Luxury Time Travel In Northern Portugal: Vidago Palace

For all its grandeur and loveliness today, Vidago Palace, a lavish resort in the far north of Portugal, did not get off to the most auspicious of starts. In the early 20th century, when thermal springs resorts were all the rage, King Carlos I wanted a luxurious palace to retreat with his entourage and to welcome nobility from around the world. He commissioned a palace—on par with the best thermal springs resorts in Europe—in 1908. Shortly thereafter, he was assassinated.

The palace was completed as planned, and the grand opening was scheduled for October 6, 1910, with his son and successor, King Manuel II, in attendance. But Manuel II was deposed in the republican revolution of October 5, so he never saw the place either. The opening went ahead as expected, but now with the hotel as a symbol of the implantation of the Portuguese Republic.

In the years that followed, there were still plenty of elites without royal titles, and the resort soon became a draw for Portuguese and European high society. It was known for its grandiose parties, as well as the magnificence of the hotel and its surrounding gardens.

But then people discovered that going to the beach could be fun, and thermal springs resorts fell out of fashion. World War II didn’t help matters. The palace remained open throughout the century, but the luster fell off. (Although the alkaline water, bottled under the name Vidago, has remained popular throughout.)

It came back in a big way in 2010, after it was acquired by the Super Bock Group (a beverage distributor) and underwent a spectacular, four-year restoration. This not only restored its turn-of-the-last-century grandeur but surpassed it. That begins with the pastel pink facade, with its 365 windows and glass doors.

Inside, it’s all Belle Époque glamour, with many details preserved from the original incarnation, including noble materials and bespoke furnishings. But the restoration, led by Portuguese architects José Pedro Lopes Vieira and Diogo Rosa Lã, introduced a new range of gorgeous fabrics, silk wallpaper with dramatic garden motifs and carefully selected, contemporary lighting. The typical Portuguese dark woodwork pairs nicely with the Venetian chandeliers and handmade wool rugs.

They also reduced the room count to 70 (a small number considering all those windows) to give them more space, especially in their bathrooms. They live comfortably, with all the picky little things people demand today, like convenient power outlets, fast wifi, and on-demand hot water.

The Salão Nobre (grand ballroom) appears untouched by time, although it’s now home to a fine-dining restaurant where the food is considerably more contemporary than it once was. Chef Vitor Matos, who was born nearby and holds a Michelin star at his restaurant Antiqvvm in Porto, oversees the menu, and he’s clearly going for another star here, with is seven- and ten-course tasting menus (as well as an a la carte section, increasingly rare but welcome in the world of fine dining) emphasizing local ingredients and recipes. They didn’t blink when two pesky pescatarians asked if they could mix and match dishes from the two menus. (The region is known for its meat dishes, especially pork.)

The resort also includes a casual restaurant in the wine cellar, emphasizing Portuguese petiscos and Spanish tapas, and a lounge upstairs that offers light lunches for anyone who isn’t on the golf course or dining at the club house that day. (Or isn’t too full from the lavish breakfast, served in a pretty winter garden.)

While most of the hotel, as well as the little hamlets around the property that house the various mineral springs (you can drink from them during certain times of day, but be warned that a little of the water can go a long way), appear to be untouched by time, the spa is another matter.

Designed by Pritzker Prize–winning Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira during the early-2000s renovation, it’s all straight, clean lines, natural light streaming in through large windows, and simple white marble. It’s quite large—27,000 square feet—but has a variety of intimate spaces, including two swimming pools and ten treatment rooms, where services are done with the local mineral water and with results-oriented products from Clarins and fully natural, essential-oil-based ones from Aromatherapy Associates.

It all adds up to a property that’s “fit for king” (to use a common metaphor) but open to anyone who wants to travel to a far-flung corner of Portugal to step back in time.