Led Zeppelin famously said they knew a lady who, given half a chance, could actually buy a stairway to heaven. I would now like to formally propose that the grand steps leading up to the entrance of the Vidago Palace in Northern Portugal are added to the whole stairs/heaven canon, because the Vidago Palace is, frankly, heaven in a hotel.
As we approach its vast pink façade for the first time, we can see a uniformed man gliding down said steps to greet us. He is still descending when we pull up in our car, which either means he was moving in slow motion or there are hundreds of steps. Either way, this building was designed for people who like to make an entrance.
The Palace was originally commissioned by King Carlos I of Portugal in 1908, the aim being to host and entertain his inner circle of lords and ladies with fine food, curative spring water and ballroom dancing; but Carlos was assassinated before the Palace was completed. Undeterred by the downfall of the monarchy, the Portuguese aristocracy partied like it was 1899 and Vidago became the place to be seen from the roaring Twenties to the swinging Sixties. In 2008, a lavish restoration not only returned the hotel to its palatial beauty, but they, like, totally modernised it.
There’s a super minimalist health spa bolted on the back, where everything is white; the staff uniforms, the walls, even the flip-flops are fifty shades of branco. And, get this: hair mousse for men in the changing rooms. Mrs Smith undertook to test the spa (someone had to – and she’s very good at volunteering) and returned from a 75-minute massage looking ready for anything, even me.
The relaxation room and the gym have floor-to-ceiling windows that run at an angle to the wild woodland outside, so be careful if you’re on the treadmill, you might think you’re going up when you’re going down. The water in the indoor pool is said to have healing properties and, if followed by the menthol-infused sauna, steam room and ice-rubbing (yes, this is encouraged) could possibly revive the most sluggish constitution. There’s also an outdoor pool surrounded by grass and a Jacuzzi set into the hillside. Nice.
Just yards from the utterly contemporary spa, you can experience the Victorian equivalent housed in a Moorish domed folly. Here we partook in the famous magnesium-soaked Vidago waters (not sure if magnesium’s an aphrodisiac, I’ll take it anyway). Beyond the spring, there’s a Cameron-Powell-designed 18-hole golf course (not stuffy at all, very cool pro-shop and laidback members).
Inside the main body of the hotel, tradition courses through the long hallways and arterial rooms that back onto balconies overlooking lakes and the trees of Tràs-os-Montes which means ‘beyond the mountains’. If you weren’t already a gentleman, the polite but confident charm of Vidago makes you feel that it’s OK to open doors for ladies and to light their cigarettes (the library/bar is also a smoking room which made me want to start smoking again – almost), but equally OK to whisper a slightly smutty remark in your partner’s ear over a vermouth-based cocktail.
Smart staff are everywhere and have a way of looking after you that is not overly deferential like in some grand hotels, but completely helpful and courteous. The bar is brilliant for an early evening glass of bastardo rosé (a local grape, so called because it’s a right bastard to pick) and the sweeping oak staircase in the central hallway is a magnificent opportunity to watch your favourite person (assuming it’s not yourself) come down to dinner in the huge converted ballroom. Here we sampled an amazing taster menu of foie gras, lobster and shellfish brûlée, John Dory and a rack of lamb with peas and chorizo – oh and more bastardo, because I found ordering it hilarious, obviously.
It’s not all la-di-da fine dining though, and we also enjoyed low-key tapas for two in the hotel’s well-stocked wine cellar. Breakfast takes place on the crispest of crisp linen, with silverware set on tables that sit on a sparkling black and white-tiled floor – so appealing was the locally sourced food that Mrs Smith would be waiting for me to leave the room in the morning, lured as she was by succulent vine tomatoes and scrambled eggs. And by the way, the home-made granola in the Vidago Palace is itself worth the trip to Portugal.
Atmosphere wise, it’s not just the luscious, long drapes and the dark wood and the Bloomsbury-esque wallpaper that wafts memories of devil-may-care affluence and gay (in a 1920s way) abandon through every room of the Vidago, it’s the details in the surrounding walks and forest as well: there’s an amphitheatre with seats carved into rocks by the side of a lily-strewn lake, where nieces and nephews might have performed a play in front of a bastardo-addled aunt.
Our bedroom was huge and housed a bathroom of green glazed tiles and fresh roses where we would happily spend an hour soaking and talking together. Windows opened out onto a terrace with sun loungers and room service came under huge silver salvers, just like the old days, but with superfast internet and digital TV.
Leaving the Vidago Palace hotel has its own rituals; if I remember correctly, after coming back down the steps to earth, tradition has it that you circle the roundabout in front of the hotel three times; once to say thank you for having me, once for luck and once to say you will one day return. Needless to say we circled three times and waved goodbye