30 April 2020

Douro Valley
The Qiuinta for Graham
Bed & Breakfast, Casa de Canilhas
Good advice
Eighteenth century courtyard at the Six Senses
Fine wines and cheese at The Six Senses
Very happy hour at The Six Senses
Pan-fried cod at The Six Senses
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Portugal’s answer to Bordeaux and Napa

When we planned our trip to Portugal, we expected to write about Lisbon and Porto. And we did. But little did we know, as we drove up the west coast, we would find each stop along the way so fascinatingly different and captivating. The bottom line? Instead of the originally planned two articles, we completed a staggering eight.

As we motored north, we were intrigued, delighted, and wonderfully surprised time and again. First with Belem, then Cascais, Sintra and Obidos (all close to Lisbon), and then with Nazare, Coimbra and Aveiro. And despite listening to friends (who we thought were savvy veteran travellers and who told us “twenty-four hours in Porto is enough”), we found ourselves overwhelmed. The city was truly magical, and it kept us busy for five unforgettable days. So much for listening to advice.

And now, as we get into yet another distinctively different region, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Duoro Valley, here is our final Portugal experience and our incredible ninth feature, complete with apropos photographs. Now in the time of the coronavirus and self-hibernation, we have the time to give the beautiful Duoro valley the attention it so rightly deserves.

Most of the people I’ve spoken to take a boat up the Duoro River. But we found the very best way to get the most of the heavenly 100-plus-mile valley is by car. This special region is noted for its rolling hills, vineyards (half the valley’s grape output goes to making wine and half to port), charming little mountainside villages and scores of Quintas (wineries connected to the port houses back in Porto) scattered among blankets of grapevines and glimpses of the snaking river below. You cannot get this memorable and total experience from a boat, which is why we drove.

But we did take a short boat ride, (unfortunately, on the one rainy day in three weeks) just to see what it was like. Offering a very limited aspect of the valley, it confirmed the fact that we had made the right decision.

I had met the head of Graham’s, Paul Symington, in Hong Kong years before at a fancy vintage port tasting. I took him up on his invite to Porto ten years later, only to discover he had retired the year before. We were, however, invited to visit their Quinta, where the wine is made for Graham’s world-renowned port. To roll off the dozen or so names of the grapes grown in their vineyards would not mean much to you. For example, touriga national, tinto cao, tinto garcia, tinta roriz, touriga francesa…(see, what did I tell you?). Suffice to say, most of their wine goes towards making their award-winning Graham’s ports. And as I have mentioned previously, every restaurant we ate in during the three weeks we spent in Portugal offered either red or white wine, never specifying the grape or producer by name.

After a visit to their Quinta at the appointed reserved hour, it was time to head out and find our bed-and-breakfast. To locate the place where we planned to spend two nights was quite a challenge. We had to negotiate endless twisty turny narrow roads up, up, up the steep side of a mountain. Grateful it was not raining, and the sun was shining, we finally arrived, dizzy but not daunted, at our destination – the Casa de Canilhas. This better be good, we thought. And was it ever. A renovated manor house, filled with the owner’s family heirlooms and antique furnishings, invitingly cosy living room complete with a card table, pool table, books, and comfy sofas. Our room was also decked out with original vintage decor. We were instantly smitten and glad our online choice turned out to be as good, if not better than, its posting.

But then we opened the door to our balcony, stepped outside and audibly gasped. We could not believe our eyes. This had to be the most picturesque, dramatic, quintessential Douro Valley picture-postcard view. And it was all ours for two whole days…and nights. We didn’t even venture out to see what was happening in the nearby town of Mesao Frio. This might have been a mistake, as we were told most of the small towns and villages tucked into the rolling hills and along the river were very charming and worth exploring, plus they boasted quite a few exceptional places to eat. However, my mother always advised me to save something for next time…and so we did. Before departing, a scrumptious breakfast of freshly baked muffins topped with poached eggs and grilled ham was served to us on our private balcony, affording us a final opportunity to savour the unforgettable panorama below. Cliff snapped a few more pics of the priceless view, we said OBRIGADO to our most accommodating hostesses and began to make our way over hill and dale to our well-deserved reward at the end of our wonderful but arduous drive.

Six Senses, here we come.

We followed the river’s undulating curves as much as possible, stopped at the storybook villages along the way and detoured through rolling hills of non-stop vineyards until we finally arrived at our greatly anticipated destination. Greeted by young and pretty staff in jeans and casual shirts and sweaters, we immediately felt at home. Nothing ostentatious here despite its US$700-plus plus tab per night. And as we were led to our suite, we walked through corridors, over carpets and limestone floors, past soft leather seating areas, all in complimenting shades of a wonderfully soothing colour palette. Understated elegance? Subdued luxury? Quite simply, it was comfortable–not out to impress but to make you feel relaxed as though it was your own home, only nicer. The Six Senses is different from other premier resorts in many ways. First and foremost, it’s concerned not with impressing its guests and dazzling them with over-the-top opulence, but with their guests’ well-being. After all, the company began life in Asia as a wellness spa. And that underlying philosophy permeates the total experience.

Diametrically opposed to the kind of hotels that scream “Look how much money we spent!” boasting crystal chandeliers and gold-plated faucets, Six Senses, on the other hand, is a rarity. It doesn’t need to shout luxury because “it knows” and knows that you are the sort of person who does too. Needless to say, we could happily live in one of their fifty-seven guest rooms. That is why, even though we knew there were several excellent restaurants in nearby towns, we never left Six Senses. Instead, we used the spa, had a couple of massages, swam in the marvellous pool, walked around the grounds, which are extensive, and had our breakfast and dinner right there. The first day we also had lunch, which was a greedy mistake as breakfast was a never-ending horn of plenty. No filler or garni to be seen. Maybe we were hypnotized, or they put something in our cranberry juice (freshly squeezed), because for three days we were in a stupor, gliding around the premises, feet hardly touching the ground.

However, we did perk up at one of their tutored in-depth wine tastings. Not only does Six Senses in the Douro grow their own organic herbs and veggies, but as they are surrounded by vineyards known for the best wines in the Douro, their cellar is exceptional. So, adding up their fabulous food, seriously comfy suites, gorgeous surroundings, stupendous location, vintage wines, incredibly friendly and pampering staff and overall wellness philosophy, Six Senses is nothing short of a slice of heaven on earth.

Text Sandi Butchkiss / Photos Cliff Shaffran