Traditions die hard in the Douro Valley, the rustic wine-growing region of northern Portugal where some old-timers scoff at modern grape-crushing machines and prefer to do the job by foot. "Please! Come back and help us stomp during the harvest," pleaded one of our new vintner friends when my husband, Bill, and I visited the steeply terraced hills in the sultry summer heat. The grapes were still pistachio-hued babies and the valleys spectacularly verdant. "Well, maybe," we told him, unsure about the stomping part but mesmerized by the countryside that oenophiles hail as the next Burgundy, Tuscany or Napa.
The valley's red-roofed quintas, old manor houses morphed into luxury hotels, and chic restaurants make it alluringly romantic. And Portugal itself, long eclipsed by its Iberian Peninsula neighbor Spain, is suddenly trendy. On our visit, we enjoyed the tropical charms of Madeira, a cache of turreted castles in the countryside, and the soulful sounds of fado (a musical genre centered on love, loss and destiny) in the newly vibrant capital, Lisbon. Best of all, we found that Portugal is a relative bargain, with five-star hotels and dining at prices one-third lower than the rest of Western Europe.
Meandering around Madeira
Our trip began on a 460-square-mile volcanic island in the Atlantic, off the coast of Africa (it's a 90-minute flight from Lisbon to Funchal, the main city, on Portugal's national carrier TAP, which also flies nonstop from Newark to Lisbon and Porto). I'd heard about Madeira's eponymous dessert wines—perfect when paired with dark chocolate—and its famous lacework, but the chameleon quality of the island surprised me: Thanks to England's early involvement with the wine trade, Madeira has British formality interspersed with wild terrain and, as we discovered, several peculiar diversions.
On a full-day island tour, our guide Elevterrio ("Call me Terry!") started off by bundling us into a wicker toboggan—picture a sleigh without snow. Then two white-clad carreiros, toboggan drivers in boater hats and goatskin shoes, pushed and pulled us with ropes down a steep hill, and jumped onto the back of our wheel-less chariot when we got too close to honking cars, zipping scooters or stone walls. Years ago, these wicker sleds carried wine barrels from the mountain vineyards to the coast. Today, trucks transport the wine, and the carreiros offer thrills and a touch of the past to visitors.
Our next adventure was an ascent into layers of forest as Terry drove us high into the mountains for a day hike. Extraordinary flowers—birds-of-paradise, wild orchids and azaleas— painted the landscape, which is accessible via a unique system of irrigation canals, or levadas, transformed into hiking trails. On one levada walk to the balcoes (balconies), we enjoyed a 360-degree view of mist-shrouded mountains and a half-mile drop to the forest floor.
After a day of exploring Madeira's wild beauty, we returned to the coddled world of Reid's Palace hotel, shell pink and perched on a promontory overlooking the sea. Opened in 1891, Reid's is one of those grand epoque hotels that has been lovingly preserved with pastel salons and lavish antiques. Its elegant rooms have every modern convenience (flatscreen TVs rise silently at the push of a remote) and dazzling ocean views. As if the setting weren't romantic enough, the hotel will arrange a moonlit dinner of lobster stew sprinkled with coriander and strawberries flambéed with Madeira wine in a garden hideaway, replete with a strolling violinist.
Historic Meets Hip in Lisbon
From Madeira, we headed to the capital, where picturesque trolleys still clatter up and down the hills. Lisbon's cool factor recently has soared sky-high, thanks to an ever-changing pastiche of nightclubs, restaurants and boutiques in the Chiado and Barrio Alto neighborhoods. For a touch of history, we toured the Jerónimos Monastery, with its sculpted arches and pillars, and strolled the ramparts of the old citadel, Castelo de São Jorge. Eager to experience the art of fado, we made a reservation at Casa de Linhares (where Mick Jagger goes when he's in town) and listened as Ana Sofia Varela sang of longing and lost love, her eyes closed and her fingers working their way through the fringes of her scarf.
Lisbon is the perfect base for exploring the area's centuries-old towns and palaces. Queluz, 20 minutes by train, is home to what has been called Portugal's Versailles: a neoclassical pink palace with stately gardens and a weekly equestrian show performed by Lusitano stallions. Across the street is one of Portugal's pousadas, Dona Maria I, in a restored barrack that once housed the Royal Guard. (Similar to Spain's paradors, pousadas are historic or charming buildings converted into luxury inns with relatively reasonable rates.)
After traveling another 20 minutes by train, we came to perhaps the prettiest town in Portugal: Sintra, called "Glorious Eden" by the British poet Lord Byron and famous for its palaces. The highlight was the Disney-esque Palace of Pena, set high on a hill just outside town with its turrets, cupolas and Moorish minarets painted in a rainbow of lemon, cherry and pimiento hues.
Our base for all this exploration was the Lapa Palace, an idyllic hotel on a quiet street lined with embassies. Once the home of a 19th-century count, the Lapa has the feel of a country manor, from the stained-glass windows in its marble lobby to its gracious rooms, many with Jacuzzis, canopy beds and hand-painted tiles in the bathroom.
A Taste of the Douro Valley
Before visiting northern Portugal, I thought port was a stuffy drink gentlemen imbibed while puffing on cigars in smoky sitting rooms, but while touring the cellars of Porto, Bill and I developed a new appreciation and vocabulary. Soon we were sipping silky tawny ports, rich rubies and crisp dry whites all the while marveling at the delicate nuances. By the time we arrived in the Douro Valley, we had developed a distinct port palate and were looking forward to touring the vineyards themselves. At Peso da Régua, our driver sped up the serpentine roads to the striking new Aquapura hotel, an old quinta transformed into an Asian-inspired minimalist resort with modern suites warmed by grape-colored Roxinha wood floors.
Treatment rooms in the spa (offering chocolate facials and a water-bed rest area) overlook the vineyards. Aquapura is well situated for winery tours and dinners at new restaurants such as Redondo at the Quinta de Romaneira (a quixotic, art- and antique-filled hotel near Pinhão), and the Douro Inn (specializing in local delicacies such as salt cod dumplings and Iberian pork with pimiento compote).
Before leaving Portugal, Bill and I tucked a few bottles of rich Douro wines and a vintage port into our suitcases, hoping they would make it safely home. They did, and are proving to be a delicious memory of our extraordinary journey through a little country with a very big heart. For more info, 646-723-0200 or
Where to Stay
Aquapura Douro: Valley Vineyard views, hip decor and three restaurants offering trendy twists on local dishes make this one of Portugal's most innovative hotels (doubles from $319;
Lapa Palace: This gem has meticulously decorated rooms (ask for the Tower Room, in an octagonal stone tower); a pool set amid gardens; and Cipriani, one of Lisbon's best restaurants (doubles from $540; 800-237-1236 or
Reid's Palace: The ultimate destination resort in one of Europe's most unusual locales, Reid's entices guests with three pools, a modern spa and six restaurants; don't miss the champagne buffet on Tuesdays in the dining room (doubles from $395; 800-237-1236 or
Infante de Sagres: The lobby is a minimuseum, and the rooms feature European antiques and Oriental rugs; the red brocade Don Henrique suite with a private room-service door ensures you won't be disturbed (doubles from $211;
Pousada de Dona Maria I: With 24 rooms and two suites, this pousada offers not only charm and a palace view but one of Portugal's most famous restaurants, the Cozinha Velha (doubles from $138;