To experience the otherworldly beauty of the Douro Valley, the oldest demarcated wine region in the world and quite conceivably the last frontier of serene, off-the-beaten-path hideaways remaining in Europe. Its sheer beauty and monumentality, as well as the human contribution to its development, led to it being awarded prestigious UNESCO World Heritage status in 2001.
As a veteran of these lands myself, I’ve often likened it to an Iberian version of the Norwegian Fjords. The Douro is a place I hold up on a pedestal for its unbridled beauty which stirs every kind of emotion within me. What better place to restore your inner peace, post-nuptials, than within the commodious walls of one of the world’s most luxurious and respected hotel brands? Six Senses Douro Valley pioneered the brand’s foray onto European shores when it debuted in Portugal back in 2015, having been founded 20 years earlier by Sonu Shivdassani, venerated for his ultra-luxe portfolio of Soneva properties. If an air of perma-calm appeals, then fear not, it descends from the moment you check in and lingers long after you depart.
Expect to rub shoulders with a clientele whose demographic combines or oscillates between oenophile and lycra-clad wellness worshipper. If you’re the latter, where a sunrise PT session or yoga on the terrace still ranks high on the agenda, even on your honeymoon, then look no further. Back inside, cavernous corridors are havens of tranquillity while public areas feel buzzier given the plethora of tutored wine tastings on offer. Six Senses’ overriding aim is to rejuvenate its guests and reconnect them with the local environment – and even though they don’t come more divine than the Douro, it is tempting not to leave the confines of the estate at all, once cocooned in and beginning to unwind.
Set the scene
Mastering the finer details is a trait Six Senses prides itself on as a brand and is something that’s scrupulously maintained everywhere you turn. Despite the lofty standards, a relaxed atmosphere awaits, with service as discreet and impeccable as you’d imagine, delivered by vibrant, friendly staff. Stays at this striking terracotta-hued 19th-century former manor house centre around wellbeing and wine.
Unusually for a hotel, access is via the top floor, and everything is set out, much like the Douro itself, in a staggered, terrace-like manner beneath. There’s a rather awe-inspiring outdoor pool which looks out onto the Douro River below, while a Brobdingnagian-like palm tree soars majestically into the blue sky above. You can picnic in the gardens if you so wish, go Nordic walking in the forest, mountain biking and even scale the on-site schist wall. In high season honeymooners can go kayaking, water-skiing or stand-up paddle boarding on the ‘River of Gold.’
Perfecting the ultimate slumber involves Six Senses losing sleep to ensure you don’t. They go to extraordinary lengths to ensure your zzz’s are optimised during your stay. The importance of a good night’s sleep is well documented and goes way beyond just boosting your mood or banishing those bags beneath your eyes.
Six Senses have assembled some of the finest sleeping tools available to man, from handmade mattresses, temperature-regulating pillows and duvets to organic cotton sheets. Housekeeping even leaves little notes on your pillow at turn-down, such as taking a warm foot bath if you’re struggling with your slumbers – because ‘it will draw the blood from your head to your feet and ground you so you can relax’. Who knew?
71 rooms await a discerning clientele, including bedrooms with panoramic river views, spacious suites with floor-to-ceiling windows, like ours which are akin to unveiling a painting each morning as the curtains are furled back, and private balconies. Some are even blessed with little wooden bridges leading to secret gardens. Tucked away in the property’s manicured gardens, almost as if they are within a little village of their own on the vast estate, are one and two-bedroom villas, complete with private swimming pools, which will appeal to newlyweds seeking that extra bit of splendid isolation. Technophiles will approve of wall-mounted in-room iPads which allow residents to access playlists, browse room service options, book excursions and send messages direct to reception straight from the device.
