A stay in Portugal's wine country well worth a bumpy trip

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The final and toughest part of my group's journey to Quinta da Ervamoira, a wine-producing estate in Portugal's Coa Valley, started about five miles away at a village called Muxagata. The ride to the vineyard was short, but it was a bumpy, dusty one in a Jeep that navigated a winding road up and down mountains and across a shallow stream. The reward: We arrived at a stunning site surrounded by vines heavy with grapes ripe for picking.

This was our introduction to the Douro wine region, which follows northern Portugal's east-to-west Douro River for about 60 miles starting from the Spanish border. The area is characterized by steep river banks tempered, and beautified, by the hand of man during 2,000 years of winemaking.

The region has been known for producing high-quality port wines since the 18th century. More recently, vintners are focusing anew on red table wines.

Regardless of how the grape is used, winemaking -- with its terraces, quintas (estates) and communities -- has molded the landscape.

UNESCO designated the Alto Douro region a World Heritage cultural site. As a result, more than 600,000 acres on either side of the river are protected, and the hand of man will remain gentle.

Tourism is part of the equation, and we see the evidence: Besides staging wine tastings, vintners are adding a few rooms to their quintas to house tourists. Examples are Quinta da Pacheca and Quinta do Vallado, both in Peso da Regua.

But this kind of environment begs for a luxury component. Developers respond to that call in a variety of ways, as the following three hotels illustrate. Two were new this year but built around or inside existing structures. A third was an 18th century private estate, with the family manse converted to a hotel in 1998.

All are in UNESCO-protected territory and so close together we saw them in the same day.

" The Aquapura Douro Valley, set amid vine-covered hills outside Peso da Regua, is a 50-room property that is a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. The soft opening was last summer, and the official opening will occur by June, said Lionel Alvarez, general manager.

The property also includes 21 villas that will be sold but are available to rent.

Part of the hotel's exterior is what remains of a 19th century manor house that was almost destroyed by fire.

The inside is all new. The color palette is dark browns and blacks with some woods but lots of industrial-looking elements, too. The lobby is a near blackout, except at the reception desk; the decor includes a gas-fueled fireplace at eye level along the length of the wall behind the desk. Hallways also are dark -- too dark for some guests.

Rooms are much brighter. Mine featured white couches and an all-white bed. The bathroom mirrors were tinted; designers may love that, but women who apply makeup don't. Alvarez said the hotel will install untinted mirrors.

As the first property in a new hotel group, Aquapura Hotels & Spa, the spa at the Aquapura Douro Valley is a defining component. Measuring more than 23,600 square feet, it encompasses a gym and a thermal spa and offers a wide range of treatments. The gym is open 24 hours a day. Guests staying in the 16 spa rooms can arrange for treatments in their rooms.

Fine dining in the Alma Lusa restaurant is another defining feature. The chef, Emmanuel Soares, spent 14 years working with two- and three-star Michelin chefs in France, including Alain Ducasse. The hotel schedules tastings in its wine cellar.

The hotel also offers excursions that include tastings and, in season, grape stomping at Quinta da Pacheca. Tastings with lunch are offered at Quinta da Ervamoira.

Opportunities abound for Douro River cruises on various types of boats plus scenic train journeys out of Peso da Regua, including the Saturday steam train, mid-May to mid-October. Cruises depart from Peso da Regua or Folgosa. Aquapura is adding a private dock on property.

Aquapura Hotels & Spa plans to open 10 properties within 10 years. The next three will be in Brazil in 2008 and the Czech Republic and Hungary in 2009.

Agents can book in the GDSs. Rates, varying by season and unit size, are about $307 to $570 per room, $511 to $2,263 per suite and $745 to $3,022 for a villa.

To make or follow up on special requests, the contact person is Tania Garcia at [email protected].

" Vintage House in Pinhao is a Relais & Chateaux property, sited right on the Douro with 43 rooms, all with verandas overlooking the river and the rising, vine-laden hills on the opposite shore.

Dating from the 18th century, the days when the English market for port blossomed, the property was re-created for today's guests with the charms of an English country house plus the comforts and features for modern visitors.

Vintage House is very much a resort. From the ground-level Library Bar, guests exit onto a terrace and into the property's sunny riverside gardens.

Services include a fine-dining restaurant and tastings at the property's Wine Academy. Besides basic tastings, options include port with chocolate, port with other foods or blind tastings.

Vintage House has its own dock for river cruises and access just behind the buildings to trains for scenic journeys.

CS Hotels, a privately held company in Portugal, purchased Vintage House in late 2006. The group owns four properties but plans to add 16 in the next three years, according to Paulo Carvalho, manager.

Agents can book in the GDSs. Rates, which include breakfast, range seasonally from about $114 to $183, single; $128 to $200, double; and $164 to $364 for a suite.

For special requests, contact the manager at [email protected]. For groups, contact the assistant manager, Gilberto Rodrigues, at [email protected]. For individual bookings, contact the front office manager, Beatriz Garcia, at [email protected].

" Quinta da Romaneira, which opened last summer, is an exclusive and upscale hideaway in Pedroso, six miles east of Pinhao. It is both a 21-unit resort and a 988-acre farm with vineyards and olive trees.

Set on a mountainside abutting the Douro, the quinta makes port, red and white wines as well as olive oil. It serves only its own wines to guests.

The hotel was created from seven historical quinta buildings. Maria Brignoli, house mistress, said that under the terms of UNESCO protection, no new buildings will be constructed but that the owners can refit existing structures.

While exteriors of stone or white stucco have a classic look, interiors are a combination of coziness and stark modern features, leaning toward the modern.

No two units (seven are apartments) are alike, but none has a telephone, TV or Internet connection. There is a Web connection on site and one TV.

The spa, which is housed in an old railroad station, and a dock for Douro cruises on Romaneira's boat will be available in 2008. To take a ride on the area's historical steam train or for other rail excursions, guests go to Pinhao.

Access to Romaneira's buildings is via a steep, four-mile ride down the mountain on hairpin roads.

Brignoli said owners have intentionally kept signage at a minimum because "we need to ensure guests are not disturbed."

Nevertheless, the restaurant, Redondo, which is located well away from guest rooms and other public spaces, is open to the general public.

On-site activities include wine tastings and cooking classes. Facilities include two pools and a hammam.

Prices include all food, alcohol and activities except specific spa treatments. The inclusive pricing is a first for Portugal, said Brignoli.

Rates start at about $1,460 a day per couple, per unit and range from $1,900 to $2,190 for apartments. Agents book at [email protected] and earn 10% commission.

The property was purchased about four years ago and developed by Paris-based Maisons des Reves. It aims for Relais & Chateaux membership in 2008. Maisons des Reves also owns the Dar Ahlam tented camp in Morocco, a Relais & Chateaux member.

For assistance with special client requests, contact Xavier Debaisieux, general manager, at (011) 351-254-732-432 or e-mail [email protected]. Or call the reservations office at (011) 351-153-634-230.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to Nadine Godwin at [email protected].

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