The road was jammed full. No way of getting through. Sheep. Hundreds of them. And more importantly for Mrs Smith, baby lambs. This was our wooly welcoming party to the striking Baixo Alentejo countryside, Portugal’s most agricultural region. A lack of any cars and no one in the local villages speaking any English gave us a lovely feeling that we were in proper Portuguese Portugal, real and unspoiled, unlike much of the anglicised Algarve.
The Herdade da Malhadinha Nova Country House & Spa sits atop a typical Portuguese farming estate in the middle of this rural landscape, surrounded by vineyards. Herdade da Malhadinha is also a working winery. Cue tours and tastings, and a green-and-gold sprawl of vineyards and olive groves. It’s the kind of place where male peacocks and turkeys stroll around side by side, an incongruous but touching companionship.
Overworked and underplayed, Mrs Smith and I arrived exhausted for our out-of-season weekend. We were greeted by Bruno and an attention to service and detail that, in moments, had us relaxed. And in typical British style, despite October gale-force winds, I jumped straight into the infinity pool while Mrs Smith arranged lunch on the terrace. An unheated pool at that time of year was, ahem, ‘refreshing’, but incredible.
With a view devoid of any other signs of human life, the tranquility was uninterrupted and it felt properly secluded. Then, from the pool I spotted some flying salami. Admitting that our alfresco meal was perhaps not the best idea, we settled instead into the main room of the country house. Wooden beams, a huge fireplace, plump sofas and an impressive wine bar where the bottles are back-lit on library-like shelves complete with sliding ladder (thankfully though, unlike a library, you don’t have to give the contents back). Expect to become well acquainted with Alentejo staples here: chickpeas, game, moreish chocolate sweets.
This was the first of a spectacular series of meals at the hotel. Oh-so-tender steak from ‘pureblood’ Alentejo cattle reared right there on the farm. The tenderness according to Bruno is because they are ‘very lazy cows’. So there you go, there is an advantage to being a lazy cow. (And a word on Portuguese tapas – it’s similar to Spanish tapas except you’re eating it in Portugal. I am making this assumption based on the time I asked a Welsh B&B owner what exactly a Welsh breakfast was and received the curt reply that it was ‘exactly the same as an English breakfast but you are in Wales now, boy!’ I was 35 at the time.)
Grapes may vie with guests for attention, but both are tended with care. This is a place with a family feel, more a modern country home than a pay-up-and-go hotel. We’ve heard it’s easy to find yourself doing very little of anything (if you can resist the temptation to have a photography or painting tutorial, stretch out and breathe with a yoga class, or tear up the turf on quad bikes, that is).
Rooms are named with whimsy, and in honour of the owners’ children’s drawings: Grape, Flower, or Bee, for example. Ours, one of only seven, was more minimal than the main sitting room: cool and simple with everything you could want – a massive bed, a massive shower, a massive bath and a telly (oh, and a view of the vineyards). We heard tell too of a spa below, with a large Jacuzzi and massage rooms. Relaxation is clearly paramount.
That evening we were escorted to the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant by Land Rover. Housed on the estate, there we were also treated to a tour of the vinification plant that makes up the rest of the building. I’m not sure how I imagined a wine press to look, but it wasn’t like that. Huge stainless-steel containers and many-buttoned control panels: it looked like it belonged in a Bond film. The director in me couldn’t help thinking that the location would have worked well for a chase scene – plenty of hiding places for baddies to jump out from, chrome casing for bullets to ping off, and wooden barrels to be caught in the crossfire, leaked red wine symbolising the impending bloodshed…
Oops. As you can probably tell, my imagination wandered slightly despite the interesting talk we were being given. Perhaps it was because of Mrs Smith’s incessant questions, a couple of which were either misunderstood or politely ignored. (‘If the person treading on the grapes has cheesy feet, does that affect the taste?’ Oh dear.)
Restaurante Gourmet da Malhadinha, the Michelin-starred restaurant and its chef Joachim Koerper, didn’t let us down, despite stratospheric expectations. And neither did the English menu translations: ‘Shrimp from Algarve Coast, his salad perfumed with gazpacho vinaigrette’. We never found out what Mr Shrimp’s perfumed salad was like, but what we did have was incredible. Despite elaborate listings, food was simple, delicious and very fresh. Mrs Smith was well looked after for wine with tastings generously given. By her own admission she’s no connoisseur but she knows what she likes and she liked the inexpensive Antão Vaz a lot. A bottle of the red Monte da Peceguina was then taken back to the hotel’s sheltered terrace, to enjoy from under a blanket, watching the stars.
From tipples to feathers: another feature of the weekend was spotting the rare elegant birds with elaborate black-on-brown crests and wide white ruffled wings that frequently dropped by. Great busturds, apparently. I smiled to Mrs Smith as we watched another land in Herdade da Malhadinha’s sprawling grounds: ‘Lucky bustards, I’d say.’ And testament to just how relaxing our weekend was, Mrs Smith smiled back. Only two nights and she was even enjoying my puns: what better endorsement that this hotel guarantees good spirits do you need than that?