The first thing to caress your senses as you step from your vehicle is the heady cocktail of sea and pine, balanced finely on the breeze in the very south of the Centro de Portugal region. From the outside, the Areias do Seixo Hotel – less than one hour from Lisbon – and its accompanying residences, look pleasant, neat, orderly – all you would expect of a well-regarded establishment.
But once you enter the hotel through its substantial wooden doors, aged by wind and water, their rusting locks and keys still intact, the senses are once again aroused. You are greeted by the sound of running water, a cooling space of natural wood, glass and steel, dried wildflowers and living plants; a reception desk moulded from the wood found at the seas edge, a montage of space executed with excellence.
Areias do Seixo Hotel
One can easily ‘build’ space, but inhabiting that space with the atmosphere is where the art truly lies. The owners of the hotel, Marta, and Gonçalo Alves, (no, this hotel is not managed by some anonymous generic brand) have somehow managed to conjure this art with the ease of master magicians. It requires only artistic talent to ‘stylise’ the spaces of a hotel into something resembling a photo-shoot from a glossy, commercial magazine. Here at the Areias do Seixo, that style appears carefully chosen, but naturally conceived.
Gonçalo, tanned and bearded, dressed in shorts and tee-shirt, is the epitome of welcome as he explains the ethos of the hotel; a simple desire to create a unique environment where everyone, from whatever part of the world they may come, would feel both familiar and welcome.
As a surfer (born and raised by the neighbouring sea) Gonçalo, and Marta have chosen the details which inhabit the hotel wisely, and with the wisdom of connoisseurs. It is said that surfers learn to embrace the earth and the seas around them; its wonders, its nature, its beauty and its protection. Inside the Areias do Seixo it appears that all of these elements have been combined, most especially that element of protection, through recycling, the use of sustainable energy sources, its gardens – which lie between the hotel and the sand dunes – providing food for the delectable kitchens – and a proactive engagement between its guests and the splendours of nature which lie just outside its all-encompassing windows.
Accommodation at the hotel and residences are so tastefully unique that words will never do them justice. Throughout the 14 individually designed hotel rooms and its 5 accompanying villas it is suffice to say, that through the combination of attention to detail, an undisputed passion, the craft of artistic creation, and a backlight of love in what they are doing, Marta and Gonçalo have surpassed the standards of luxury set anywhere in the world.
After a sumptuous buffet breakfast – fresh fruits, cheeses and honey, steaming baked bread, eggs, and cold meats – attended to by staff who appear to be genuinely concerned about the needs of the guests in their care, Gonçalo appears (again in shorts and tee-shirt) in time for a guided walk to the nearby Praia do Mexilhoeira and the opportunity to collect mussels fresh from the rocks. As we leave the hotel for the seashore a quartet of twenty-somethings is returning from a morning run. Out of breath, with faces reddened by the brisk sea breeze, they manage a smile and a cheery wave to Gonçalo, “What a beautiful place you have,” they shout, and they are right.
The route to the beach is signposted in tastefully hand-painted calligraphy, written on driftwood arrows, fixed to driftwood poles. The land is rough, unkempt, natural. “All of this is protected, it is a nature reserve,” Gonçalo says looking pleased. We pass a bonfire pit, surrounded by natural wooden stools and encircled by a string of coloured bulbs. “In the evenings we come here to sit around the fire, sing songs, drink wine and make friends,” he adds placing an arm on my shoulder, “I think you are a singer, my friend.” He is wearing a wide toothy grin. It is a far cry from the karaoke sessions of the high-rise hotels to the south.
Through the pine forest, across the wiregrass dunes, and on towards a set of painted white steps leading to the long white beach below, the sea comes into view. It is vast. Grey but not grey, blue but not blue, under the early morning blanket of waspish cloud the water becomes a chameleon, changing shade and hue, alive to our presence. Down on the beach the cliffs tower above us, evidence of when the ancient landmass of Pangaea split apart, tearing the Iberian peninsula from Gondwana land. Fossil hunters still come here in an attempt to discover traces of that long gone time.
On the distant rocks a group of men and women hunt the pools left by the receding sea, for octopus. Using only a long, baited stick and a steel trident, the hunters search from pool to pool. The sound of the breaking surf is constant, a flock of gulls rises effortlessly into the facing wind at our approach. Out on the horizon, a tablecloth of grey cloud carries the threat of a storm, a flash of lightening bursts within its mass, the hunters, who know the sea and its moods like a mother, begin to pack for home.
