Portugal's solares open for stays

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NEW YORK -- Portugal offers unique accommodations virtually unknown by U.S. travelers: Solares de Portugal.

Solares de Portugal is both the name given a collection of the historical family homes -- manors, cottages and minipalaces -- and the organization that markets them to travelers. According to the rules of membership, each solares property must be at least 100 years old.

Most are located in rural Portugal, and some have been occupied by the same family since the 12th century.

All have been renovated to provide modern comforts while preserving the original structures. And each is shaped by the character of the land, the family history and the personality of the owners, who are required to live on the premises.

Many properties are located in the north, around the town of Ponte de Lima, in the Minho region. It's here where the country's roots and origins lie; nearby towns like Braga, Guimaraes and Viseu offer 14th century churches, museums and good shopping.

Hikers and bikers also have national parks and country trails to explore.

Solares are divided into categories: casas antigas, or manor houses several hundred years old; quintas and herdades, country estates and farms in rural settings; and casas rusticas, furnished cottages.

Agents welcome

From Ponte de Lima, the road to the manor house Paco de Calheiros (the term paco designates that a king stayed there) winds past vineyard terraces punctuated by wildflowers and orange, gabled roofs.

The people here work the grape arbors today as they did hundreds of years ago, and Francisco de Calheiros, owner of Paco de Calheiros, explains how the grapes are cultivated, harvested and transformed into the wine of the region.

The house has been in the Calheiros family since the 12th century. Calheiros is president of Turihab, the association of 96 Solares members (93 in Portugal, three in the Azores islands) that recently voted to market itself as Solares de Portugal, creating a new travel product with new standards and new membership criteria.

Calheiros also is the force behind the brand's strategy to garner the attention of the North American travel agent.

"We are virtually unknown in North America and get maybe 6% of our bookings from U.S. travel agents and tour operators," said Maria do Sa Lima, group marketing director. "But we are working hard to change this by reviewing our commission structure and finding ways to create incentives for the agency community in the U.S."

To that end, Solares de Portugal pays retailers 10% commission, and many tour operators selling the product pay from 15% to 20%. Travel agents also receive a 20% discount at any Solares property.

Jack and Helga van Horn, owners of Posh Journeys in Reno, Nev., are among the few tour operators who sell solares stays. They take three or four small, private groups per year.

Because she knows many of the owners, Helga van Horn often books with them directly but recommends the efficiency of booking centrally for agents unfamiliar with the properties.

The solares also figure in the itineraries of Backroads, a Berkeley, Calif., company that organizes hiking tours through the valleys of the Minho and into its manors.

Most Solares de Portugal homes, such as the Paco de Calheiros, above, are surrounded by gardens.Splendor in the hills

A favorite of operators like Backroads, Paco de Calheiros sits on a hilltop, a sprawling, two-towered mansion with stone balconies and seemingly endless rows of doors and windows.

The inside features halls of blue tilework that lead to 10 guest rooms, measuring some 250 square feet each and similarly adorned with blue tiles in entryways and orange terra-cotta floors. There are no televisions or phones in the rooms.

Tall French doors open onto a flowered terrace. A few apartments occupy the former stables; otherwise, little has been done to alter the architecture.

And because the traveler never knows what the next solar will be like, they really are roads less traveled.

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