By Barney Lehrer and Jesse Nash
Luxurious five-star accommodations, prize-winning architecture, world-class gourmet food and the finest wines. Where are we? St. Tropez? Paris? Rome? Nope! It’s Portugal, the unsung luxury destination at the southwestern tip of Europe.
We recently had the opportunity to be guests at a “Five-Star Trio” of hotels in three magnificent regions of Portugal. This cooperative marketing program is the brainchild of Chitra and Roman Stern, developers and owners of Martinhal Beach Resort & Hotel, the relatively new (2010) five-star resort, as a way to introduce visitors to this varied and enchanting country.
Martinhal Beach Resort & Hotel, Western Algarve
Known as “Europe’s most famous secret,” the rolling hills, dramatic coastlines and sandy beaches of the Algarve in southwestern Portugal provide a wonderful getaway spot. And every Portuguese schoolchild knows of Sagres, referred to by early geographers as “the western edge of the earth.” According to popular legend, it was in his villa on the rugged Sagres Peninsula that Prince Henry the Navigator established a school of navigation and mapmakers in the early 1400s; and it was certainly from Sagres that he sponsored pioneering voyages along the coast of Africa.
The stunning Martinhal Beach Resort & Hotel, just outside the sleepy little town of Sagres, is the only five-star property in this lovely, unspoiled corner of the western Algarve. And what a resort! Surrounded by the Costa Vicentina National Park, it’s the jewel of the region, with its opulence, exceptional restaurants, extensive sports and recreation venues, spa and stunning setting. What’s more, it welcomes children and is designed not only for couples in search of a relaxing escape, but also with families in mind. It even offers villa rentals and villas that can be purchased outright or on “leaseback” terms. In total, between the 38 boutique hotel rooms and the over 150 spacious designer villas, the resort has about 1000 beds.
It takes a pioneering spirit and a lot of vision to create a magical place like this from nothing, and sure enough, Chitra, a native of Singapore, and her Swiss husband Roman Stern are a very special couple. Chitra’s father immigrated to Singapore from India, were he still has many business interests. Roman’s father is a well-known lawyer and property developer whose interests include the Liss Ard Country Estate, a resort in County Cork, Ireland. The couple hired award-winning British architectural firm Conrad and Partners to do the overall design and British furniture and interior designer Michael Sodeau for the interiors. The Sterns run the resort with the efficiency and attention to detail renowned in their native countries, while making sure that the renowned Portuguese charm and warm hospitality dominate the atmosphere. And, as parents of four young children themselves, they made sure that the resort is set up to accommodate the needs of families, including play areas for different age groups in all parts of the resort, as well as trained babysitters who take over the kid care when a couple would like to have some romantic moments alone.
“We understand the needs of families on holiday,” explains Chitra. “There must be opportunities for children of all age groups, as well as ways for parents to have time alone.”
Although the Martinhal Beach Resort & Hotel has only been open since 2010, it has already been recognized as one of the top resorts in Europe. Indeed, it won the 2012 Europe’s Leading Villa Resort Award from World Travel Awards.
Our motto for this resort is, “Come for the sea, stay for the good life!”
Convento do Espinheiro, Évora
From the Algarve, we drove two and a half hours north to the beautiful ancient university city of Évora, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Established as a city for more than 2000 years, Évora became a second home for Portuguese royalty during the 15th and 16th centuries. Around 1400 it is said that an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared above a thornbush (espinheiro, in Portuguese) outside of Évora. It became a sacred site and in 1458 the local bishop ordered the building of a monastery and church that was to be a home of the Order of Saint Jerome. The Convento was the site of many Portuguese and Spanish kings’ religious retreats and ceremonies. The Order was mostly dissolved in the mid 19th century and the property fell into ruin.
Fortunately, in 1999, the Camacho family, from the Portuguese island of Madeira, bought it and planned its transformation into a five-star hotel. In 2005, after painstaking years of meticulous restoration, it opened as the Convento do Espinheiro Hotel and Spa, the first five-star hotel in Alentejo province and a national historic monument. This magnificent hotel offers opulent accommodations, a fantastic restaurant that serves traditional Portuguese food in a modern style, a spa recognized as one of the best in Portugal and many other luxury features.
Dinis Pires, the General Manager of the Convento, took great joy in telling us the history of the property. “The Convento do Espinheiro is a national treasure,” he says “and I am humbled to be its caretaker.” He first brought us to the huge vaulted restaurant, which was the convent’s wine cellar. Across a corridor from the restaurant entrance is the magnificently restored church, now a venue for weddings and other religious events. Dinis patiently guided us through the extensive artwork in the church, including its superb tile murals of the life of St. Jerome. We visited the former royal residences, now transformed into suites fit for a king, and then moved on to the bar, which was originally the monastery’s refectory. Before dinner we wandered into the adega (wine bar) for a tasting of fabulous Alentejo wines paired with local cheeses and charcuterie. The adega, which is furnished with stylish alabaster tables and bars, was once the convent’s gothic cistern.