After filling his basket with fresh, marine blue mussels, Gonçalo leads us back towards the hotel. The first drops of rain begin to fall, the hunters had felt it in their bones.
Back at the hotel, damp from our return, the air is warm and welcoming once again. Rain lashes the windows, but the guests who sit around the tables, engaged in conversation or quietly reading, appear to possess a serenity unburdened by the outside weather. Here, unlike other places I have visited, the hotel is the destination, even when inside the atmosphere and those all-encompassing windows convey the feeling of being outside in the elements, outside with nature, outside with the sea and all its beauty.
As I return to my room for a welcome shower I pass a blackboard. The same hand which had so artistically created the signposts to the sea, announced, ‘All you need is love – Yoga at 10:00. Love, Share, Happiness, Be Inspired. Love is all you need’. Somehow, I felt peacefully at home.
Areias do Seixo – Tasting Portugal
In the kitchen of the Areias do Seixo Hotel, Chef Tiago Emanuel Santos is pursuing a goal. With the aid of his young and highly enthusiastic team, that goal is to bring Portuguese history and culture to life through the gastronomy of long-forgotten menus. The amicable chef spends much of his free time researching stories of places, foods and people and the recipes which have slipped from collective memory which bind them together. With the assistance of Rui Madeira, the Areias do Seixo’s resident sommelier, Chef Santos presents a fourteen course Dégustation menu which reads like a journey through the geography and history of the Portuguese nation, in a reinvention and revival of its classic tastes.
Presenting the first of the tasting menu – a solitary vinegar infused carrot, served as a living plant in an earthenware pot – Chef Santos explains; “Recreating these lost menus we only use Portuguese products. But, you will see and taste some things you haven’t seen before.” Like a magician the chef produced a firm rectangle of yellow something from a plate – cake perhaps. “Do you see this?” says the Chef with a sly smile, “this is one of the best desserts you will ever taste in your life. But that is for later…”
Through the journey of culinary discovery you can expect your taste buds to experience a myriad of gastronomic adventures; sometimes playful, occasionally serious and respectful to the stories the dishes symbolise, but always inventive. A humble Pataniscas de Bacalhau; a wafer thin, deep-fried crisp infused with the flavour of that Portuguese staple of dried cod-fish, bacalhau, the melt-in-mouth morsel tastes like a complete meal. As part of a sharing plate the pataniscas are complemented by quail egg with tomato served in a small bowl and eaten in one delicious gulp; pork crackling; a fried cod dumpling and dried squid served with giant sea bass roe. “This combination of tastes,” says Chef Santos, “is a ‘Saudade‘ – a remembering of things from your past, from your history and a longing for them.”
The smiling chef then presents the most simplistic of his evening’s treats; bread, olive oil and butter served on an ocean stone. Three types of bread (rustic corn bread, a delicate white roll with the consistency of a cloud, and a nuttier, crispy farmhouse), three types of butter (goat, sheep and cow), and a small soaking-dish of what the chef calls the best oil in Portugal, ‘Angelica’ from the town of Evora.
Meanwhile, sommelier Rui Madeira pours a white Quinta de Chocapalha (a winery a mere stone’s throw from the hotel) in preparation for the next course, a course which comes with a story. The dish is a simple, a working man’s broth of beans, garlic and pig lard. According to Chef Santos, the broth was first sold on the streets of Lisbon by a solitary woman as a means of income. The working men of the time paid what they could afford for a bowl of this nourishing goodness; even if you had nothing, adds Chef Santos, she would offer a bowl for free. All of this is a representation of the Portuguese spirit of generosity at the table and in life. “That woman will continue to live through our menu,” the chef adds proudly.
I don’t wish to spoil the surprises which await you at Chef Santos’ table of Dégustation, or allude to the journey through the vineyards of Portugal’s wines, lovingly and expertly selected and paired to dance in attendance with the tastes of clams (clam village – another story worth hearing); horse mackerel; inventive sorbets, a dish simply described by the chef as ‘The Bomb’ – trust me, it is; beef to die for and much more. And yes, Chef Tiago Emanuel Santos was right, that small rectangle of yellowness he tempted me with early on… It was the best dessert I’ve ever tasted in my life.
This Areias do Seixo Hotel post is a part of a series of 10 posts I wrote based on my journey to the Oeste Region in July 2016. Please find the links o the other articles bellow:
This Alcobaça Monastery in Centro de Portugal post was written by my inspiring friend Brendan Harding as part of my ongoing collaboration with the Centro de Portugal Tourism Board. All opinions are my own. Photo credits to Emanuele Siracusa.