‘Luxury’ is a word nowadays often debased as executive – and even ‘design’ itself. Teams of international experts have been recruited to find a meaningful new definition. They are still at it, locked in a stuffy room with ankle-deep carpet, chandeliers and horrible gilt doodads. Their midnight sandwiches are served under silver cloches by belligerently obsequious waiters.
Meanwhile, Areias do Seixo is new-generation luxury, with no bed-facing plasma televisions, no room service, no minibar. The front door of the boutique hotel on the Costa de Prata is locked and you have to ring a bell to get access. As Mrs Smith put it, beaming with delight in the austere grey concrete bathroom that looked like the wash house of a 1927 Viennese socialist housing project, ‘Imagine explaining to our parents that we like this!’
You have to pay to go on a trip to pick the mussels they serve you at lunch. On the other hand, there are no grim flunkies loitering for a €20 tip for lifting a handbag; and, here, while you are having dinner, countless candles are lit in your room. The views of the dunes and the awful crashing Atlantic rollers are thrilling.
Areias do Seixo is an hour north of Lisbon. The name can be roughly translated as ‘pebble beach’. It opened in Spring 2010 and is a rarity on the over-developed and under-charming Portuguese Oeste coast: a new building of outstanding character. The Portuguese have generally been reluctant to participate in contemporary Euro culture, but architecture is an exception. Eduardo Souto de Moura and Alvaro Siza are respected international figures and the architect of Areias do Seixo, Vasco Vieira, and his interior designer, Rosario Gabriel, make their own distinguished contribution to the language of late Modern design.
On a seven-hectare sloping site, 10 generous bedrooms, each a little different, are arranged facing the sea and the dunes at ground level. Above them and set back, a vast duplex penthouse and the smaller, but extremely appealing, room where we stayed. So, a mere 12 rooms in a building with a footprint of over 3,000 square metres. Put it this way: a regular tourist hotel would have 50 rooms in the same area. Senses of privacy and privilege are a reality here, but so too is a vast, exciting public area.
If I say ‘concrete and glass’ you will get the wrong impression because the unapologetic modernist materials are handled with taste and intelligence. Even for a worldly observer of new buildings, there is a measure of surprise in the spaces and ingenuity in the details that are very pleasing. What about garden lights made from plumber’s plastic conduit? They work! But architecture is, most of all, about arrangements of space and light. Here they are arranged beautifully.
Besides, the polished concrete and raw metal surfaces are relieved by plenty of fabrics, water, gnarled mature olives, wood-burning stoves and souk-sourced artefacts. Maybe the latter trend a little too much towards cuteness, but that’s an insignificant flaw. Normally ‘design’ when applied to hotels is an insulting travesty, but here it is worthy. After years of thinking about it, I know exactly what comprises a good building: it’s one that makes you feel engaged, optimistic, pleased, flattered. Areias do Seixo does all of that. And its capacious showers with two huge drenching heads, sunken bath, obscenely snuggable duvets and very private terrace contribute to other things as well.
But even Mr and Mrs Smith have to eat. Lunch and dinner at Areias do Seixo are not much different in content or style and, for anyone who remembers the Portuguese tendency towards old, wet cabbage, revelatory. The very visible open kitchen serves starters of morcilla with fried potatoes and egg, beetroot couscous (much, much better than it reads) and mussels as big as your fist. Followed by unctuously stewed octopus in parsley and garlic or cataplana, the local fish soup. This area is stiff with vineyards and the hotel has a wine list to prove it. Afterwards, your own virtually private beach.
Areias do Seixo is so beguiling that there is not much reason to leave. But in the land of Vasco da Gama, exploration is a nagging moral imperative. Half an hour south is Ericeira, as charming a village as you can expect hereabouts. We ate at Furnas, a restaurant on the wave-battered rocks. You choose your fish on entry and it arrives at the table after the first glass of vinho verde has expired. Half an hour north in picturesquely fortified, but tourist despoiled, Obidos, a stately lunch at Castelo, Portugal’s very first pousada. Or borrow a hotel bike and ride up the coast, reminding yourself, head down in the gale as you puff past the enormous praias and vast horizons, that Portugal is much more an Atlantic than a Mediterranean country.
At this point I am going to write something that nearly makes me wince. Areias do Seixo is a very personal project of proprietors Goncalo and Marta Alves. The essence of their concept is that this is an ‘experience hotel’. Hence, the mussel-hunting and an invitation on our first night to eat a bacalhau and local wine feast in a neighbour’s private cellar. And, every night before dinner, a bonfire is lit near the dunes and guests are invited to sit around and drink agua pe (the first pressing, or ‘foot wine’) while Marta strums a guitar. Now, Mrs Smith and I are not very clubbable and what I have just described would once have driven us screaming to the airport. But it says everything about the intense charm of Areias do Seixo that a circle of fire, a guitar under the stars and rough peasant wine seems absolutely correct.
One morning when we woke, we found simultaneous fog and rain swirling and splashing on a very wet, grey terrace. Again, instead of wishing we could flee, we thought: ‘That’s fine. We won’t go anywhere. We’ll stay here and enjoy the hotel.’ Now that is luxury.