Unexpected, that’s what it is. A design hotel worthy of Palm Springs in the middle of the mountains in Portugal? Have you finally gone mad? In the middle of a national park? Just like… there?
It’s true! Every word of it! It’s called Casa de São Lourenço and it is the second highest hotel in Portugal, second only to its sister hotel Casa das Penhas Douradas a short drive round the side of a mountain heading, obviously, up.
But where Casa das Penhas Douradas is sort of what you were expecting from a hotel in the mountains, with its rural but modern feel, its wood everywhere, its comfy cosy furniture in front of wood burners, its indoor/outdoor vibe, its hikers turning up for tea, Casa de São Lourenço is an altogether different proposition.
It’s actually been doing business as a hotel since 1948 as a set up they called Inns, a bit like a Spanish Paradores – Spain is just over there, beyond that mountain, by the way – where the government took over buildings of interest and made them into reasonably priced stop-overs to encourage domestic tourism. And even though the original brick-built building is still very much part of things, Casa de São Lourenço has more than moved on up. Right up to five stars, in fact.
But let’s focus on the experience before we get to the facts. Walk through that original building into a lobby that is low-key and snooky – oh and look into that funny little chapel-like room there and take in the weird felt sculpture thing that seems to be growing all over it: more of that later.
But it’s when you pass the reception and step into the lounges and restaurants that you’ll need your inhaler. This addition is Slim Paley mid-century delicious with floor-to-ceiling windows to let those views flood in. It’s here in this spacious light-pelted dining room that you’ll sit with a vinho verde and just watch the sun and clouds paint colours on those mountains (too much? Blame the vinho verde). It really is something. We found ourselves finding any excuse to sit out there – cocktails, tea, anything – just to absorb it. Even the view across to the other suites in the hotel, past the wire chairs casting shadows on the concrete, is delicious in a very ‘modern house in the desert’ kind of way.
Not that we didn’t love being in our room, which did in fact have the same views. Up a flight of stairs and down some modern corridors is our suite, lined on one side with floor-to-ceiling felt curtains (we’re coming to the felt, hold your horses) in a deep burgundy, with a vaulted ceiling painted white and lavish views from two step-out windows. It’s gorgeous in summer but you can only imagine how delicious this would be with a wintery snowy landscape to look out on.
And as for the food down in that São Lourenço restaurant, with its myriad stars cut from felt (there it is again!) hanging from the roof, it’s willfully regional – we’re in the Beiras region, by the way, and the national park is the Serra da Etrela – with Chef Manuel Figueira masterminding a menu of fresh, healthy ingredients.
As for what there is to do, the spa and swimming pool-with-a-view downstairs should take up some of your time (the wild planting through the windows of the treatment rooms is gorgeous!) while you can go on accompanied hikes through the easy bits of the mountains, to check out the original buildings when this was earmarked as a place to recover from respiratory illnesses in a landscape that is a dead ringer for all those old Western movies you’ve tried to avoid over the years. Forests, churches on hilltops, sheep, rabbits, it’s Heidi-licious!
You can also take a trip into the handkerchief-sized town where the Burel family, the people who own the two hotels we’ve been talking about and still run the wool factory, have transformed the town into a centre for the coolest blankets, slippers, backpacks… everything, all made out of a wool felt, the same that’s dotted throughout the hotel. Take your card, you will not be able to resist the blankets, we guarantee.
And what a deliciously unexpected part of Portugal, which you tend to think of as beachy! In fact, next time we come, we’re doing Lisbon – or Porto – both fairly easy to get from to here, then to Casa de São Lourenço with a toe in Casa das Penhas Douradas then on to Salamanca, one of the most beautiful towns in Spain. Then home from Madrid. If only to stock up on those Burel blankets. Or vinho verde. Or those crazy-ass views from Casa de São Lourenço. It’s what is known in the business as a win-win-win.