Scribbler in Seville

A design delight in Portugal

When I travel with kids, which is most of the time  except for the odd work freebie in a super-lujo, I stay at self-catering apartments or cottages. We often go to the Algarve, as the beaches there are less built-up and the resorts less commercialised and with much more character.

But when I read about a new rural boutique hotel, Fazenda Nova, being opened by an English couple in the eastern Algarve – designer chic, gourmet food, and all with a Portuguese ambiente – my curiosity was piqued. Reading a (glowing) review in the Guardian which mentioned that the owner’s dad and co-investor was the founder of seminal 1980s and 90s style mag, The Face (which launched Kate Moss’s career when it featured her, aged 16, on the cover), the hugely influential men’s glossy Arena, and music rag Smash Hits, I was intrigued.

Our travel plans are always last-minute, due to my husband’s problems with getting time off work. So, luckily for us, with minimal warning Hallie said we could stay in one of the hotel’s two apartments (bedroom plus sitting room with sofabed and kitchenette) on their opening night.

Naturally, I started getting in a panic about children running about, screaming, bothering other hotel guests and me dying of embarrassment as Hallie looked on disapprovingly. In fact, Hallie was joyously tolerant, and there was only one other couple, who didn’t seem to mind the whirlwinds rushing past them – it was a taste of things to come, as the lady was heavily pregnant.

As we were arriving in the car, we missed the entrance, in the village of Estiramantens – so low-key and discreet we drove straight past – and arrived a little hot and bothered (map-reading couple rows not helping). Tim, Hallie’s husband, immediately charmed my fractious children by professing an interest in dinosaurs to my paleontologically-obsessed son.

In the middle of the day, when we first arrived, the light is blindingly bright, bouncing off all pale surfaces, so we hurried inside – as fast as feasible when weighed down by 18 bags of clothes, swimwear, toys etc. Inside, the cool, grey bar was like a capsule planted in this dry but cultivated landscape (I later realised there are hundreds of trees in their grounds). The windows all face north, avoiding the glare from the sun.

We stumbled into our apartment, a few steps from the main house, and marvelled at the enormous bathroom with a shower big enough to have a party in, and little bottles of REN goodies which smelled divine. After a picnic lunch – fabulous pongy Portuguese cheese and heavenly fresh crispy bread – the husband was soon snoring on the bed, and children enjoying the hanging pod seat in our garden.

Yes, our garden – our own space outside the apartment (whose door stayed open the whole time we were there, so the kids could come and go as they pleased – such is the feeling of security) which had colourful wooden chairs made from old boat timbers (husband’s smoking spot), a shady carob tree (pudding – read on) and the swinging pod, which is a child’s dream (and the WIFI works outside, so they can watch Peppa Pig on the iPhone). Each garden is fenced off by a neat row of eucalyptus stakes in the ground, and the view is of their olive trees and the countryside beyond.

The next logical step was to test the infinity pool, which was just next to our apartment – the sound of running water was as lulling as a babbling brook. By now it was later in the day, and the sun had lost some of its strength. With no other guests to disturb, splash or jump on, I didn’t have to worry and my two had a wonderful time. The soft breeze, gentle warmth and rustling olive trees made for a supremely relaxing setting.

The pool is perfect for mooching – it has a shallow part with wide steps, and then tapers into the deep end. My three-year-old swam happily without flotation devices while I perched on the edge or watched them from my ergonomic wooden sunlounger, complete with pillow. A high point – happy children expending energy without bothering anyone, while I chilled out.

When the sleeping beast arose from its lair, it expressed a desire to go into town (in other words, have the essential post-siesta coffee to avoid biting everyone’s heads off). So we piled back into the car, and managed to get to Fuzeta, the nearest coastal village, without getting lost. One of the Algarve’s small, delightfully unspoiled fishing ports (take note, Costa del Sol – this is where you went wrong), its beach has a couple of little cafes, so parents can dose up on caffeine and hot chocolate, while kids play metres away in the sand. We were lucky enough to catch the start of a capoeira party, led by a charismatic Brazilian master – more of that, and the beaches we visited, in my next post, but here’s a taster.

Back at the ranch, a pre-dinner drink was sacrificed for a sand-removing shower and we arrived late and red-faced to the dining room. I only wish I could have fully appreciated the food, but an exhausted/bolshy/whinging/sleepy child in my lap tends to distract me from the finest of gastronomy. I can tell you that the hors d’oeuvres were exqusitely tasty – two were sundried tomato, and soft white cheese with coriander and parsley – while my salad starter was a symphony of flavours: orange, carrot and sweet potato, with onion and black olive – sweet and tangy (note to self: be more adventurous with salad ingredients). The hotel’s chef is Portuguese, but has worked in Morocco and likes to experiment with Asian flavours; guests are encouraged to go into the kitchen (I didn’t – next time).

