Setting a wellness resort in the midst of the world's largest region of mountain vineyards may seem a bit counterintuitive. Surely the temptation to indulge in Portugal's finest wines and ports would be overwhelming?
When the eco-resort brand Six Senses opened its first European resort in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Douro Valley in 2015, it introduced to Portugal the Asian concept of holistic wellness. Europeans typically visit rigidly formulaic medical spas, or they go to holiday resorts, to sunbake, dine, drink and have a massage or two. Spas that offer integrated wellness, combining nutritious, organic food, with exercise, meditation, body treatments and sleep therapy, are not common in Europe.
Guests who arrive for a stay in the famous wine and port-producing region are generally motivated by the opportunity to partake in some really sensational wines. "The issue we faced is that this is a wine destination, so people came here to get loaded," says Six Senses Spa and Wellness Director Javier Suarez, who was previously spa manager at Six Senses Yao Noi in Thailand. "They didn't have the energy for activities because they were hung over."
Wine and wellness aren't necessarily incompatible, Suarez points out. Quite the opposite: the health-giving properties of wine are well known. And guests who are determined to kick up their heels at night and overindulge "can still come to me in the morning and detox," he smiles.
The former quinta, or agricultural estate, which dates back to the 18th century, was previously the Aquapura Hotel, Portugal's "first six star hotel", a ritzy establishment with dark walls and black carpets, where indulgence in wine and food was very much on the menu. Six Senses has stylishly and expensively overhauled the property to be more in keeping with the barefoot-chic of its Asian resorts. The emphasis now is on the beauty of the surrounding countryside and delivering health and wellness through a number of innovative programs in line with the Six Senses corporate core value of environmental sustainability.
The tennis court has been transformed into a lush, carefully tended organic garden, which supplies much of the produce for the kitchen. The hotel has partnered with local farmers to provide fruit and vegetables with a low carbon footprint. Wherever possible, preference is given to the employment of people living in the Douro Valley. Water and electricity use is monitored daily and sent to a sustainability officer at the group's headquarters in Bangkok for analysis. Bottled mineralised water is produced on site and the grounds are irrigated from the river. The Douro Valley hotel remains a gourmet destination, albeit a healthier one, with new menus created by top chef Ljubomir Stanisic, whose restaurants in Cascais and Lisbon are among Portugal's finest. The menus, which draw on the philosophy that gut health is essential to wellbeing, incorporate river fish, grass-fed meats, heritage cereals and "organic where possible" ingredients, many grown in the organic garden. It's high-minded, delicious and guilt-free – hedonism with a healthy twist.
Those who come for the port and wine won't be disappointed. There's an interactive wine library featuring the region's best vintages and a number of terraces, bars and hideaways on the eight-hectare property to enjoy a glass. The resort's sommeliers host daily wine tastings with complimentary tapas. Wine dinners each night are led by one of the wine experts. A Wine Certificate Program deepens guests' knowledge of the vintages and the wine boutique features 700 wines from the resort's master list. Guests can even have a cheese and wine mani-pedi in the luxurious nail bar. Or apply the benefits of wine to their faces with the spa's Complete Grape Rejuvenation using grape pulp and grapeseed oil.
Unusually for a spa manager, Javier Suarez is consulted regularly on aspects of the menu. And many leftover products from the kitchen, such as coffee grounds, orange peel, ginger and herbs, find their way to the spa's Alchemy Bar, where they are used to make homemade scrubs – coffee and coconut oil, lemon and almond, avocado, yoghurt and honey. Guests can reserve a spot at the bar for once-weekly lessons in making their own body products.
The setting, on a vineyard-covered hill overlooking a curve of the tranquil Douro, is as much part of the therapy as the spa treatments. Arrive at reception and you'll be introduced immediately to the wow-factor view through landscape windows. A glass-sided elevator then descends to the rooms, the restaurant, bars and spa.
The estate's immaculate gardens are terraced down the hill to an outdoor pool and deck edged by olive groves. On the lower level, the 2200 square-metre spa includes a jetted indoor pool under a soaring glass roof, a fully-equipped gym, a sauna scented with orangeflower and lavender, a steam room and 10 treatment rooms, five of which overlook the four-hectare forest on the grounds. (Forest walks and picnics are encouraged.)
