Tucked away in a secluded corner of the Algarve, The Grand House is a new and beautifully restored boutique hotel. It is a sophisticated five-star world away from the crowded beaches further west. Originally built in 1926, it has been extensively remodelled yet still evokes that bygone era of grandeur. Think Great Gatsby meets White Mischief and you get the idea.
The graceful building reclines on a palm-lined boulevard overlooking both the wide Guadiana River and the Mediterranean Sea on the edge of the small town of Vila Real de Santo António, and overlooks the marina where yachts fawn at the grand dame’s feet, their lanyards tinkling like applause.
There are only 24 rooms, and six beautifully-appointed grande suites positioned around the original atrium-like staircase. Every room is spacious, airy and light with bathrooms big enough to dance in. They all differ in design and décor; some with dormer windows recessed into angled roofs, some with floor to ceiling windows, French balconies, and a river or town view. The feel throughout is muted, peaceful and harmonious – successfully marrying the opulence of Art Deco with contemporary convenience.
The Grand Salon area is on-trend boiserie and huge windows which open wide to catch the sea breeze. Breakfast is served until 11am – how utterly civilised. The food is organic, locally sourced, delicious beyond description and fresh in concept, execution and taste… it’s Relais & Châteaux. Dress for dinner early to spend an hour or so in the timeless bar where it’s easy to imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald ordering a Gin Rickey. Try one of the fish dishes with sautéed vegetables so sublime it looks like art. It would be rude to decline dessert, so don’t pass. The chocolate souffle is so good you can hear angels singing.
Drag yourself away from the cannot-say-no dining and catch the 15-minute ferry to neighbouring Ayamonte in Spain or walk into town to do some boutique browsing. Channel Daisy Buchanan and purchase floaty summer attire and a super large-brimmed hat with flowing ribbons. Stay late, nightlife starts around 10 or 11pm, to enjoy live entertainment and dancing in the town square. You’ll see many families enjoying the cool evening and very few forasteiros. This is the real Portugal.
Expect a stratospheric level of service seldom seen in hotels nowadays from the staff who can make excursion reservations, or share places known only to locals, all with authentic pleasure to help without being obsequious.
Book a visit to the outdoor spa situated on the edge of town among the working salt pans; you can laze in the silken clay counting castles on the hillside after a GH Salt Body Detox. It’s a lovely unusual experience and is unisex. Tips: Take a shower cap if you don’t want mud in your hair, a wide-brimmed hat (see how handy that shopping trip was?), and wear a dark coloured bathing suit. Take some cash to spend at the pretty bamboo shop with its own herb garden and buy the famed feather-soft Flor de Sal flakes. A fresh juice on the patio offers some quiet time in dappled shade and the family who have run it for the last 150 years will happily share the fascinating ecology and history of the area.
Plan on spending an entire day at the hotel’s relaxed yet chic Grand Beach Club at the mouth of the river and the sea. It’s a few kilometres from the Grand House along the boulevard. Take one of the hotel’s bicycles – it’s an easy flat cycle even for the supremely unfit – or walk along the pretty patterned boulevard with its trees and lawn areas. If you do not order the legendary ceviche to go with your cocktail, you are doing yourself a disservice.
After this trip back in time you’ll return home with a fabulous tan, a bevy of turndown gifts, a super large wide-brimmed hat, sand between your toes, a smile in your heart and the desire to return as soon as possible.
171 Avenida da República / Vila Real de Santo António / Portugal / Rates from €370
Horse riding in the nearby Ria Formaso Nature Reserve
Olive or oyster farm visit
Beachfront art class
Day trip to Seville
Catamaran or yacht cruise with paddle boarding
Fishing with local fishermen and resident cats on the breakwater point at Foz do Guadiana
Border crossing zip line from Portugal to Spain
Jacqui is a Johannesburg-based freelance writer and best-selling author. She is a former game ranger and a keen traveller always looking for the unique, unusual and unexploited.