Serene Retreats in Portugal's Countryside
By Hideaway Report Editor
July 8, 2019
As Lisbon’s crop of hideaway-style hotels and luxury lodgings grows ever more sophisticated, a similar evolution is taking place in the countryside, with travelers venturing out to sample Portugal’s varied pleasures. I recently visited three small hotels offering experiences as diverse as the landscapes they inhabit, from the Douro Valley wine region to the rural countryside of the Alentejo and the fashionable but low-key beach retreat of Comporta.
Quinta da Côrte
Despite the allure of its sinuous, emerald-green landscape and the growing prominence of its wines, the Douro Valley has a scant number of luxury hotels. The Six Senses Douro Valley, which opened in 2015, is the area’s marquee property; with its 57 rooms, suites and villas; several restaurants; and a standout spa, it offers an experience not unlike the one you’d find in the Napa Valley. For something more intimate, there are a handful of smaller hotels attached to quintas (wine estates). Quinta da Côrte is one of these, a venerable family-owned domaine that French investor Philippe Austruy acquired in 2013. Austruy partnered with of-the-moment interior designer Pierre Yovanovitch to revamp the winery and create an eight-room hotel. The concept of a cozy stay among the steeply planted vines intrigued me, so I booked a room for two nights.
The hotel hadn’t sent driving directions in advance, so Waze was my dubious guide to the property. I wound on N222 past the steep banks and undulating hills of the river valley, terraced with vineyards and dotted with whitewashed quintas. A sudden right turn took me up a vertiginous, mountain-hugging road paved with stones, sans guardrails. Hands glued to the steering wheel, I locked my eyes on the next set of switchbacks, daring to look neither up at the valley’s beauty nor, god forbid, down. Eventually, I spied a large white building with “QUINTA DA CORTE” painted on its roof and exhaled as I pulled into what appeared to be a working farm. There was no sign directing me to the hotel reception — indeed, no sign of life, just a handful of empty buildings. One was locked; the other, when I peered inside, contained nothing but enormous barrels of wine. I called the hotel from my cell phone and was told to continue uphill to a small house painted white with yellow trim, where I was greeted by two friendly German shepherds and a young man, who welcomed me inside.
I felt immediately at home, ready to sprawl out on a sofa in front of the fireplace with a magazine and a slice of the almond cake that had been placed on a side table.
My initial confusion turned to enchantment as I was shown around the house and to my room (it turned out that I was the only guest during my stay). While not especially large, it had a homey charm, with wood floors, honey-toned walls, some midcentury-style furniture and a woven rug. The queen-size bed was covered in starched white linen sheets and a crocheted coverlet. A small bureau held a selection of vintage books, among them the collected plays of T.S. Eliot and, shockingly, the Marquis de Sade’s “Juliette.” Two shuttered windows looked out over the estate’s vineyards and olive trees and the verdant mountains beyond. A spacious bath was covered in dark-green tiles and included a clawfoot tub. Overall, the look was faithful to its farmhouse roots (highbrow erotica aside), with a dollop of French country chic.
The same description fit the rest of the house, which had three other guest rooms (an annex contains additional accommodations) and a series of common spaces. The centerpiece was a dining room set up in the house’s former kitchen, with an enormous tiled hearth and a long azulejo-topped table under a cheerful light fixture of pink glass balloons. Other sitting rooms offered bright and pleasant places to lounge. I felt immediately at home, ready to sprawl out on a sofa in front of the fireplace with a magazine and a slice of the almond cake that had been placed on a side table.
Before I could kick off my shoes, though, the receptionist offered to give me a tour of the winemaking facilities. The Douro Valley — the world’s oldest demarcated wine region, established in 1756 — is best known for Port but also turns out nonfortified table wines of some distinction. Both styles use the same grapes: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (the same as Spain’s Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cão, all of which grow at Quinta da Côrte. The receptionist showed me the winemaking facilities — including a beautiful contemporary building designed by Yovanovitch, with white vaulted ceilings and a dramatic black steel staircase — as he explained the different processes of extracting the juice (done here by old-fashioned stomping), fermenting and aging the wines, and labeling them according to byzantine regulations issued by the authorities in Porto. I tasted a few of the estate’s bottlings, impressed mostly by the 10-year Tawny Port, with notes of vanilla and caramel.