Food & Drink
The setting for most meals is Restaurant Vale de Abraão, with its spectacular open kitchen and incredible acoustics, based on a traditional Douro design of the kind usually reserved for grand manor houses and quintas, allowing guests the privilege of spying their gourmet delicacies being crafted before their very eyes (by the calmest kitchen hands). Head Chef Nuno Matos draws upon a rich bounty of organic produce grown and harvested on-site, meaning the garden-to-table game is strong, with a particular emphasis on vegetables. Food as a whole is fabulous and with the arrival of every impeccable dish I found myself repeating ‘Mmm, this looks so healthy’ with bounteous amounts of scrumptious salads and greens bristling with vibrant colour and flavour, and as you’d expect, impeccable wine pairings of Douro variants delivered by an astute crew of in-house sommeliers.
You’re in for a treat if you’re an oenophile. Tutored wine tastings provide a fascinating insight into the three very contrasting sub-regions of the Douro: Baixo Corgo is the most fertile but coolest and rainiest; Cima Corgo is the beating heart of the Douro centred around Pinhão; Douro Superior meanwhile is the hottest, driest and most extreme, but also the least rugged, marked by dryness and wildly hot summers that produce incredible reds such as the Dona Berta Reserva Tinto by Hernani Verdelho, and the fabulously seafood-friendly white Ládano from Freixo de Espada-à-Cinta. The Douro is famous around the world of course for producing fortified port wines from grapes grown on gravity-defying terraces on some of the world’s poorest soils, but its table wines, developed over the last 20 years on the same terroir, now go toe-to-toe with some of the finest wines in the world.
I’d go as far as saying the breakfast offering here surpassed anything I have witnessed on my travels so far. Detox juices, seed-infused natural yoghurts, a playful twist on eggs Florentine with local river trout, and immaculately carved fresh fruit salads which set you up for the day. If you get peckish there’s always the afternoon tea at The Quinta Bar & Lounge to fall back on, with fill-your-own silver teapots and delectable cakes to feast upon. It’s also the property’s destination for hand-crafted cocktails and a menu brimming with classic Portuguese petiscos (tapas), flatbreads and sandwiches. There’s even a house IPA on draft, brewed by Kit Bergqvist at Quinta de la Rosa further upriver.
Six Senses oversaw an extensive renovation of what was formerly Acquapura Douro Valley when it took over the property in 2007 – an aristocratic manor house which originally took inspiration from one of Portugal’s most iconic landmarks, the fairytale castle at Sintra, summer residence of the Portuguese Royal Family who used to escape there every August to avoid Lisbon’s unrelenting heat. And it’s not the only Royal connection: documents reveal that way back in 1464, the original vineyard on the property belonged to a certain João Lourenço de Seara, a valet to King Afonso V.
Fast forward to the end of the 19th century, and Laura Pereira Leitão, a descendant of João, and her husband Alfredo Passanha, had settled at Quinta Vale de Abraão. They had no children, so their nephews, the Serpa Pimentels inherited the estate. In fact, one corner of Vale de Abraão Restaurant is dedicated to the Serpa Pimentel family, whose vintage snaps are displayed in an artistic assemblage of frames.
In 1997, fire broke out in the house, damaging significant swathes of the gardens and surrounding woodland. Thankfully, the property was renovated when the Portuguese development fund Discovery invited Six Senses to perform one of their signature renovations, always with the notion of blending seamlessly into its surrounding landscape front of mind. Clever trompe l’oeil effects include disguising walls with vertical gardens and vines as well as cleverly integrating technical areas and the spa entirely underground. Even the property’s pinky brown exterior drew reference from native materials of the Douro like schist and endemic tree species allowing it to camouflage serenely within the valley.
Whilst their absence was noted during our stay (you got the feeling parents were either too devoted to pilates or wine, or both, to have their little ones in tow), children are very much welcome here and can stay free of charge in their parents’ room on a daybed or cot, provided they are under twelve. Babysitting is available for an additional €20 an hour, while children under five dine for free on the children’s menu. A multitude of water sports and activities such as tree-climbing await – sure-fire ways to keep teens off their phones.
Each Six Senses property is created with a vision of balancing economic profitability with environmental and social responsibility. Treading consciously doesn’t only apply to the grapes during harvest time, it’s at the heart of Six Senses’ ethos and their Portuguese flagship is no exception: SSDV’s energy committee oversees conservation issues, keeps staff abreast of green best practices and regularly sets new energy consumption targets.
