Portugal’s Casa Palmela Is The Ultimate Country House Hotel – Forbes

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There are European country house hotels, and then there is Casa Palmela, about a 45-minute drive south of Lisbon. Located a couple of miles beyond the sleepy port city of Setubal, it’s surrounded by lush countryside covered in vineyards and dotted with cork trees. A very long and grand walled driveway takes you into a spacious courtyard, letting you know in all its 17th-century splendor that you have arrived.

Mornings are magical at Casa Palmela. On a recent visit, the days began with a hearty choir of birdsong in the so-called “broccoli” pines, monkey puzzle trees, and cork trees surrounding the estate. Set within the verdant green mountains of Arrábida Natural Park, it is surrounded by vineyards tended by Fonseca, the 100-pound gorilla of Portuguese winemaking, whose headquarters lies a couple of miles down the road. There are endless rows of Syrah and Muscatel grapes, olive trees, and wisteria vines.

Casa Palmela is an elegant, quiet, and stately home from 1640, owned by the same family since 1826, the descendants of Bernardo Sousa and María Luisa Holstein, the Duke and Duchess of Palmela. The 170-acre estate is one of the few private properties within the national park, where construction has been banned since 1975. The 17th-century manor house was transformed into a 21-room luxury hotel in 2016. There’s a good chance that Salvador Holstein, part of the extended family, will welcome you and perhaps share a glass of Moscatel de Setubal, locally produced and the least known of Portugal’s estimable fortified wines (the better-known ones being Port and Maderia).

The house boasts original stone floors, whitewashed stone walls, family artworks and furniture, 18th-century tiles, and even a tiny chapel. It is a bit like a living museum. Yet it’s also friendly and welcoming, exhibiting the touch of the extended family that owns it. These traits don’t always merge when you’re talking about European country house hotels, many of which now have corporate owners. It’s a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, but that’s the only thing remotely corporate about it. This is a family business.

“This was my grandparents’ room,” said Holstein, welcoming me into a large room with views of the Arrábida Mountains and a private balcony, an ideal place to greet the morning birdsong. Other rooms in converted outbuildings offer multiple bedrooms and kitchens, suitable for families or an extended stay. The rooms have been modernized without losing their considerable charm.

There are two pools, one for adults only. The hotel has a large organic garden and raises chickens and ducks. The morning rooster call was a welcome reminder that we were in the country.

Dinner at Zimbral restaurant had a welcome formality (the outside patio had a more casual feel) and offered creative and inventive entrees like an octopus tower with purple sweet potato and leeks. A classic Portuguese dish, like monkfish and rice, shared the menu with more exotic fare like lamb rack with curry and red mullet with turnips and chard. Desert included caramelized Azeitão cheese, locally produced, and peanut ice cream, reflecting the African and Asian influences on the otherwise Portuguese cuisine. The wine list is impressively deep with Portuguese wines, most of which can’t be found outside the country.

The hotel offers horses and bikes for guests and has a laid-back hacienda feel. That said, nearby excursions should not be missed. I used a local tour company, Carolina Tours, which offers friendly and personalized service in a van for small groups.

The restaurant O Farol lies 20 minutes away, down a winding road on the wild coastline of the Arrábida peninsula. It is a casual seafood restaurant with doors and windows thrown open to the ocean. Here, you can dine on freshly caught and grilled sea bass and bream, as well as plates full of barnacles.

A boat ride along the protected Arrábida coastline revealed a handful of homes tucked into a Mediterranean landscape—think Cote d’Azur minus the heat and the crowds. It’s a coastline that drew Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip on the Royal Yacht Brittania in 1957. It was also a haven for the then-young Truman Capote and Jacqueline Kennedy, who took refuge here with friends after JFK was killed. The resident bottlenose dolphins were the only local attractions we did not see that day.

A morning visit to the Mercado do Livramento in Setubal was eye-opening, where hundreds of purveyors stood behind white marble counters selling fruits, vegetables, cheese, and lots of fish and the walls told the story of local fishermen and farmers in blue and white tile murals. The morning’s highlight was eating freshly shucked oysters at one of those marble counters, chased by small glasses of local sparkling wine.

What are the best months for a visit?

“May and October, for beautiful weather and fewer guests,” Holstein said. “The quietest months are January through March.”

Holstein also has a boutique property in Lisbon called Alecrim Ao Chiado. This elegant boutique hotel is a hideaway in the heart of the hip Chiado district. It’s a jewel box of impeccably renovated rooms that are blessedly soundproof and a few minutes from the buzz of Chiado. It’s on my list for when I return.

Speaking of returning, we flew TAP Air Portugal roundtrip from their Boston gateway (you can also fly nonstop to Lisbon from New York, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Miami, Chicago, and San Francisco). The flight takes about five and a half hours, which is a breeze, and you land mid-morning, refreshed and ready to go. Portugal, as so many travelers have discovered in the past few years, is a quick flight and a fast escape, especially from the East Coast.

Visit Casa Palmela for more information.

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