That night, I had dinner at the quinta. As befits a wine-country farm stay, the cooking was unfussy and delicious, with meals served as a table d’hôte. My dinner included a cream of cauliflower soup with a beautiful orange egg yolk at its center, roasted octopus with smashed potatoes, and a brownie for dessert. I asked for a glass of local white, but disappointingly, the only wines being poured were the estate’s own reds and Ports.
Breakfast was even better, the spread including meats and cheeses, pastries and breads with various housemade preserves, a selection of cereals and yogurt, fresh juice and sliced fruit. Eggs were available as well. Meals are served family-style, either indoors at the long wooden table or outside on a stone terrace surrounded by lemon and olive trees.
The terrace proved to be my favorite perch, despite the uncooperative weather during my stay. I inhaled the fresh, clean air and watched workers on the surrounding slopes tending to the vines and olive trees. There’s an infinity pool hidden among the rows but otherwise very little in the way of activities. Quinta da Côrte is remote — about 20 minutes to the south of the riverside town of Pinhão (it turns out there’s a better, less terrifying road). It’s a place to slow down, spend time with family or a group of friends, and enjoy the intimacy of the house (there are no televisions, and the Wi-Fi is spotty). The staff hang back, perhaps suggesting a nearby winery or restaurant to visit, but mostly stay out of the way.
One afternoon, after returning from a Douro River cruise and a tour of another quinta, I finally had my chance to relax by the fireplace. It being well after 5, I wanted an aperitif and popped upstairs to ask for one. Someone brought me a Port and tonic (a surprisingly refreshing combination) and a bowl of sweet potato chips. And there I sat for an hour and a half, answering emails and stoking the fire. No one came down to check on me. It was lovely to be left unbothered, but a refill would have been nice.
Luxury can mean lavishness or unstinting comfort. But there is another kind of luxury in exclusivity, in being allowed to put one’s feet up in a place that’s dreamily located and tastefully decorated. Yovanovitch’s design at Quinta da Côrte feels contemporary without being conspicuous or contrived, and it respects the quinta’s history and locale. In my experience, the service was deferential bordering on diffident; a few degrees more warmth would have made me feel entirely at home.
Quinta da Côrte 92
Charming refurbishment of a 19th-century farmhouse with smart interiors; incredible setting on a working Douro quinta with views of the valley; home-cooked meals; sense of ease and repose.
Service can be passive; limited wine selection; somewhat remote location.
Good to Know
A winery tour and tasting is included in the rates; guests who visit during the September harvest may be invited to help stomp the grapes.
Lowest Rate: Room, $230; Editor’s Choice: Deluxe Room, $270
Address: 5120-491 Valença do Douro
Telephone: (351) 964-536-200
São Lourenço do Barrocal
The Alentejo is a vast swath of southern Portugal covered with undulating plains, stands of cork trees, vineyards and stone outcroppings. Dry and hot, it is sparsely populated — there are estimated to be more pigs than people — but steeped in history, with medieval hill towns like Évora and Elvas designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. The region’s well-preserved cultural traditions include pottery, weaving and winemaking. Indeed, the rising profile of easy-drinking Alentejan reds are drawing an increasing number of wine-loving visitors. That has led to the establishment of some fine countryside hotels, including the contemporary L’AND Vineyards and São Lourenço do Barrocal, which opened in 2016.
