The most popular excursion from Lisbon is to Sintra, 18 miles to the west, remarkable for its several fairy-tale palaces and castles. But wine lovers should seriously consider a visit to the Setúbal Peninsula, just over the Golden Gate-like 25 de Abril Bridge. The Lisbon suburbs eventually give way to the Parque Natural da Arrábida, home to several important wineries, gently rolling vineyards and a dramatic coastline fringed with beaches. We spent two memorable days sightseeing – don’t miss the viewpoint overlooking the cliffside Convento de Nossa Senhora da Arrábida or the panoramas from the hilltop Castelo de Palmela – and wine tasting. José Maria da Fonseca is perhaps the most famous winery, making superb still and fortified wines. But I also recommend visiting Quinta da Bacalhôa, which has not only a fine winery but a 15th-century palace filled with art from the world-class Berardo Collection, and Quinta de Alcube, an excellent small producer of both wine and cheese.
The peninsula had no accommodations of note until just a few months ago, when a local family reopened its 17th-century estate house as a 20-room hotel: the Hotel Casa Palmela. Renovating the property was indeed a family affair – one cousin handled the landscaping, another the interior décor. The result, while not problem-free, is a compelling hideaway amid idyllic scenery less than an hour’s drive from central Lisbon.
We drove down the unfinished driveway to the formal entrance of the hotel, the vestibule of which is flanked by a blue-and-white azulejo mural and a life-size Greco-Roman bronze figure. Azulejos, whether as wainscoting or more elaborate compositions, decorate the entire original mansion, and public spaces contain a mix of antiques and contemporary pieces. We liked to relax in the lounge on the ground floor, with sofas and armchairs facing a cozy fireplace. Had we visited in summer, we would have taken advantage of the panoramic terrace, overlooking a landscape of vineyards and cork trees. Unfortunately, an immovable power line runs past the hotel, marring the view somewhat. Guests can also take advantage of an outdoor pool and an inviting picnic area in the vineyards shaded by an old cork oak.
Several of the accommodations have terraces overlooking the view, the best of which is the spacious Master Suite, the only accommodation I saw with a separate tub and shower. We reserved the smaller but atmospheric Deluxe Room, the former library of the house, which retains its bookshelves (now filled with black-and-white family photos and sculptures of animals) on either side of a pink-marble mantelpiece. Pink toile de Jouy fabric covered two Louis XV-style chairs, matching the drapes and the king bed’s padded headboard. The windows, which overlooked the driveway and a green ridge beyond, still had their original wooden shutters. Framed avian prints provided additional splashes of color, as did the cherry-red writing desk, but some poorly applied gold trim made it look cheap. The small shower-only bath had pretty marble accents but too little counter space.
The restaurant was also uneven. I relished certain dishes, such as a lobster carpaccio salad with purple cabbage, some delicate roasted hake atop smashed potatoes in a light tomato sauce and a very satisfying traditional recipe of al dente peas with chorizo and lardons topped with a poached egg. Certain other dishes, like a bowl of overcooked macaroni with lobster and shrimp, did not dazzle, and the wine list remains quite small (the sommelier is reportedly working on expanding the selection). Our personable waiter, Alexander, has a great passion for wine, and we had a wonderful time chatting with him about favorite regions and producers.
The Hotel Casa Palmela may not be a flawless property, but I left with regret. On our last morning, I awoke just before sunrise to find that the lawns, vineyards and trees had gone all silvery with frost. As the sun peeked over the ridge, wisps of fog in the distant emerald-green valley below glowed pure white. Before breakfast I strolled alone among the vines and shimmering cork groves, and in the magical silence, I couldn’t have cared less about the size of our bath.
The wonderful views over the vineyards and cork groves; the warm welcome from both the owners and the staff; the period details of the mansion; the relaxing atmosphere; the outdoor pool.
The hit-and-miss restaurant; the power line between the hotel and the view; our Deluxe Room’s small bath; the incomplete landscaping.
The property is ideally located for excursions to the wineries and coast of the Setúbal Peninsula; the region is a popular excursion for Lisboetas, making it important to reserve well in advance over holidays and weekends.