Three Delightful Days in Portugal’s Douro Valley
Many travelers to Portugal visit its second largest city Porto, and go no further. That is certainly understandable given Porto’s beauty and charm, jovial atmosphere and history. Porto’s historical center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2001, it became the European Capital of Culture. However, continuing along the famed Douro River is breathtakingly unforgettable for its mountain and steep hill-terraced vineyards that produce Portugal’s wines and its most well known product – Port.
The Douro – Golden – River flows westward from Spain across Portugal to the Atlantic and provides marvelous meandering vistas as far as the eye can see. The Douro is the world’s biggest mountain vineyard region and the river and surrounding area became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 recognizing that wine production has marked the region for 2,000 years. With 115 varieties of authorized grapes in Douro, a glass of the vine’s gift can easily be at hand.
I hung my hat at Six Senses Douro Valley near the village of Lamego, a 90-minute drive from Porto. Opened in 2015 as Six Senses, with 50 rooms and 7 villas, the wine estate was once the Quinta Vale de Abbraão, a 19th century private residence. The interior of Six Senses Douro was impeccably re-designed by New York-based Clodagh and reflects an unwavering commitment to the property’s history while keeping true to the designer’s vision of serenity and minimalism. The result is a peaceful coexistence of cool comfort and sense of place.
Rooms are light, airy and spacious with expansive floor-to-ceiling views of the Douro, both the river and the vineyards. Room lights, curtains, temperature, and literally anything else one might need are controlled with a provided smart phone. Admittedly slightly techno-challenged, I initially panicked thinking I might have to sleep with everything on and the window shades open. However, the smart phone control became my newest BFF and soon wanted one for my own home. The dual vanity bathrooms with freestanding tubs are enormous and the sheets and pillow top bedding so luxurious, it seemed womblike and provided some of the best hotel sleep ever experienced anywhere.
The Six Senses property sits on eight incredibly fertile hectares. On a light trek of the grounds and vineyards with our guide Olivia, in addition to grapes galore, we picked rich ripe figs, crunchy pears and juicy oranges. The lovely infinity pool with Douro views feels like a slice of heaven. There is also an indoor pool with spray jets and a 24,000 square foot spa with 10 treatment rooms, a state-of-the-art gym and yoga room.
Weekly calendars provide a host of activities, such as aerial yoga, meditation, Pilates, tree climbing, paddle tennis, organic garden tours, art classes, pickle making classes and of course, wine tasting. There is a separate dedicated children’s calendar.
Breakfasts at the Six Senses are reason alone to come to the Douro. The Open Kitchen is testament to seasonal and regional dishes that are beautifully presented and stunningly fresh. House made fruit elixirs, granolas, yogurts and warm breads and pastries sit next to fresh fruits of every conceivable variety. There is a separate cheese and charcuterie bar and made-to-order whatever your heart desires, along with all manner of fresh coffees. This insures one will dream of this breakfast/brunch extravaganza for a long time.
Absolutely not to be missed is the Six Senses Avocado Toast served on whole grain bread with a poached egg so fresh it was no doubt in a chicken just hours earlier. The piece de resistance is their signature Pastei de Nata – egg creme custard tart – that travelers I met 10,000 miles away in Fiji spoke so lovingly about, they made me promise to think of them as I indulged while in Douro. Admittedly, I was skeptical given that I had eaten at least a dozen of these silver dollar-sized marvels throughout two weeks in Portugal. However these morsels took first prize. They were rich and creamy with just the right amount of delicate creme brûlée crisp on top and perfectly flaked pasty shell surrounds. Had Vasco de Gama or Ferdinand Magellan ever tried these at Six Senses, neither may have ventured away from Portugal long enough to make their world changing discoveries.
Dining on The Terrace at the bewitching hour around sunset – which here can last until 10pm in the summer, with some of the best lighting happening after 8pm – is another marvelous experience in the capable hands of Head Chef Luis Borlido. Start with the delicious grilled endives with Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus and goat cheese and end with the delectable pork cheek with celery purée and shiitake mushrooms.