Located about two hours’ drive east of Lisbon, near the Spanish border, Barrocal had been a farming village for centuries, a self-sustaining community producing olive oil, wine and cereal grains and raising livestock. Owned by a single family, it was nationalized after the 1975 revolution and then reacquired, in a ruined state, by José António Uva, a member of the family’s eighth generation. Uva had spent time on the property as a child and was determined to restore it, but not before studying its history, local customs and farming techniques. He hired the renowned Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, noted winemaker Susana Esteban and Austrian wellness expert Susanne Kaufmann to help revive the olive groves and vineyards and create a hotel and spa in their midst.
I learned much of this history from the amiable young man who showed me to my room, which was set in the property’s whitewashed main building. Fronting a broad stone plaza, this long red-roofed structure once housed dozens of farmers and their families. Now, behind a low blue door with shuttered windows, I found an amply proportioned room (I had booked the Farm Room category) with terra-cotta floors, high ceilings and understated modern furnishings made of natural materials. Two sets of doors led out to a large shared terrace planted with vines; from there, I had a fine view of the Alentejan hills, carpeted with planted fields and dotted with white clusters of houses — like Barrocal itself. The room exuded stillness and simplicity; homey touches, like a plate with paper-wrapped slices of cake and a wooden trunk holding woven blankets, made it even cozier.
I’d arrived late in the afternoon and had only a few minutes to watch the setting sun as it cast dramatic shadows across the broad central plaza (called the monte) and the other historic buildings flanking it. There are 24 rooms in all, as well as 16 cottages with kitchens and living areas. The complex also contains a spa, stables, a retail shop, a kids’ facility, a winery and a restaurant.
The farm-to-table food served there proved a highlight of my stay, with many ingredients grown on-site and prepared in a straightforward manner that amplified their quality. For dinner my first night, I enjoyed sliced veal steak grilled simply with sea salt and olive oil and a dish of garden vegetables, cooked gently to showcase their just-picked freshness. Dessert was a soufflé-like lemon-and-olive-oil tart filled with caramel and served with a scoop of lemon-basil sorbet. The house wines, particularly the reserve red made with estate-grown grapes, displayed a similar refined rusticity.
The next morning, I grabbed the trail map in my room and set off on a long hike to explore the 1,900-acre property. I ambled past large stands of olives and oaks, fields of chamomile, neolithic dolmens and what will eventually be sites for estate homes. In the distance, I could make out the walled medieval town of Monsaraz and the huge Alqueva Lake. I didn’t encounter another soul for hours — save the herd of cattle I startled. The ability to wander for so long and in such solitude, never leaving the hotel grounds, was incredibly gratifying.
The ability to wander for so long and in such solitude, never leaving the hotel grounds, was incredibly gratifying.
I returned to the property and made myself a filling breakfast from the bountiful spread of fruit, cheese, bread and cold cuts, including house-cured ham from the estate’s own acorn-fed pigs. The atmosphere around the monte was only slightly more social than on my solitary hike: Although the resort offers plenty of activities, from horseback riding to wine tasting to stargazing, there are few opportunities to interact with other guests. I was the only patron at the spa, where I received a relaxing massage in a somewhat spare treatment room. The two times I had an aperitif at the bar — a lovely space in the former olive press, fitted with leather club chairs and potted palms under vaulted ceilings — I was by myself. The restaurant was never more than half full, even at breakfast. Granted, I was there early in the season, before the beautiful pool area could be put to good use. But it was clear that Barrocal is not set up for socializing. And what common spaces there were lacked shade (even in March, the sun in southern Portugal can be blazingly hot).
No doubt Barrocal was livelier a century ago, when it was filled with dozens of farmers and workers. But its present quietude — and that is not a flaw, by any means — didn’t subtract from its strong sense of history and place. What was once a self-contained community is still completely a world unto itself, with little reason to leave (although an afternoon visit to explore the medieval streets of Monsaraz is recommended). Staying there allowed me to lose myself in the vast Alentejan landscape and experience the bounty of the region, with no shortage of creature comforts.
