The Complete Guide To: Palatial Portugal

From the splendid and historic to the stylish and modern, Harriet O'Brien discovers the very best places to stay in Portugal


FINE ROOMS: ANCIENT PALACES?

FINE ROOMS: ANCIENT PALACES?

Indeed. Portugal presents an impressive choice of grand old residences. Yet in terms of stylish accommodation there's a great deal more as well, from luxurious coastal villas in the Algarve to manor houses in the northern Minho region. And of course, this slice of the Iberian Peninsula offers many wonderful rooms simply to see, not least some of its former royal residences and its striking art galleries.

CAN I SLEEP IN LAVISH SURROUNDS?

Yes. In line with its rich history, Portugal boasts a number of magnificent palaces that take paying guests. One of the most sumptuous yet least expensive is Bussaco Palace Hotel (00 351 231 937 970; www.almeidahotels.com), the hunting palace of the last kings of Portugal. It is set in Portugal's revered National Forest of Bussaco in the mid-west of the country and was built at the end of the 19th century in manueline (or gothic) style. True, the 64 bedrooms and suites are a bit boxy, but the central areas are astonishingly opulent, with vaulted arches, marble staircases and wonderful stucco work. Double rooms cost from €169 (£121) per night, with breakfast.

The bedrooms are more majestic at the Palacio de Seteais (00 351 219 233 200; www.tivolihotels.com) further south, in the lovely town of Sintra, set in hills 28km north-west of Lisbon. The hotel exudes 18th-century grandeur and has just 30 bedrooms. It overlooks the fantastical Palacio da Pena (see below). Doubles cost from €284 (£203) per night, with breakfast.

If you're after great views, ask for a Palace Room at the Lapa Palace Hotel (00 351 213 949 494; www.lapa-palace.com) in Lisbon's embassy district. Set on the sixth floor of this 109-bedroom building, these rooms all have Juliet balconies that look out over the city, the River Tagus or the lush private gardens. The palace was converted into a hotel in the 1990s and is now part of the Orient Express group. Doubles cost from €350 (£250) - Palace Rooms from €475 (£324) - with breakfast.

Altogether more exclusive is Lisbon's Palacio Belmonte (00 351 218 816 600; www.palaciobelmonte.com), which sits atop the Alfama hill inside the Castelo de Sao Jorge. It has only 10 suites, along with a library, café, music room, chapel and black marble swimming pool. The palace was built in the mid 1400s on the top of Roman and Moorish remains, and it was expanded in the 17th and 18th centuries. Bedrooms incorporate ancient and modern features: the Gil Vicente suite has an interior garden; while the living room of the Bartolomeu de Gusmao suite is clad with 18th-century wall tiles. Suites cost from €300 (£214) per night, including breakfast.

SOMEWHERE MORE SERENE?

Head for one of the former convents or monasteries that are part of the pousada network. This collection of hotels was started by the government in the 1940s as a scheme to build new lodges that would provide reasonably priced food and accommodation for visitors and would also reflect the traditions of the areas in which each establishment is set. In the 1950s the remit expanded beyond construction and a number of historic buildings - former religious institutions among them - were restored and converted. There are now more than 40 pousadas (literally "places of rest"), none with very many more than 30 guest rooms and most offering a swimming pool and bar as well as a restaurant serving local cuisine and wine. They correspond to the paradores across the border in Spain. In Britain, Keytel International (020-7616 0300; www.keytel.co.uk) is the appointed agent for the organisationbut you can go direct by visiting the website of Pousadas de Portugal; www.pousadas.pt.

Many of the finest historic pousadas are located in the Alentejo region south-east of Lisbon. The region has some of the best preserved medieval towns and villages in Europe. Pousada Dom Joao IV at Vila Vicosa, about 6km from the white marble town of Borba in upper Alentejo, is a stunning converted convent dating from about 1514. In this marble-producing area, the pousada's bathrooms, staircases and even skirting boards are made from local material although for the most part the comfortable bedrooms have terracotta stone floors. Downstairs there's a stylish domed sitting room with a big open fireplace and sofas to sink into. B&B is from €125 (£85) double.

ANY RECENT CONVERSIONS?

Last year Pousada da Horta Santa Cruz opened on the Azores. The converted 16th-century fortress is set on Faial, one of the nine islands in the midst of the Atlantic 1,280km from the mainland. The 28 bedrooms are functional, but the setting is superb and the views across to Pico Island are wonderful. B&B is from €105 (£72). Work continues on another Azores pousada, which is likely to be even more impressive. In a dominant position on the Terceira Island, Forte de Sao Sebastiao lies in the stunning city of Angra do Heroismo.

AND OTHER ISLANDS?

Green and sunny Madeira has recently been trying to shake off its staid reputation with boutique hotel openings. Quinta da Casa Branca (00 351 291 700770; www.quintacasabranca.pt), for example, is an ultra-modern haven. Its 43 bedrooms all boast private terraces leading to the well tended grounds. Facilities include a large swimming pool and a chic spa. The hotel seems remote from hassle and bustle but is conveniently located close to the centre of the island's capital, Funchal. The Quinta is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group. Doubles cost from €165 (£118), with buffet breakfast an extra €15 (£11).

To get right away from it all head for Choupana Hills Resort and Spa (00 351 291 206 020; www.choupanahills.com), set in secluded woodland above Funchal. It is an idyllic-looking place with accommodation in 34 chalets and grounds containing two swimming pools and a treatment centre offering everything from aromatherapy to hydro massage. Doubles cost from €251 (£179) with buffet breakfast.