Our motto for this hotel: “Come for the history, stay for the luxury!”
Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon
Towering over Lisbon’s main square, the Marques de Pombal, stands a large, handsome building with a simple sign on top: “Ritz.” This is the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon, the premier hotel property in Lisbon. Upon arrival, doormen who already knew our names greeted us warmly, then walked us into an enormous elegant lobby decorated with spectacular flower arrangements. Then it was up to the 10th floor, to our stunningly beautiful rooms with balconies overlooking the Marques de Pombal (and most of the rest of historic central Lisbon).
The view is fabulous, the room is fabulous, the service is impeccable (the housekeeping staff even neatly folds your clothes!) and the whole atmosphere of the Ritz Four Seasons makes you never want to leave!
Of course, most five-star hotels offer good fitness facilities. But the Lisbon Ritz Four Seasons takes the concept of fitness centers to a (quite literally) much higher level. The 7,535 square-foot center covers the entire rooftop of the building, offering breathtaking views of the city and the Tagus River. It features an exercise room, two yoga studios, a 1,313-foot outdoor running track and a fully equipped traditional Pilates studio. What appears to be a beautiful indoor swimming pool overlooking the hotel’s gardens was under renovation during our visit, but a luxurious spa in the basement offers massages, a Turkish bath and a sauna. You can easily spend all day at the hotel, it has so much to offer.
And the restaurant! Overlooking Eduardo VII Park and the hotel’s terraces, the Varanda Restaurant features a rich variety of French-style cuisine as well as some authentic and diverse Portuguese dishes. Executive chef Pascal Meynard, a native of the Basque area of southern France, previously owned his own restaurants in Tasmania and the Canadian Rockies and served as executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues in Geneva, Switzerland, and the Four Seasons Hotel Montreal, Canada. For us he decided on a very French, multi-course gourmet tasting meal of seafood and meats, accompanied by special Portuguese wines. We began with an amuse bouche of foam celery with roasted red mullet with truffle condiment. The first appetizer was ObsiBlue prawn, and the second scallops with caviar Baeri. Then came the first course of roast cod with miso and seaweed salad and crunchy vegetables, followed by a second course of poularde (a specially fattened chicken) de Bresse, with lemon gnocchi and green asparagus. This amazing meal ended with a fabulous desert of made of cheese Bavaroise. Fantastique!
Our motto for this hotel: “Come for the comfort, stay for the opulence!”
What better way to discover the wonders of Portugal than by staying in style in this five-star trio — each one unique, each one offering an unforgettable experience. Marvelous in every way — or as they say in Portuguese, “Maravilhoso!” We’ll be back!
O Terraço Restaurant
Martinhal Beach Resort & Hotel
Quinta do Martinhal
+351 282 240 200
Sophisticated and delicious Portuguese cuisine with some modern touches. Frequent special visits by the top Portuguese chefs.
As Dunas Restaurant
Martinhal Beach Resort & Hotel
Quinta do Martinhal
+351 282 240 200
Informal restaurant overlooking the beach and the village of Sagres across the bay. Fish caught fresh every morning, as well as salads and sandwiches.
Convento do Espinheiro Hotel & Spa
+351-266 788 200
Remarkable Alentejo cuisine with a modern twist. Located in what was the Convento’s ancient wine cellar.
O Moinho do Cu Torto
Rua de Santo Andre 2A
Bairro da Nossa Sra do Carmo
Authentic Alentejo food in a place frequented by locals. The decor is rustic, the food authentic and delicious and the atmosphere makes you think you are in a distant century.
Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon
Rua Rodrigo da Fonseca, 88
Classical French gourmet food with a slight Portuguese twist. Excellent Portuguese wines. Expensive, but worth it!
Solar dos Presuntos
Rua das Portas de Stº Antão, 150
(near the Elevador do Lavra)
Fantastic authentic Portuguese seafood. Don’t miss the sea bass cooked in salt!
Casa da Comida
Travessa das Amoreiras
Amoreiras, Lisbon 1250-025
“Modern” Portuguese food in a beautiful and original setting. Possibly the best wine selection in Lisbon.
Pedro e o Lobo
Rua Do Salitre 169
+351 211 933 719
In their own words: “An irreverent vision of Portuguese cooking.”
Photos by Jesse Nash.