GETTING THERE & AROUND
From Porto, the coastal town of Santa Cruz was a 2.5hr drive south. Getting to Santa Cruz was easy but we actually had a pretty hard time finding our hotel because GPS was not recognizing the address. We knew we were close though, so we just worked our way toward the coast and eventually found it. Again, in hindsight, I see there are GPS coordinates, as well as driving directions on their site (but we didn’t have access to wifi at the time we were driving). This was the last leg of our trip, and our plan going into it was to spend the majority of time just enjoying our hotel, the beach and our immediate surrounding area.
We did take one day trip to Sintra, which was about a 1 hr drive south of Santa Cruz. Parking in Sintra is a bit challenging due to the crowds, and the roads are narrow and windy. Most people park, or arrive via train from Lisbon, and then take busses up the hills to the various palaces. Fortunately for us, the palace we were most interested in was an easy 10 minute walk from the town center, so we were able to avoid all of the bus craziness.
Areias Dos Seixo
Praceta do Atlantico, Mexilhoeira, Povoa de Penafirme, 2560-046 A-Dos-Cunhados, Portugal
There was a reason we saved this hotel for last, in addition to getting us back within 45 minutes of Lisbon for our return flight, we knew this place would be the mac daddy grand finale of our already fabulous trip. It was definitely a splurge for us, at about $325/night, which included breakfast. The overall design of Areis Dos Seixo, including the grounds and cliffside setting, is stunning. Each of the 10 individually and exquisitely decorated rooms within the main building has wood burning fireplaces, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the lawn and the crashing Atlantic below.
I had requested a specific room when we booked, because I’d fallen completely in love with the bathroom, which had a sunken concrete soaking tub, fireplace and a live tree. When we checked in and they showed us to our room, we quickly realized it wasn’t the room we’d reserved. I felt a bit silly being as disappointed as I was about it, because the room they did give us also had a ridiculously gorgeous bathroom, albeit sans fireplace and live tree. John sweetly tried to rectify the situation with the front desk, because he knew I’d been fantasizing about that bathroom for months, but no amount of “but it’s her 40th birthday” was going to change that, as they had already given the room to someone else.
This place is all about creating an ambiance of nature, serenity and romance. The candles in the room are magically lit when you return from dinner. Music is piped into speakers throughout the suite. There are live full-size trees lining the steps from the reception area down to the rooms and lawn area. There’s a massive fire pit circle created with driftwood and tree limbs that were gathered after a huge storm wrecked havoc just prior to the opening of the hotel, where guests gather at twilight for a glass of wine. There’s even a super cool pod-like swing filled with pillows and blankets, which easily fits two people, on the edge of a wooden platform where they screen outdoor movies some nights.
The large open bar and restaurant area features chunky rustic wooden tables mixed with elegant chic chandeliers and a menu that highlights produce from the hotel’s rooftop-garden. Servers are top-notch and quick to provide area recommendations or any advice to improve your stay. The breakfast buffet has a great selection and is spread out throughout the open kitchen area. You can even have eggs or an omelette made-to-order and freshly brewed coffee, all included in the room rate, which takes it up a notch to being more than your typical European Continental breakfast. Lunch on our first day included a pumpkin soup, made with pumpkins from their own garden, that was divine.
The only meal we didn’t love at the restaurant were the dinners. Each night, the menu featured three options: one meat entree, one fish entree and one vegetarian option, so not a ton of choice, for €25 each. The first night I wasn’t feeling either the meat or fish options, and the veggie choice said “grilled head of lettuce”. I thought, surely that must be an English translation issue, because how on Earth could they charge 25 Euros for a head of lettuce, so I went ahead and ordered it. Sure enough, it was literally a grilled head of lettuce on top of some sort of sauce. The presentation was lovely, and the sauce was tasty, but there were no sides, no protein, just a head of lettuce. And the portions of all the entrees were actually quite small, although they do a fabulous job of making them look impressive, by serving everything on large smooth rocks. The phrase “put it on a rock” has since become a running joke for us as the embodiment of trying to compensate for something small.
The room hiccup and the dinners are the only reason we wouldn’t rate this a perfect 5 star experience, but would we go back? HELL YES.
Over the sand dunes, at the bottom of about 100 steps down the jagged cliffs (so pack lightly), is the insanely beautiful Mexilhoeira beach. It’s one beach over from the much more crowded Santa Cruz beach. We just about had the place to ourselves other than a handful of surfers who appeared to double as lifeguards. It doesn’t seem to be a swimming beach, or at least maybe just not under certain conditions, but it’s storybook gorgeous.
Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra
Sintra is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for its colorfully ornate palaces & castles. We skipped the more touristed Pena National Palace and Castle of the Moors in favor of focusing on the Gothic-style Quinta da Regaleira. The exterior and interior of the palace are pretty cool, particularly the whimsical gargoyles on the turrets. But what makes this place so fascinating are the labyrinths of gardens, full of hidden moss-covered tunnels and wells that drop hundreds of feet into the ground, and secret passageways that wind like mazes throughout the property. It feels like something straight out of Indiana Jones.