The Allure of Aquapura
We flew into Oporto, only two hours from London, to an impressive Atlantic, thrusting massive great breakers onto the banks of Portugal's second largest city.
Porto, abbreviated for its many English friends, is as its name suggests, a port. Built on the banks of the River Douro in northwest Portugal it delights in its fascinating and picturesque old town and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. It is also the birthplace of the fortified wine, port, with vintage port being the flagship wine of Portugal (and for many an Englishman). It's a city that we would like to spend more time in, but when we arrived it was an airport followed by fleeting glimpses of ochre, rust, yellow and white 'city' sprawling down to the water, before stopping abruptly beside a crashing ocean.
Driving from Porto in our super-comfortable private transfer, the hilly landscape reminded me a little of Bhutan. The terrain, just before you hit the captivating valley slopes of divine terraced vines, feels completely random. It is blissfully wild, rural, and unkempt, crawling with creepers, old man's beard, palms, pines, olives and vines, amidst much deciduous forest all swathing the mountains and valleys, while quaint farmhouses are dotted in at seemingly lengthy intervals.
Hitting the curvaceous banks of the Douro River Valley is pretty awesome. Whereas much of the journey is charmingly scrambled at the hands of nature, the valley is a mesmerising masterpiece of nature and nurture. We travelled here in January, not the most recommended of months, but even with the weather peaking at its worst, this place was magical: a place that reignites your faith in true physical beauty without having to travel too far.
You don't have to love Port, or wine for that matter, in order to appreciate a stay at the Aquapura Douro Valley, but you're bang in heaven if you do. Being pregnant, I could only watch on in envy as my husband sniffed, swirled, sniffed again, sipped, swallowed (mostly) and sighed throughout our stay. However, I was rather spoilt too. For example my 'oxygen facial' with Ricardo left me fresh faced and de-toxed while the husband's cheeks took on a portly glow for different reasons!
An alluring ideology
Aquapura is a new concept in hotel luxury for Portugal and for much of Europe, bringing together Asian philosophy and artefacts with contemporary European luxe-comforts in a cutting-edge design. In this instance (there are more Aquapura hotels being groomed in destinations around the world), the hotel is also injected with touches of the uniquely indigenous qualities that attribute this destination with an aura quite special. Like the drive here, and the valley beyond its panoramic walls and windows of glass, this hotel grabs all your senses in ways that feel reminiscent of somewhere exotic, far flung even. Yet, you are constantly reminded of the fact that you are neither jet-lagged nor time-zone-confused (same time zone as the UK).
A brief hotel overview
The hotel was once the grand manor house, "Quinta de Vale Abraao", of a port wine producer in the 19th century. Building on from its 13th century origins; a tower, chapel and two more wings, the estate became one of the finest in the region. It also benefited from an outstandingly lush and privileged location: on the side of a valley just above a wide stretch of the thriving Douro River. In 1996 fire destroyed much of the home and in 2004 Aquapura bought the property with a view to creating a refreshingly novel concept within the luxury hotel and spa forum.
The standard of spa treatments is way up there on the scale of excellence, executed in the dreamiest of treatment rooms, all cocooned in a truly magnificent feng shui flow of chocolate and cream around natural materials. The seemingly Olympian-sized indoor pool, with soaring walls to that view in a signatory pale avocado, runs between the fully equipped state-of-the-art gym and the one-way glassed spa-retreat zone, with pairs of wide chocolate coloured rattan loungers coupled invitingly alongside. The outdoor pool is fittingly hued in a tawny port and looks so inviting that I was tempted to risk hypothermia. This is not a small boutique hotel; with 41 rooms, 9 suites and 21 villas, it has solid sophistication and a gravitas that is set to endure many luxe-trotting decades.
The hotel is also funky, design-groovy, with public spaces that hit the naughty but nice senses. A streamlined feel in both its architectural and interior design features defines the spaces; whether symmetrical or asymmetrical, lines all lead to somewhere and in particular to the wondrous vista beyond. The bar areas are delectably inviting, with impossibly long lounging sofas, objects d'arts extraordinaire, and soaring walls of glass to that view. Colours are soothingly subtle - taupe, grey, cream, - while the lighting is soft and seductive. Spring and summer here on the verandas, set beside manicured gardens with sky-surging palms, must be wondrous.
