In Portugal’s beautiful Douro Valley wine country, we discover a lush enclave that embraced sustainable luxury long before it was trendy.
We drive along a winding road lined with olive trees and manicured vines. Beyond lie layers of vineyard terraces that step down into the valley, where at the banks of the River Douro they meet the glossy waters. Forty-eight hours later, I’ll be swimming there – one last soak in these sun-washed surrounds before a reluctant return to the city.
Portugal is suddenly on everyone’s radar and tourists are trickling in as Europe gradually relaxes travel restrictions. Although no longer a hidden gem, the sweeping vistas of Northern Portugal’s Douro Valley can charm even the most jaded traveller. Ten minutes into this Unesco World Heritage-listed landscape I feel as if I’m breathing slower and more deeply.
I last came to the Douro to visit a friend from Hong Kong who’d bought an old ruin – she’s still renovating the crumbling stone structure, which she’s turning into a home and boutique yoga retreat. Regeneration and restoration seem to be the game in these parts, perhaps if only to counter all the indulgent wine and cuisine.
This time, though, I’m headed to the Six Senses Douro Valley, where my mission is to relax, immerse myself in all the unpretentious luxury I can muster, forget about my phone pinging every five minutes and feel closer to Mother Nature. On the drive in, basking in the warmth of a sun-drenched September Douro microclimate, I feel as if I might just succeed.
Positioned as the ultimate in resort-style escapism, while offering Douro wine and spa experiences, the Six Senses has a distinct regional identity. Housed in a dusty pink and sprawling 19th-century villa, the resort is all contemporary interiors with a rustic touch inspired by Portuguese quintas. After being largely locked in urban jungles for the last 18 months, it’s the kind of place that promises a little transcendence.
Settling into the resort means enveloping yourself in a fantasy land of luxurious hospitality, authentic design and experiences meant to replenish and heal. This is a sanctuary in every sense of the word, but one that also offers daily yoga classes, tree-climbing, kayaking, hiking and other active ways of exploring these fertile environs.
After a cheeky glass of port on arrival, a glass elevator takes me down to a sunlit room with views overlooking a yoga deck and the valley, as well as light wooden surfaces and soothing tones that have been chosen to aid relaxation and sleep (as a long-time insomniac, I’m also delighted to see the wide handmade bed, by Naturalmat of England). Authentic regional materials, including dove-grey Portuguese limestone in the bathrooms, add to the room’s effortless appeal. And with 60 suites and rooms, the resort contrives to be both intimate in attitude yet grand in scale. There’s no point in locking myself in the room all day, no matter how lovely, when there are more than 8 hectares of the estate to explore.
The resort’s main outdoor terrace overlooks a 25-metre infinity pool, which I soon discover is the perfect place to do slow laps, followed by lengthy lounging in the sun, drink in hand. Inhale, exhale – I swear it’s different here. This becomes my happy place for the lazy hours around midday, when it’s almost too hot to partake in what the Guest Experience Makers might suggest: a hike around the forest ending at hanging meditation pods in the trees; a trip to prehistoric rock-art sites in Côa Valley, or a national park; and, of course, visits to some of the oldest wineries in the world. Or perhaps book a place at a lovely workshop to learn the traditional method of painting ceramic azulejo tiles.
In the vast Six Senses Spa, treatment rooms overlook the verdant valley below. A heated indoor pool with cold and hot plunge areas, water jets and saunas – plus the healing massage I’d indulged in earlier – restore my tired body after a busy day of paddle tennis and mountain biking around local vineyards. I make it to the gym once, but in spite of all the high-tech equipment and programmes, it’s frankly a poor effort (I reckon I can just as easily sweat unpleasantly back home). Instead, I head to the Alchemy Bar, where I learn to blend herbs, salt, fruits and a range of exotic ingredients into scrubs, masks and other potions.
As the Six Senses group embraced greener practices years before they suddenly became trendy, sustainability is at the top of the resort’s agenda. Impressively, staff are genuinely happy to wax lyrical about the details, so you get the sense these environmental commitments are genuine rather than some marketing greenwash. Locally sourced and environmentally sound products are favoured, and suppliers are encouraged to reduce packaging and waste, and to deliver in bulk. I find time to visit the Earth Lab (there’s one in every Six Senses property), where I learn more about the sustainability efforts and, in particular, how they affect the operations in the kitchens.
But enough with all this holy stuff, there’s also the serious business of epicurean indulgence – and where better to begin than in what seems to me to be the resort’s beating heart, the beautiful, eclectically furnished Wine Library? Ever since the Romans began cultivating vines in the valley, the Douro has been steeped in winemaking. By the 18th and 19th centuries, the popularity of Port wine had spread far and wide – and to England in particular – which began to cement the Lucullan reputation the region enjoys today. Today the Douro vineyards, including those around the resort, are still fruitful and abundant, and the area has also become a place in which to shed layer upon layer of urban stress.
On my own as well as under the eye of a resident expert, I lose count of the glasses of Vinho Verde, Branco and Tinto I sample from the Wine Library’s eye-watering range of bottles. As the sun’s strength begins to wane in the late afternoon, I sip delightful cocktails on the expansive terrace in a pre-dinner rendezvous with the resort’s manager, André. The terrace overlooks Six Senses’ lush organic garden, full of plants, sweet-smelling flowers, vegetables and herbs that are all used in the resort’s culinary and spa delights. It’s not a bad office, I have to admit.
Cocktail hour over, I walk into the beautiful stone-paved courtyard of the Vale de Abraão restaurant, then take a table close to the granite fountain and overlooking that almighty Douro landscape. There’s the scent of orange trees, while above me alone and enormously tall palm tree sways – I’m told it’s the tallest in all of Europe. I have to give myself a few moments to take it all in: the Six Senses Douro Valley can be a little overwhelming, especially when your usual view is of Tottenham, north London.
Oysters on ice, slivers of the freshest fish dappled with flowers and uzu sauce, pork cooked to tender perfection – these candlelit sunset dinners are exceptional for the tastebuds and so lovely to look at.
My visit here lasts just two full days, though fortunately, it feels much longer. Not quite enough time to reset my bad digital habits and sleep disorder, though. My time veers between action-packed exploration and slow, good-living indulgence. There’s the obvious luxury, though as it’s of a kind that’s connected closely to the earth, it doesn’t feel contrived or snobbish. And as I’m driven away towards Porto, from an escape I knew I needed, I can’t help but feel quite blessed to have discovered this verdant and truly remarkable little corner of the world.
Find out more here.