Mrs Smith and I are cruising in eerie silence along the flatlands between Seville and Jerez. She’s brought her TomTom (the satnav system that cabbies swear by) and, thanks to Darth Vader telling us where to go, we haven’t argued once. It’s bliss, even if Vader does lend a rather surreal air to proceedings. We hang a left, down a long, dusty path that appears to be going nowhere. The setting is idyllic – you know the scene: rolling fields of sunflowers, cotton, olive trees, waving wheat… And in the warm evening light (the honey-drenched time that film-makers call the magic hour), it’s like cruising into a Van Gogh. We swoosh past hedges of pink and white oleander, and the Hacienda de San Rafael smacks into view.
A gleaming-white, cortijo-style country house, with foot-thick walls and huge shuttered windows, the Hacienda offers grandeur without a whiff of ostentation. Two sweet-mannered Englishwomen meet us at the doorway, whisk away our bags and offer lemon iced tea. We follow them through the doorway – and past a tangle of cerise and orange bougainvillea – to a terracotta-paved courtyard. Butterflies dance around the flowers and evening birdsong fills the air. The owners are milling around and pop over for a chat. It doesn’t feel much like a hotel: it’s more like visiting a well-to-do friend’s private residence.
The Hacienda has been in the Reid family for a century and a half and, up until the Sixties, it was a working olive farm. The youngest generation, twentysomething Anthony and Patrick, run the place. They are responsible for its recent stylish makeover: blending the languorous sensuality of Spanish bullfighting country with Europhile sophistication. Mum Kuky is from nearby Jerez, and it was her dream to turn the family farm into a small guesthouse in keeping with the surrounding white villages. Her husband, Tim, worked as a hotelier with Mandarin Oriental before setting up the superbly luxurious Datai hotel in Langkawi, Malaysia. Patrick used to be a project manager at the Groucho Club in London, and Anthony organised swish safaris in Botswana. Between them, this family have all the skills to challenge any top resort – no wonder they got it so right here.
We are escorted into the communal living room, which contains a wild mix of upper-crust European and Far Eastern antiques that hints at the family’s travels. Mrs Smith, a keen reader of interior-design magazines, loves it, and throws herself down on a huge red Thai elephant sofa, before hopping up again to inspect the antique iron bull statues on the mantelpiece, and Mrs Reid’s father’s 80-year-old stirrups, which hang in a line above the fireplace. Hacienda San Rafael is a trove of fascinating treasures, and most of them have a story behind them – just get Anthony talking about his grandfather, a ‘horseman and a gentleman’ who won Jerez’s annual Horseman of Gold award too many times to keep count of.
We are staying in a casita, a meticulously converted farm building with a thatched roof, away from the main house. It’s expensive, but we do get a private terrace and infinity pool in a lovingly tended cottage garden. The main pool is spectacular, with manicured lawn, huge day beds and palm-trees for shade – it’s just that Mrs Smith and I have developed a taste for privacy.
The family’s attention to detail is what distinguishes the Haçienda de San Rafael from so many other retreats. Not only is it stunning, but there are three pools, and a full complement of staff to cater to your every whim, too. The dining experience illustrates this well. Mrs Smith is a vegetarian who likes neither eggs nor mushrooms, so eating out in Spain has previously been a pain in the posterior. There is no problem here, though, thanks to head chef Mark Dillon who whips up pumpkin and sage risotto, barbecued tofu kebabs and a delicious baked-aubergine concoction.
The food in the communal dining area is a highlight, and with the nearest café a 20-minute cab ride away, lunchtime tapas and lazy alfresco dinners at the hotel work fabulously. In fact, we spent days experiencing no urge to leave the Haçienda and its grounds, until suddenly we decided we really ought to venture out. So we trekked to Seville’s mighty 15th-century cathedral, second only in size to St Paul’s in Rome, and to the nearby Alcázar Palace and gardens – and the tapas bars in between – all well worth leaving our luxury cocoon for. Mrs Smith was so taken by the Mudéjar architecture, stuccoed patios and intricate mosaic that she had to buy an extra memory card for her camera.
For the more energetic holidaymakers, the hotel can arrange pretty much any activity. As keen riders, we were delighted to meet Cuko, Mrs Reid’s cousin and a family member with yet more hospitality credentials, who owns a private estate with 12 horses a short drive away. His morning rides through the Andalucian mountains, and picnics in the dappled light of local chestnut forests, are hard to beat. For those times when you are feeling intrepid, there’s much to do in and around the hotel: bustling Seville is a hop away; nearby Jerez has beautiful beaches and is the sherry capital of the world; and Andalucía has a long equestrian and bullfighting history.
Having found this slice of paradise, though, you’d be forgiven for just flopping by the pool and ordering a martini and a massage. Just ask Mrs Smith – she became quite the expert at this by the end of our three-day sojourn. And I can’t say I was too bad at following her lead.
This boutique hotel was reviewed by Alex Proud