Yet the grandest place to stay on the island remains Reid's Palace (00 351 291 717 171; www.reidspalace.com), with great views of the Bay of Funchal and fabulous semi-tropical gardens. Replete with elegant verandahs and terraces, the hotel offers 164 rooms and suites, most boasting marble lined bathrooms and dreamy pastel furnishings. Doubles start at €395 (£282) per night, including breakfast.

HOW ABOUT THOSE ALGARVE VILLAS?

Every summer crowds descend on the long sandy beaches and pretty coves of the southern Portuguese coast. But this area isn't entirely the concrete suburbia of popular perception, although finding a well placed villa with private grounds is the key to enjoying the region. At the top end of the scale, Chapters by Abercrombie & Kent (0845 070 0610; www.villa-rentals.com) offers a select choice of properties in Portugal. Its Algarve portfolio includes the striking Quinta da Alegria. This beautifully devised modern villa sits in 13-hectare gardens 40 minutes from Faro airport and 12 minutes from the sandy beach at Carvoeiro. The views here are stunning, and the facilities second to none. Quinta da Alegria sleeps 12 and costs from £4,095 (£5,670 peak season) for seven nights.

For a less costly option, try the Villa Agency (01273 747811; www.thevillaagency.co.uk) which specialises in the Algarve and has a wide range of classic properties. Casa do Mar, set on a clifftop about 7km from Albufeira, is one of its most stylish villas. Sleeping eight, it costs £987 weekly (rising to £3,269 peak season). A 10 per cent discount is currently being offered for holidays in May.

SOMEWHERE OFF THE BEATEN TRACK?

Villas in the quieter reaches of northern Portugal are becoming very sought after, as you can expect to relax in a tranquil, green landscape away from the tourist hordes. Destination Portugal (01993 773269; www.destination-portugal.co.uk) offers attractive villas with pools in this region. Casa de Cubal, 11km from the coast at Vila Praia de Ancora, is a true haven, the gardens backed by vineyards with pine forests beyond. Casa de Cubal sleeps eight. A week costs £775 in low season to £1,368 in peak season.

SOME ARISTOCRATIC GRANDEUR?

The fertile north, particularly the Minho region, is studded with aristocratic manor houses. In the 1980s, concern about the dilapidated condition of many of these old buildings prompted the government to establish a grant system, which continues today. Funds for the refurbishment of private properties of historic merit are provided on condition that these are subsequently opened to tourists. Many of them are now B&Bs of varying degrees of eccentricity, hosted by blue-blooded aristocrats who welcome guests into houses filled with heirlooms and antiques.

Several umbrella organisations market this accommodation, the best known of which is Solares de Portugal (00 351 258 931 750; www.solaresdeportugal.pt or www.turihab.pt). Along with farm and estate buildings, it has 46 casas antigas, or old manor houses, on its books. One of the most splendid properties in this portfolio is the 17th-century Paco de Caheiros near the town of Ponte de Lima.The nine bedrooms are simply furnished with antique-style beds. But the gardens are a joy, with well tended terraces offering magnificent views. Doubles from €110 (£79), with breakfast.

Manor Houses of Portugal Promotions (0871 871 6745; www.manorhouses.com) is a rival group to Solares de Portugal and offers Quinta do Monteverde, close to lively Viana do Castelo. The 16th-century manor house was recently restored tothe original interior style. Double rooms cost from €100 (£71), with breakfast.

WHERE CAN I SEE REGAL SPLENDOUR?

Sintra, north-west of Lisbon, is a town of enormous charm. Its lovely location had particular appeal for the kings of Portugal who spent their summers here. Today, two former royal residences have become museums. Sintra's Palacio Nacional (00 351 219 106 840; www.ippar.pt) dominates the town. Originally a Moorish building, it was converted into a palace in the early 15th century and its roofline is duly resplendent with gothic battlements. The palace is open 10am-5.30pm daily except Wednesdays, admission €4 (£2.80).

Sintra's Palacio da Pena (00 351 219 105 340; www.ippar.pt) is altogether more modern - and mad. This extravaganza of ramparts, domes and towers was built in the mid 19th century on the site of an ancient convent. It was still in regal use when the royal family fled Portugal in 1910 and its rooms, complete with bizarre chandeliers and trompe l'oeil murals, have been preserved from this time. The palace is open daily except Mondays, 10am-5pm (until 7pm July to mid September). Entrance is €6 (£2.80).

If you're going to Sintra from Lisbon, stop at Queluz on the way. The 18th-century Palacio de Queluz (00 351 214 343 860; www.ippar.pt) is Portugal's finest piece of Rococo architectureThe palace is open daily except Tuesdays, 10am-5pm. Entrance is €4 (£2.80).

HOW DO I GET THERE?

Air links from airports all over Britain, both scheduled and charter, serve Faro, on the south coast.

To Lisbon, you can fly on TAP (0845 601 0932) from Heathrow or Gatwick or British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Heathrow; Monarch Scheduled (08700 40 50 40; www.flymonarch.com) from Gatwick (starting May 19).

To Porto, TAP flies from Heathrow, British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Gatwick and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted. Portugalia (part of TAP) flies to Lisbon from Manchester via Porto.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

Contact Tourism Portugal on 0845 355 1212, or visit www.visitportugal.com.

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