"Most spas are just delivering oil to the body," says Javier Suarez. If you would like a relaxation massage that's of course possible, but the Six Senses' layered approach to wellness includes body treatments, a range of daily activities and nutrition specially tailored to guests' needs, based on preventative principles of Eastern medicine and result-based Western influences. Visiting practitioners offer physiotherapy, acupuncture and sports massage. Spa menus range from Signature Massages (Deep Tissue, Detox, Energiser, Holistic) to the Rose Crystal Lymphatic Facial and a Detoxifying Ritual.
Key to the Six Senses wellness philosophy is adequate sleep. 'It's crucial to our health," Suarez says. "That's how we repair ourselves." From the seriously sleep-deprived to the merely tired and out of sorts, Six Senses offers programs to reboot sleep patterns. The Yogic Sleep program induces deep states of relaxation by combining yoga nidra, a powerful ancient relaxation practice, with stretching and breath regulation. Included in this three, five, seven or 10-night package is personal training, foot acupressure and a number of massage options to improve the quality of sleep and reduce stress levels.
Sleep with Six Senses is another sleep program and it's being rolled out across the 11 resorts, including Laamu in the Maldives and Douro Valley. It is designed in association with Michael J Breus, an internationally renowned sleep doctor. Guests are asked to complete an online questionnaire before they arrive. That allows dedicated sleep ambassadors, trained by Dr Breus, to prepare for the guest, including fine-tuning the bedroom to ensure it's conducive to good sleep.
Naturalmat beds, constructed of sustainable latex and organic lambskin, organic pillows, duvets, sheets and towels and blackout blinds are provided in all guestrooms. Those with particular sleep issues can upgrade their experience to include a sleep bag that contains soft bamboo fabric pyjamas, eye mask and earplugs, sleep guidance videos and a worry journal. A Withings Aura Sleep Tracker can be installed under the mattress to record heart rate and REM sleep and the data interpreted via an app, combining the latest technologies with traditional therapies.
In the waking hours, guests have a choice of 28 complimentary activities a week, including Hatha yoga, tai chi, mat pilates, spinning bikes (with plans to spin under the stars) and, most impressively, aerial yoga, with a dedicated studio of six hammocks. Invented by the Cirque de Soleil people, this acrobatic form of yoga works with gravity to relax and realign the body. Another of the Six Senses core values is that activities should be "fun and quirky". Hanging upside down in a hammock certainly fits the bill.
For the truly adventurous, Six Senses offers additional off-site activities such as canyoning, mountain biking and tree climbing, as well as boat trips and helicopter rides through the valley. Then there are outside excursions to the wine quintas that sit in the hills above the river. It's a sophisticated, romantic resort, but kids are very welcome.
If this sounds too exhausting for the sybaritic, there are a number of tranquil places to sit and read a book, from a wicker pod in the organic garden to a shaded seat in a little grotto above the pool. There's an outdoor cinema on the terrace where guests can lie around on daybeds watching selected movies under the stars.
The pool area overlooks the river, with comfortable day beds, and a refreshment bar. For those who enjoy another kind of pool, there's a pool table and table games in the Quinta Bar and Lounge.
Retreating to your room is another option. The 41 guest bedrooms, nine suites and seven villas (some with their own pool) are designed for relaxation, using neutral textures, light timbers and local limestone. Depending on the room (the entry level rooms are 40-45 square metres) there's usually a sofa or daybeds and most have views of the river or the vineyards that are dotted with terracotta-roofed, whitewashed farmhouses. The Duplex Quinta suites in the tower are particularly beautiful. Amenities include a yoga mat, picnic basket and sustainable-sized bottles of products in the bathroom. Slippers and toothbrushes are wrapped in natural paper. Plush bathrobes are made from organic cotton.
In the wine library there's a dispensary where guests can help themselves to selected vintages. Luckily, the spa is only one floor down.
Six Senses Douro Valley is a 90-minute drive from Porto in Northern Portugal. British Airways flies from London Heathrow to Lisbon three times daily and has one daily direct flight to Porto from Gatwick; see www.britishairways.com
Six Senses Douro Valley has several room categories, starting at the 40-46 square metre Quinta Superior, from €300 per night. Special Winter Escape packages (November 1, 2016, to March 2, 2017) include daily buffet breakfast, one spa treatment per guest, wine tasting for two and room upgrade, from €630 for two nights during the week to €970 for three nights on weekends. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Lee Tulloch was a guest of Six Senses Douro Valley