficient for me. A favourite of mine was the Italian cold meats (served with delicious bread baked on board), followed by Fettuccine al Pesto D’Aglio, which was as good as any I have tasted in Genoa and Liguria. The main course was a superb Steak Al Milanese with rosemary roast potatoes, all washed down with a glass of Chianti. The service was excellent and I was particularly impressed by the way Maitre d’, Antonio Di Maio, organised his troops. With silver trays and hot plates held elegantly above heads they maneuvered at top speeds. Formal dining can also be found in La Caravella but to truly appreciate the South American sunshine, how about Il Patio for a spot of al fresco dining?

The helpful and gregarious MSC Opera crew – who seemed to be having as good a time as the passengers themselves – also help to create a fun atmosphere on board, for families, singles, couples and people of all ages. One or two of the crew confessed that they enjoyed the season down in Brazil more than any other. These fourday taster cruises really provide a superb introduction to what Brazil has to offer. This is a country teeming with interesting destinations and with the World Cup and Olympics due in Brazil (in 2014 and 2016, respectively) it’s little wonder that a cruise here is world class.


SHIP: MSC Opera

RATING: Four star (berlitz)

DURATION: Four nights

INCLUDED: All food, although there is a supplement to dine in the L’Approdo restaurant. excursions and drinks are not included. this round-trip cruise operates between october and may and costs from $519, cruise only..

Itinerary

DAY 1 Santos

Board the MSC Opera at santos, the largest port in south america and also one of the most historic. set sail north-east towards Rio.

DAY 2 Rio de Janeiro
Arrive in Rio at 8am. The Cidade Maravilhosa (marvellous city) has so much to offer. From October, after an extensive facelift, the statue of Christ the Redeemer (at Corcovado) will reopen to visitors. The excursion to Sugarloaf Mountain is another must-do. Set sail at 7pm and take in the full panoramic view of the Guanabara bay and start enjoying the fine, upbeat Latin music on the sun deck.

Read our Rio de Janeiro port guide

DAY 3 Buzios
You have all day to take in this delightful fishing village and resort town, which is a must visit for any Brazilian coastal cruise. the rich and famous gather here to enjoy 24 wonderful beaches and a vibrant nightlife, but it has a serene, laid-back feel during the daylight hours.

DAY 4 Ilha Grande/Angrados Reis (changed to Ubatuba).
Some last-minute changes made because of heavy rains taking out the main pier on ilha Grande meant that this popular call was cancelled. Excursions to Ubatuba included the historical centre and scuba diving at beaches near Picinguaba, as well as to the Atlantic Rain Forest (Mata Atlantica).

DAY 5 Santos
Arrive early back in Santos.

Whether you’re looking for a cultural holiday or relaxing break, find your perfect cruise here.