I had been looking forward to the main course since the day before, having emailed my order while we sat on another beach (they always take orders after breakfast, so the chef knows exactly what to buy at the market). Mine was tuna, red in the middle, with fine ribbons of carrot, pepper and courgette. Melt-in-the-mouth and perfectly cooked.

The beast had shoulder of black pork with clams, which he declared was fabulous. Our wine (dry white) was Portuguese, from the Alentejo, and the olive oil which came with our starters hailed  from the next town, Moncarapacho (I bought some to take home). Pudding was carob tart –  a healthier, less sweet version of chocolate, which is the one of the many fruits (pod pictured below, tree above) cultivated at the Fazenda. (Blurred food photos=well-lubricated-mother-whose-kids-are-asleep. And has had a few glasses of celebratory cava.)

Throughout the meal I fired an endless stream of questions at Tim about the hotel’s design, history and the building project, and his memory for detail was amazing – he knew exactly where and when everything was acquired or found. He and Hallie like to move the furniture and objects around – a red African feathered headdress above the fireplace (top photo) was a recent replacement for a similar white number.

So how did they get here? There’s always a story, and this is theirs: Hallie was a high-powered London PR, and Tim had his own logistics company. Eight years ago, they had the idea to open a hotel. But it wasn’t until a life-changing moment a few years later, when Tim suffered a heart attack, that they acted on their desires. Hallie already knew the Algarve well, having spent family holidays there with her ex-magazine editor father, who has a house nearby.

They found the house, fighting off other interested parties – it’s a big piece of land, but not too big: 10 hectares, or 24 acres; and perfectly located: close to a motorway exit (25 minutes from Faro airport) and only 15 minutes from the beach, while being private and peaceful. Fazenda Nova is a well-known estate locally, having played an important role in Portugal’s history, especially in founding the Republic. While Tim and Hallie wanted to convert the buildings, keeping their traditional architecture, this proved impossible and they had to start again from scratch, rebuilding the facade using old photos, with a modern interior of polished concrete and glass.

Our apartment is where the olive press was, while other rooms replaced the stables (there are 10 rooms in total); the bread oven, however, remains, and is still in use. The hotel’s furniture is a combination of Balinese teak (made to order and shipped over); salvage/recycling – old doors have become tables, packing crates are now wall panels, bricks rescued from a field were used as a floor; and pieces they’ve collected from all over the world – South Africa, the US, Spain and Morocco. Hallie is also a flea market buff, and has many quirky delights picked up locally and further afield.

The fazenda has an extraordinary range of fruit trees – 550 in total; almond, carob and olive were already part of the estate, and Tim has added apple, pear, lemon, plum, quince, pomegranate (below), nectarine, passion fruit, mango, fig, grape; even raspberry and blackberry. All are used in the cooking, as well as to make jams.

The garden is planted with soft, swaying grasses and mostly “dry” plants, which don’t need much water but provide colour – oleander, rosemary and lavender, as well as jasmine; these work to soften the hard edges of the concrete. They’ve also planted a herb garden, which is near the firepit – designed to be sat around on a winter’s evening with a glass of full-bodied red. Hot water is heated by solar panels, and their own 250-metre bore hole is used to water the garden; there are plans for a natural swimming lake.

Of all the impressions I came away with from our brief stay at this stylish Anglo-Portuguese retreat, these were the main two: the sense of peace and tranquility; and the kindness of our hosts. Tim was unfailingingly generous with his time, and patient with the kids (and two of his played happily with mine, giving a few minutes’ precious free time). Hallie proved a life-saver: when my exhausted children requested fruit juice (the available orange was not to their liking), she went and made them some fresh apple juice. And brought it in colour-coded mugs – pink for the girl, blue for the boy, complete with straws. It was such a thoughtful gesture, I nearly hugged her. That’s my idea of a good hotel.

Fazenda Nova is a wonderful place to be pampered and recharge your batteries – chic but with plenty of personality, with delicious food, and numerous spots to chill out and flick through an old copy of The Face (I haven’t even mentioned the library!). And if you don’t have kids, don’t worry; being a PR, Hallie is an expert at planning and managing, and is careful to keep families and couples apart in separate weeks. Luckily, we managed to co-exist happily with our fellow first official guests. My worst fears weren’t realised, and it was a blissful pre-return-to-school-and-work break (from reality). We’ll be back.

12 thoughts on “A design delight in Portugal

  1. familyinspain

    Sounds like heaven … love the fact that you have your own space around the apartment for the children. We haven´t been to Portugal for a long time. Think we may have to add this to our “to visit” list. Thanks for sharing Fiona 🙂

  2. familyinspain

    Sounds like heaven! I alomost relaxed as I read it … then the kids comments brought me back to reality (lol) . It will be on our places to visit when we rediscover Portugal. Thanks for sharing Fiona.

  3. restlessjo

    Nice to hear that they made such a good job of it. I watched their website with interest while they were developing the property, and in February we made an effort to go and look. It wasn’t signed and we managed to miss it and go home disappointed. It looks a rare treat.
    You must have made it to Tavira?

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