At Six Senses’ seasonal barbeque with communal tables under the stars, tangy vino tinto Sangria was the perfect start to cauliflower truffle soup, crudités from the organic garden with hummus followed by a delightfully tender grilled octopus.
Day drinking never tasted so good.
Given that the Douro is all about wine, there is no legitimate reason to wait until dark. Indeed, the Six Senses has it own wine dispenser in the Wine Library. Which may bring new meaning to those who like to read! With a zippy swipe of your room key at anytime, you can choose from several varieties and several pour sizes.
There are comfortable sitting areas both inside and out to enjoy your pour and a great selection of books, a pool table, a myriad of board games to keep you busy and a massive wood table inlaid for checkers, chess and backgammon.
Another great experience is to take a wine tasting “class” at the Wine Library with one of Six Senses’ wine sommeliers. Our education on the region and its wines and Ports came from the knowledgeable Joao Miguel Koehler, whose great, great grandfather arrived from Holland in 1905 as the first mine engineer in search of the alloy tungsten.
You will learn about the primary wine aromas occurring naturally from grapes, the secondary from fermentation and the third from aging. All the while you will be sampling some of the region’s great wines and Ports with accompanying small bites. The 2017 Flor de Crasto and the 10-year-old Borges Porto Old White Soalheira were standouts.
Go beyond the hotel
While difficult to leave the Six Senses Douro, you will want to tear yourself away to spend a few hours in the various nearby townships.
Lamego, a historic town with a population of about 27,000, is known for Raposeira, its esteemed sparkling wines. Make sure and walk up the 680 steps to the imposing Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies high atop the hill. The reward will be beautiful blue tiled landings along the way and forever views of the region’s red tile rooftops.
Housed in a former Bishop’s palace, the Lamego Museum is an enormous receptacle of religious art, papal vestments and Flemish tapestries. Somewhat out of place are several lovely Meiji-era vases from Kyoto.
The charming town of Favaios, about an hour away, should not be overlooked. Synonymous for Moscatel – dissimilar from how Moscatel in known in the US – Moscatel has played a critical role in the local economy as evidenced by the landscape, architecture and increase in inhabitants.
‘Moscatel do Douro’ became denominated in the 1990s and is produced from a single grape variety in a very restricted territory with a higher sugar and lower alcohol content than Port. Bread is Favaios’ other product. This tiny village has eight bakeries that together produce 8,000 loaves of “four-cornered” bread. There is a small, yet terrific Museum of Wine and Bread in the town center.
In the town of Pinhão, the Bomfim wine estate has for the last three years been open to visitors. Here one can learn all manner of the Port production process in a lovely setting. Bonfim has been 100-percent owned by the Symington family for five generations. Its estates make over 30% of premium Ports and produces wines for four historic houses: Graham’s, Cockburn’s Dow’s and Warre’s. Walk to the town’s small train station where you will be wooed by the exterior’s blue tile panels depicting local culture.
Winding my way back to the Six Senses I contemplated the many blessings of the Douro Valley with a glass of Soalheira as I sat outside overlooking the river. I was reminded of a sentence in the Talmud, “Wine is the foremost of all medicines, wherever wine is lacking, medicines become necessary.” Cheers then.
Douro if you go: Stay at Six Senses Douro Valley. Impeccable location, food, wine and service. It should be noted that there is a significant risk that you will channel your inner Portuguese and never leave. You can arrive by to the region by car, train or boat. Tel 855/695-6693,
Porto if you go: Stay at the Pestana Porto – A Brasileira. In an excellent location across from the Bandera Theater and walking distance to bars, restaurants and sites. Comfortable modern hotel with friendly staff and complimentary afternoon Port in the lobby. Down the street from the Pestana enjoy a great dinner of garlic prawns and fish soup in a lively atmosphere at Impar Flores Restaurant, Rua das flores 304/306, 4050 Porto.
Julie L. Kessler is a travel writer, legal columnist and attorney based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.”