The resort pledged to be plastic-free by the end of 2022, and it’s kept its word, rolling out robust recycling and composting programmes. Restaurant menus are crafted with waste avoidance front and centre, while fruit and vegetables are either grown on-site or sourced locally. The resort has been regenerating a five-hectare section of local forest, hosts neighbourhood clean-ups and has partnered with local organisations that specialise in eco-friendly landscaping. It puts on workshops and educates staff and guests about the importance of sustainability while supporting three organisations that help families in need in the Douro Valley, as well as donating to Aepga (the donkey sanctuary foundation, among other animal-protecting charities).
As with most levels of the hotel, the cavernous spa at SSDV is accessed by lift. Six Senses are synonymous for sensational spa experiences. Treatments draw upon local ingredients such as ripe lemons and oranges freshly picked from the tree, as well as olive oil and excess wine-grape pulp and pips from neighbouring estates. Spa treatments here leave you with an go-slow stupor I’d not experienced elsewhere, so much as an hour-long session felt more like an hour-and-a-half.
No pressure to put the bath robe straight on and vacate to the changing rooms. The property has introduced some interesting additions to their spa menu: colour therapy (based on the notion that colour and coloured lights can help treat physical or mental health issues) and cryotherapy (the use of extreme cold to freeze and remove abnormal tissue, administered in a temperature-controlled chamber). Biohacking – a term which seems to instill a degree of uncertainty until of course you experience it for yourself: imagine reclining on a sun lounger, having your legs encased in thigh-high compression-like socks (which contract against your legs, much like an oversized blood pressure monitor) promoting increased blood circulation in the lower legs, ankles and feet) and sleep mask to protect your eyes from red UV light. All quite odd but strangely relaxing once you settle in to the rhythm of the meditative music that’s piped through noise-cancelling earphones. Popular among elite sportsmen (Neymar Junior, Lewandowski et. al) to aid injury recovery times, it is supposed to take years off you.
If you’d rather keep things simple, then head to the pool where underwater sound therapy and massage jets can ease the tensions away, or go full-on restoration mode in the vitality pool. Or, simply gaze out onto the lush green flora and fauna – the feng shui is such that you could be forgiven for thinking you were nestled somewhere remote in the Himalayas. The spa is also home to an Alchemy Bar which introduces guests to the healing power of plants on emotional health, mind and spirit. Honeymooners can then concoct their very own bespoke potion and take it away as a souvenir. Mine was a glass jar filled with a a natural rendition of Vic’s vapour rub. Bring a spare suitcase as you’ll want to buy up everything in the boutique, it’s that good.
SSDV is perched in a picturesque spot where the Douro River contorts into snake-like curvature with panoramic views across to the town of Peso do Régua. These are dominated by a huge Sandeman’s port placard, depicting the brand’s iconic silhouetted man cloaked in a Portuguese student’s cape and a wide-brimmed traditional Iberian hat, perched on top of a hill. You’re an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Porto – home to centuries-old architecture, ornately tiled churches and some of the best food and drink in Europe. Which could make for a serendipitous two-chapter honeymoon if you so wish.
Honeymooners are also a stone’s throw from the prized vineyards of the Douro Valley, essential to all vinous immersion and simply unmissable. The closest and most notable are Quinta da Pacheca (governed by respected winemaker Maria Serpa Pimental whose mother once owned the manor house that’s now SSDV) and Quinta do Vallado with its iconic terracotta-tinged labels. The historic town of Lamego, famed for its magnificent Baroque stairway of seven hundred zigzagging vertiginously-challenging steps culminating in one of the finest sights in all of Portugal, the beautiful Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios church.
SSDV is a 90-minute drive from Porto’s Francisco Sá Carneiro airport with daily flights via Easyjet and Ryanair from London.
Doubles from £274 (based on two sharing a Quinta Superior Room on a B&B basis
To book, visit: sixsenses.com
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