Most travelers to Portugal no doubt have Lisbon on their list of must-visit cities. But it’s actually in Lisbon’s outskirts that lies the real gem of the country. Sintra, located just forty minutes or so away, has long been the summer and vacation destination of centuries of Portugal’s monarchs- and for good reason. Nestled between the Sintra Mountains and the Atlantic Coast, this colorful city- also a UNESCO World Heritage site- boasts a charming downtown and centuries of rich culture and history all set amongst a lush natural setting. And it’s this jewel that Penha Longa Hotel, Spa and Golf Resort calls home.
Penha Longa welcomes its visitors to “walk in the footsteps of royalty” – and quite literally so. The resort was the former holiday estate home of the Portuguese royal family and now houses 194 guest rooms, five restaurants, a Six Senses spa, two golf courses and a landmark monastary. The property is also managed by the Ritz Carlton company- and comes with state of the art amenities and a hearty dose of the brand’s signature five star standard of service. I had the pleasure of checking in for two nights (a minimum stay, in my opinion) on my recent trip to Portugal, and left with nothing but fond memories.
In many ways Penha Longa reflects the natural beauty of the Sintra. Much like the rest of the countryside, the colorful buildings of the resort contrast beautifully against the lush green hills and crystal lakes of the grounds. The resort is split into the main building and a historic area which houses the property’s monastery and spa and the resort is connected with charming tree lined paths that just beg for romantic strolls. The property also features two professional golf courses, five restaurants and luxury shuttle service to get you from one area to another.
Each room at Penha Longa has a private balcony overlooking the rolling hills or crystal clear lakes of the resort. I checked into a Premium Room, which features 500 sq feet of space (and that’s the size of my New York apartment) which included a sunken living and working area that leads into a large balcony. The rooms are equipped with all amenities including high speed internet access, flat screen TV, iPod station, Nespresso coffee machine, robes, and the “Ritz-Carlton Sleeping Experience”- plush feather beds and high count Egyptian cotton linens. The rooms are outfitted in rich warm colors fitting for the estate of a royal family. From the service to the decor, staying at Penha Longa exudes that royal treatment.
(view from my balcony)
The food at Penha Longa, I think, is one of the standout features of the resort. Restaurants in Portugal can be hit or miss for the American palette- and truthfully, I found most of my dishes to be misses. For many travelers, it can be difficult to tell some of the local dishes apart and I found many of them to be a bit on the heavier side. However, Arola, my favorite restaurant at the property reinterprets the local cuisine in festive and flavorful way and the tapa style makes it easy to try a bit of everything.
You’ll have to start your meal with some dishes to share- such as the restaurant’s signature patatas braves stuffed with spicy tomato sauce and topped with cream , and croquettes made with local Iberian ham and fried in the region’s own olive oil. Continue by tasting a selection of the restaurant’s offerings from the seas- Portuguese sardines marinated with passionfruit and octopus with confit potatoes and pepper aioli. For the main dish, I chose the classic Fideua, pictured above, (a Paella like dish made with thin noodles instead of rice) prepared with squid and seafood in broth. Other options include a range of seafood from grouper to sea bass and lobster or solid ‘turf’ options such as suckling pig, lamb and beef. I found that the only complaint I had was that I couldn’t try everything on the menu. Arola definitely calls for repeat visits!
In the evenings, Arola turns into a trendy lounge. The fashionable and minimalist space fills with the sounds of their resident DJ or live performances from Wednesday to Saturday nights. The bar offers more than 80 cocktails so I’ll have to dispense the same advice again – don’t try them all at once and definitely come back for more!
The property’s other 2 restaurants- Il Mercato and Midori serve Italian and Japanese food respectively in elegant settings that overlook the property’s greens. I also had the chance to dine at Il Mercado which offers a menu of rustic Italian cuisine with a comfortable homemade feel. Il Mercado is famous for their risotto dishes which are prepared in a variety of ways from lime and scallop to asparagus and truffle.
(foie gras risotto with truffle- decadant)
The Six Senses Spa at Penha Longa is located just down the road from the main building in the resort’s historic center, and the entire spa grounds is enveloped in a haven of colorful tranquillity The 1500 sq meter spa features nine treatment rooms, a fitness center, gardens, a waterfall and their own private pools. While the spa offers a wide range of treatments on the menu, two in particular are unique to the Penha Longa and performed with fresh ingredients picked from the spa’s own garden.
The first is the Mystique Journey- a 2 hour and 20 minute service that I like to think of as the holy grail of body treatments. The journey starts with a cooling eucalyptus foot bath and continues with a full body exfoliation using ground olive kenals and lemon grind, followed by a long stroke and hot stone massage massage. The treatment concludes with a natural facial so you’re relaxed (literally) from head to toe. The second signature treatment, Total Well Being, is a little bit shorter at 80 minutes and is centered around the holistic Penha Longa facial. The treatment ends with a deep cleansing back exfoliation and an intensive back massage using hot stones and aromatic oils.
No trip to Portugal is complete without a stop in Sintra. In fact, contrary to many travel guides, I would recommend staying in Sintra and doing day trips to Lisbon rather than the other way around. Life there is slow and relaxing and Penha Longa invites their guests to spend days and nights luxuriating much like the centuries of royalty before you.