The tranquil library is piled with glossy books on the region, along with the works of many poets, both local and world revered, all of whom share one overriding passion - a deep appreciation of the valley's beauty. Water is the 'soul' of the hotel, in fact it is the soul of the region - you are constantly aware of its ubiquitous presence; from sight to sound, from the river gushing below to the many water features placed with Zen-honed precision throughout the property.
Our room with a view
We had a valley room designed around a single drop-dead-gorgeous feature - the view. From our completely comfortable bed, cushioned in the finest of down, we had only one view and with no wall interrupting it at all. We looked across the river and valley to the town in the distance and once again I was thrown into a deja vu feeling of 'where am I'. It reminded me peculiarly of India, with mist in the valley, the enigmatic river, a scattering of palm and banana trees in the near distance and industrial smoke from the port town in the far distance.
It soon became our view and, while the temptation to sleep with curtains apart to a scene of twinkling distant lights and dramatic lightning was tempting, our desire to give ourselves over to slumber perfection was all too consuming... sleep was good! We spied other suites, some mind-blowing ones, with quadruple panoramic vistas, spa baths the size of small pools and plasma screens not far off cinema size, but we were happy with our room with a view.
Tasting the fruits of the soil...
I can understand why some would choose to hole-up and be pampered but Aquapura is also the perfect spot for basing yourself in order to explore the marvels of the Douro Valley. It was tempting to organise a river ride for the day but as we awoke to snow on the nearby mountains (this is not an annual occurrence) it seemed more fitting to have our fabulous guide and port connoisseur, Joana, take us to a couple of exceptionally stunning port estates; Sandeman and Niepoort. These estates could rival any for outstanding beauty the world over, while the sense of style, finesse and grandness left us both yearning to return for more.
We tasted excellent red and white table wines at Niepoort, guided by the exceptionally talented, jovial and friendly Luis Seabra, the head winemaker. At Qinta do Seixo, Sandeman's astonishing new winery, we tasted ruby's, brancos, tawnys and vintage wines (we'll my husband tasted them, I sniffed and swirled impressively) in the comforts of chic designer sitting rooms with roaring fires and staggering valley views. The experience exceeded our expectations and more besides. There are many more beautiful quintas to experience along the river and also the historic port wine lodges in Oporto, so you won't ever get bored here if you like your wine.
Standing on the edge of their terraces, looking out across the winter mountains, so perfectly terraced, with the river snaking its thick body around all the curves while a pair of eagles glided in the crisp pure air, felt as good as standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. This place is truly spectacular. What's more, there was not another soul in sight. In fact visitors are few and far between here; just imagine March and April when the almond trees on the upper reaches are in blossom, topping the scene in a blanket of pink and white?
Lunch at Doc and dining in-house
After such special times at the estates we were sure that lunch would not be as impressive, but it was close, very close. We went to a riverside restaurant, upon the hotel's recommendation, called Doc, about ten minutes from Aquapura. From the outside the building does not impress - utilitarian, a sort of modernist grey block - but once you enter you are blown away by the proximity of the river and the terraced hills on the other side. The location is inspiring while the interiors are a cool rendition of contemporary swing; Steinway on dark floorboards, chrome and leather with fur throws, funky fireplace and a terrace that sits above the water.
The food was nothing short of delectable; shavings of cured octopus with pomegranate seeds, red mullet cooked as perfectly as can be on a bed of wild mushrooms and pine nuts, famed succulent lamb on a dollop of smooth red mash infused with truffles beside lashings of garlic coated runner beans. It's not light but it is delicious and the owner plus staff are so delightful that you could go 'grilled and steamed' if desired but, what a waste. Peter enjoyed a boisterous red, Redoma 2003, that Luis at Niepoort had donated to our cause. It was excellent.
For our final dinner in the hotel's more formal 'Almapura' restaurant we went light and fresh. The cuisine is an innovative blend of Mediterranean over Portuguese and the sea fare was outstandingly well cooked and presented. An impressive wine list, including some scrumptious local wines by the glass, kept the husband in high spirits.
So, the hotel and spa - an integral and central chill-zone to the hotel - has combined the best of trusted luxury ingredients within a staggeringly stylish architectural framework and incorporated the finest of the valley's gifts. Considering its location on this earth - visiting here, at least once, is a no-brainer.