The Algarve’s newest luxury hotel brings something totally new to the region.
I had been hearing a lot of late about the new hotel that has opened right on the border, overlooking the Guadiana river in Vila Real de Santo António (or VRSA for short), and finally my curiosity got the better of me. We booked in at Grand House for a night last Friday and it was only when we exited off the A22 motorway, just before reaching the bridge to Spain, that I realised we had not been to VRSA since they opened the bridge back in 1991.
I am a little ashamed to admit this for I always knew VRSA as a handsome riverfront town with its “Pombalino” style centre designed on a very similar grid to that of downtown Lisbon, both having been rebuilt after the great earthquake of 1755. But the truth is that I, like so many other residents of the Algarve, all but forgot about this small and charming town once we no longer had to drive into the centre and catch the old ferry across to Ayamonte (Spain).
This year, however, has seen the opening of what I consider to be the most interesting new hotel in the Algarve of recent years. Actually, I should say re-opening, as this building originally opened as a hotel back in the 1920s, but it stood empty for 20 years or so before being bought by the current owners and lovingly restored to something far beyond the former glory of the old Grande Hotel Guadiana.
The façade of the building is pretty much exactly as it would have looked when first opened in the 1920s and there are also many details inside that remain true to the original, most impressive of which is the original stairwell and floor in the lobby, painstakingly restored and quite magnificent. Another old relic is the tiny bar, where today mixologist Saúl makes great cocktails.
The rooms are exceedingly comfortable, some smaller, some larger, some with views over the river, others looking over the rooftops of the historic building of the old town at the rear. No detail has been overlooked, from the finest Egyptian cotton sheets to supremely comfortable beds and pillows from Germany.
This is a heritage hotel in the grand old style, but a small property with just 31 rooms and suites. The design, at the hands of Algarve-based interior designers White & Kaki, reminded us a little of Raffles in Singapore, on a far smaller scale of course, especially in the dining room where wicker chairs, huge feature ceiling fans and the ornate windows overlooking the river lend a tropical-cum-colonial feel to the space.
We arrived late afternoon and, after checking into the hotel, headed off to try out the hotel’s Beach Club. Located at the mouth of the Guadiana river with a tiny beach protected by the breakwater, this is an altogether more modern affair with an infinity pool overlooking the estuary, an ideal spot for a sundowner cocktail and, although I did not try the food, a fish and seafood restaurant which, I am told, is well worth a visit in its own right.
Back at the hotel, we were booked in for dinner and, after cocktails at the bar, took our table in the Grand Salon restaurant, where chef Jan Stechemesser and his team cook up a menu based mostly around seasonal, local produce. The cooking is modern Mediterranean with the occasional nod towards Asian cuisine. There is a tasting menu, but we opted for à la carte, enjoying dishes such as a delicious trilogy of quail as a starter, followed by perfectly executed seafood raviolis.
Considering the quality and the setting, the menu is very sensibly priced, with starters ranging between €10 and €18 and mains between €18 and €29. A very well-chosen wine list completes the offering.
Finally, what stood out most of all during our all-too-short visit was the charm and enthusiasm of the staff. The hotel may be old-style heritage in some ways, but it is run by a young and energetic team who cannot do enough to please.
Double rooms from around €350 including breakfast during the summer season. Off season rates start around €200.
By Patrick Stuart