São Lourenço do Barrocal 96
Tasty, truly farm-to-table cuisine; muted design with a strong sense of place; broad array of activities that reflect the Alentejo’s cultural and natural heritage; fabulous setting.
Austerity of spa; lack of shaded seating areas to escape the sun.
Good to Know
The resort’s intimate setup is better suited to couples, families and self-contained groups than those looking for an active social scene.
Rates: Lowest Rate: Courtyard Room, $500; Editor’s Choice: Farm Room, $520
Address: 7200-177 Monsaraz
Telephone: (351) 266-247-140
A chic but low-profile beach getaway on the Atlantic coast of the Alentejo, an hour and a half south of Lisbon, Comporta is often called Portugal’s Hamptons. That comparison is not quite apt: While it attracts a moneyed crowd, including fashion and creative luminaries (Anselm Kiefer, Philippe Starck, Christian Louboutin), the houses here are mostly modest, the beaches blissfully undeveloped and the “scene” — such as it is — centered around low-key restaurants rather than of-the-moment bars and nightclubs. Visitors respect Comporta’s natural landscape and humble origins in fishing and rice cultivation. “Where the rich pretend to be poor” was one tongue-in-cheek moniker I heard during my visit.
One element that Comporta does share with the Hamptons: Accommodations are mostly in private homes, not hotels. Aman was long rumored to be opening a resort nearby, but those plans seem to be on ice. Development is clearly on its way; I drove past several tracts of estate-homes-to-be on my way to the beach one afternoon. But for now, the only notable hotel is Sublime Comporta. While not quite living up to the promise of its name, it proved a very comfortable home base for exploring the region.
Visitors from Lisbon usually arrive to Comporta by ferry, but I came by car, driving down a long road lined with umbrella pines. The 42-acre complex includes the 23-room resort as well as privately owned villas, some of which can be rented in whole or in part. All the buildings share a silhouette — steep gabled roof, wood-and-glass façades — that mimics the distinctive geometry of Comporta’s fisherman’s huts and rice warehouses. I parked and entered the main building, which houses the reception area, a bar-lounge and a restaurant under a high, pitched ceiling, and was greeted by a porter offering a cool towel. After completing my check-in on a midcentury leather sofa, the receptionist offered to escort me to my room.
I had booked a Friends Room King Bed, the second-lowest category, described on the website as being in the main house. So I was a bit surprised when he led me to a separate building that contained the spa and overlooked the pool area. My ground-floor room, located adjacent to the spa reception, was squarish and compact, with a bed at its center and a cramped bath area separated only by a low gray divider. Two sliding glass doors opened onto large terraces; one had a nearly unobstructed view of — and from — the pool deck, while the other overlooked a dusty road adorned with orange construction netting. The receptionist assured me the room would remain undisturbed, but within minutes a yellow bulldozer trundled along, kicking up the red earth.
I returned to the lobby and asked to see options that afforded more privacy and weren’t in range of the spa’s disinfectant-like aroma. I was offered two: One was the so-called Owner’s Suite, located one floor above my original room but with a much larger floor plan and two balconies that were better screened from public view. The other was a Guests Suite, a bilevel space with a sleeping area on the ground floor and the bath up a mezzanine. The configuration felt awkward, so I chose the first option. I was a bit taken aback when informed that an additional $68 per night would be added to the tariff. The hotel was far from full, and I’ve never been charged extra by other hotels in similar circumstances. Nonetheless, I chose to upgrade.
Settled at last, I got familiar with my new room. While not exactly spacious (the website’s measure of 538 square feet presumably includes the terraces), it was chic and understated, with gray polished-concrete floors and a white slipcovered love seat facing a small fireplace. The large bath area included a soaking tub and a walk-in shower stall. One terrace had a Jacuzzi. Like all too many design-led hotels, the room had some annoying elements: no place to hang a wet towel, no proper mirror, a complete lack of privacy in the toilet, a tiny desk. Other than a cork headboard, there was little sense of Portugal — squint and you’re in South Beach. But I opened a beer from the minibar, flopped on a chair on the terrace, breathed in the Comporta air and forced myself to relax.
