Portugal on the Plush

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We recently tagged along on a FAM trip to the beautiful country of Portugal with Escapade Vacations for a look at the properties and itineraries included in the company’s new luxury Portugal program. The reason for the FAM was a simple one, explains Jennifer Ferman, Escapade Vacations’ destination specialist. “This summer,” she points out, “Escapade is coming out with a new brochure, Discover Magical Portugal, that’s going to be the only custom luxury Portugal product offering on the market and this trip is an early look at this new product.

“We really feel looking forward that doing Portugal in a luxury way is the wave of the future—specialty hotels, private one-on-one guides, vineyard visits and wonderful restaurants.” And to expose travel agents to that, the company selected what Ferman calls “…agents from some of the top agencies in the country—we’ve got people from Garber Travel, from Vacation.com, and from Ensemble agencies.”

Upon arrival in Porto—Portugal’s northern gateway—we were met by an Escapade guide and driver and it’s off to the city’s historical center and the Hotel Infante Sagres, a five-star eclectic property that’s a combination of traditional elegance with an art deco bent and European funk. Architecturally, it was a traditional late-19th century building, but from an interior design perspective, it’s a little bit of everything with a mix of elegant traditional furnishings and contemporary flair. A huge fiber optic chandelier hangs down through a beautiful wrought iron spiral stairway that winds its way up five floors, juxtaposed against an enormous and genuinely awesome stained glass wall that was created in Lisbon at the very end of the 20th century. Wrought iron and tiles are everywhere in the reception area, which also boasts a tiny elevator with the old fashioned separate door and furnished in red, lush wall coverings and a white—what looks like a naugahyde-covered—bench. The bar is part of the reception area and resembles more of a living room than a bar—especially so due to the lack of a full-time bartender. Rooms are lush with varied color schemes and the marble baths are large with full tub and shower. The suites, too, are spacious and furnished with a large collection of antiques, giving them a truly elegant ambiance.

Porto’s UNESCO World Heritage site is comprised mostly of the city’s small city center that includes the elegant city hall, the stock exchange, the major concert hall, and the Casa de Musica. Another must-see is the totally unique and beautiful Lello Bookshop, a major city landmark since the early part of the 20th century.

Meals here are an event. Down by the Douro River there’s the Adega E Presentura Transmontana II, roughly translated as the ham from the other side of the mountain—a mouthful, to be sure, but then again, so is the food. This is a Portuguese tapas-style restaurant and the food never stops coming, neither does the wine. This area of Porto, where the hotel is located, was where ships came down from the Douro Valley, where the region’s main wine production is located. These ships carried the big barrels of wine from the vineyards and wineries down the river to the town and the tradesmen who bought and sold them. Today, those ships do still ply the Douro, but they’re full of tourists, not wine barrels.

The next morning after a leisurely breakfast, we were off for the 60-mile trek from Porto to our first stop en-route—a visit to a family winery—then on to our overnight stay in a small town called Amarante, a trip that took us up the Douro River to the Douro Valley, home to some of the richest and most popular vineyards in Portugal. Here, your clients will find a treasure chest of wine selections that range from the country’s famous port—an aperitif regulated and guarded with no less scrutiny than the diamond fields of South Africa—to a wondrous and delicious selection of white and red wines, all created, it seems, to go hand-in-hand with the absolutely mind-boggling and delicious food that’s offered throughout Portugal.

A perfect example of this is what we experienced in our first stop at the Pacheca Wine Estate, a family-owned vineyard and estate where the family resides in a manor house that goes back to the 18th century, with remnants of 15th and 16th century artifacts throughout. Today, however, it’s a boutique winery founded three generations ago by its patriarch who helped modernize and establish the production and vineyard practices that have made the Douro wines so popular today. The owner, Serpa Pimentel, has his whole family working for him, including his son who handles the marketing and sales of their wines; a daughter who oversees the vineyard operations and wine production; another daughter who supervises the hospitality and business aspect and his wife who handles the incredibly impressive traditional meal presentations for visitors. Oh, and there’s also the aging family dog Pipo, who doesn’t let a little arthritis keep him from his duties as visitor escort who faithfully, if not totally enthusiastically, follows along where everyone goes.