Most travelers have heard of the Algarve. Its award-winning golf courses, you-can-have-it-all resorts, and stunning and craggy coastlines have been the playground of sun-starved northern Europeans for decades. But most of them have relentlessly stuck to a very specific section of southern Portugal. The towns of Faro, Portimão, Albufeira, and Vilamoura (all of which are in the geographic center of this region) are so tourist-mobbed that you rarely hear the Portuguese language there. To escape all of that, locals have headed east—to quieter, simple hideaways that they’re all too happy to keep to themselves. But the recent unveiling of Grand House Algarve, a luxury hotel so far east you can see Spain from some of its bedroom windows, has brought a bit more polish to the area.
The Grand House Algarve, in the tiny town of Vila Real de Santo António, might be brand new, but the historic corner building it occupies actually housed the oldest hotel in the Algarve. Known as the Hotel Guadiana, it opened in 1926 for businessmen traveling through for the fish canning industry. The current ownership is big on preserving this heritage: “We didn’t really build a new five-star product,” says general manager Marita Barth. “We revitalized the oldest hotel of the Algarve to its former glory.”
Part of this revitalization was properly highlighting the many architectural details. Originally created by Swiss architect Ernesto Korrodi, there’s Art Nouveau, baroque, and even a splash of colonial style in the mix. The team at White and Kaki, a Portuguese interior design atelier, decided to adopt a similar mix-and-match aesthetic to make every room feel like part of an impossibly chic home.
A subtle palette of easy-on-the-eyes neutrals provides the foundation: taupe rugs, linen couches, billowing curtains in pale pink, bathroom floor tiles in geometric patterns, and warm wood bedside tables. More head-turning pieces are piled on top, including dramatic chandeliers collected through the years, porcelain vases from China, 1920s privacy screens, and even textiles from the Louis Vuitton fashion house.
The Grand Salon, the main dining room where all meals are served, has a more refined and more nautical style, with blue and white stripes throughout, as well as straw chairs and leaf-shaped ceiling fans. The floor-to-ceiling windows have views of the Guadiana River, which separates Portugal from Spain. Naturally, the kitchen serves Portuguese food, leaning specifically on Algarvean delicacies including muxama, or thinly sliced slivers of smoked tuna, and the dessert plate of almond mousse, carob biscuit, and port ice cream. Almond and carob are two of the region’s most enduring crops.
While the Grand House Algarve gives travelers a fabulous new place to stay, the wild, natural landscape that surrounds it also plays a significant role in why the hotel is so special. Secret beaches, salt marshes, flamingo colonies, sleepy little towns, sandbanks that appear at low tie, and crystal-clear lagoons are just some of the treasures of a destination that has surprisingly flown under the radar even as Portugal continues to skyrocket in popularity. “The discovery of the ‘sand Algarve,’ which is what you can call the east, has only just begun now,” Barth says. “This region is completely authentic and of simple beauty: no shopping malls, no water activity parks, no overcrowded beaches, no English breakfast.” To that end, the property organizes countless activities that show off all of the above: horseback riding on the beaches of Tavira, tours and tastings at an oyster farm, guided dives and swims with wild tuna, and a stroll through Vila Real de Santo António, a town rebuilt by Marques de Pombal to look just like downtown Lisbon. Or visitors can bike a mile to the property’s private beach club, which has dedicated sun loungers, an infinity pool, and a restaurant serving pizzas, fresh salads, and grilled local fish.
The easternmost tip of Portugal is only about 60 km from the Faro airport—meaning this part of the Algarve is actually not that far from the staggeringly popular areas. It’s just managed to fly under the radar, until now.
By Chandler Navarro for cntraveler.com