That evening, I ate at Sem Porta, the resort’s main restaurant. The large, glass-walled dining room was inviting, its high ceilings hung with light fixtures made of reeds, an immaculate kitchen visible through large plate-glass windows. The meal began auspiciously with warm house-baked breads served with cultured butter and the hotel’s own olive oil. Ensuing courses showcased the chef’s skill with local ingredients. A beautifully plated starter of vegetables from the organic garden was blanketed with an ethereal goat cheese sauce. Arroz de marisco, the traditional and often dense dish of seafood and rice, was exceptionally light and scented with coriander. For dessert, there was a unique, deconstructed sericaia, an Alentejan egg pudding made here with plums and bay leaf ice cream. The young sommelier picked Portuguese wines to accompany each course, including a lovely Herdade Grande 2017 Alentejo white.
After the fuss about the room, the care and precision shown by that meal was a welcome counterpoint. (The resort has a second restaurant, Food Circle, set within the organic garden, but it was not open during my stay.) So was the breakfast buffet served the next morning, an abundant array that included freshly baked pastries and cakes, perfectly ripe sliced fruit and a range of hot dishes. Thus energized, I got in the car to explore the area. The beaches are the highlight: wide and clean with pale sand and a dearth of commercial activity, save the occasional seafood restaurant. The village of Comporta is similarly unspoiled, its picturesque blue-and-white buildings, many crowned with storks’ nests, still housing fishermen’s families as well as an increasing number of expensive boutiques. A large nature preserve includes the Sado estuary, home to migrating birds and a pod of bottlenose dolphins.
For a fashionably restrained beach destination set against a gorgeous natural backdrop, Comporta itself approaches the sublime.
In truth, there’s not much to do in Comporta that doesn’t involve a beach or a pair of binoculars. It’s up to the resort to provide entertainment. Sublime has a pretty pool with a sunken fire pit, a tennis court and a spa that incorporates herbs from the garden. The staff can also arrange off-site activities, including horseback riding, wine tasting, golf and boating. Guests can borrow a bike to pedal around the forested property, whose buildings and private villas are spread enough apart to maintain an air of quiet and exclusivity.
That being said, the place has expanded rapidly since it first opened in 2014, and it continues to grow. Construction was constant during my stay (management says it will pause during the summer), and the landscaping was incomplete. I imagined that the pool, spa and restaurants, originally built to service a boutique-size property, would soon feel the strain of additional guests. So would service standards: While the staff was mostly welcoming, they seemed tentative and undertrained. (For example, half an hour prior to my dinner reservation, housekeeping knocked on the door to offer turndown service, revealing a lack of back-of-house coordination.)
For a fashionably restrained beach destination set against a gorgeous natural backdrop, Comporta itself approaches the sublime. Sublime Comporta, the resort, fell a bit short. Eventually I was content with my room, but Hideaway Report readers should choose their accommodation carefully; consider booking one of the two-bedroom villas, which come with a private pool, an indoor-outdoor fireplace and a full kitchen. Management needs to tighten up staff training and ensure that the planned expansion doesn’t overwhelm the facilities or disrupt the guest experience. And they must hold onto the chef and his team. The superb food was the resort’s saving grace.
Sublime Comporta 90
Distinctive architecture that references local traditions; grounds covered in mature umbrella pines and cork oaks; outstanding cuisine featuring organic produce grown on-site.
Rooms where style takes precedence over functionality; maladroit if well-meaning service; construction as resort expands.
Good to Know
The closest beach is about 15 minutes’ drive from the resort; a car is an absolute necessity.
Rates: Lowest Rate: Friends Room, $310; Editor’s Choice: Owner’s Suite, $500 (minimum stay may apply).
Address: EN 261-1, 7570-337 Muda, Grândola
Telephone: (351) 269-449-376