At last, Six Senses has arrived in Europe with its first resort and spa on the continent, and they couldn't have chosen a more beautifully tranquil, picturesque spot. "Remote yet accessible" is the Six Senses motto, and the Douro Valley is just that. You fly into the Unesco World Heritage city of Porto (spend a few days here if you possibly can, exploring the cobbled lanes and squares on both sides of the mighty Douro river), then it's a 90-minute drive up-country, enjoying spectacular views of the valley, as the river banks become increasingly steeper and the vineyards more numerous. The resort has just 50 rooms and six garden villas in a former late-19th-century mansion surrounded by gardens and woodland, with commanding views. Ask for a river view room, or a terrace. The décor is an uber-stylish mix of country retreat meets streamlined modern, all in soft sage, slate grey and fawn.
A discrete, linear, modern extension houses many of the rooms and suites so that they benefit from the spectacular views over the gardens and across the sweeping river valley. My river-view room was a simple box with floor-to-ceiling windows entirely covering the fourth wall. Apart from one large picture of the Douro, the décor is quite plain, masculine even, hard and grey, with smoked glass, and (currently) little soft furnishing apart from the sofa. The view takes centre stage, but I wouldn't say it's romantic. I missed having a balcony - I wanted to throw the windows wide and breathe in the delicious country air - but they only opened a crack. However, even the well-travelled will remark on how spectacularly comfy the bed is (by Naturalmat of Devon), and I loved the tiling in the walk-in shower - designed to echo the strata of the schist stone that characterises the vineyards of the Douro; it was playful and stylish at the same time. The amenities are rich, herbal potions from The Organic Pharmacy - simply heavenly - and (hoorah!) simple light controls that all go off when you leave. It was the quietest hotel room I've ever had - no hum and no noise of any kind.
Already a destination spa of 2,200 sq metres, the team has lots of new ideas to lift it even more out of the ordinary. You want to explore. Grab your swimming gear and head to the indoor heated pool for some relaxing lengths. It's spacious and full of light. The sauna is bigger than most, too, and the steam room, at 100 per cent humidity, is just perfect. It's all part of the resort's Vitality Suite, which comprises two additional rooms - the herbal chamber and the laconium - and two 'experience showers'. They didn't excite me, but they suit people who don't like too much humidity or intense heat. A mani and pedi bar has just opened, with a fun vibe - it's the place for a chat, some bubbles and tapas to share. The new 'alchemy bar' welcomes guests for workshops on making your own products to take away, such as body scrubs. Naturally there's a fully equipped gym, and a yoga studio that's kitted out for aerial yoga, to help you stretch while supported off the ground. The 25m outdoor pool isn't heated but has expansive views, sun loungers and a bar, and is next to the pretty kitchen garden - idyllic.
Six Senses is world-renowned for its focus on spas and wellbeing. The therapists are mostly local as befits the company's ethos of integrating into the community, and they have been thoroughly trained for six weeks. Book on arrival because, although there are 10 treatment rooms, you will want to be in one of the four that look into the gardens. It's a tonic just to feel the power of nature. The Schist Stone and Almond Body Soother massage (€150 for 90 mins) involved deep-tissue massage with some much-needed stretching. Melanie, my therapist, began with donging the singing bowls, which resonated into my body; then the stones were placed in my hands, to connect me to the earth. I felt lasting benefits - relaxed, yet energised - the perfect combo. For the Rose Crystal Lymphatic Facial (€105 for 60 mins), Sandra massaged in a multitude of Organic Pharmacy products, containing rosehip, seaweed, honey, jasmine and collagen. She used three masks to decongest, brighten and hydrate my skin, while massaging my hands, feet, neck and shoulders to relax me all over. It's a thoroughly pampering and uplifting facial.
Deep into wine country, where six generations have been making and exporting port to the world, the resort gamely offers guests the chance not only to try some of Portugal's crisp and aromatic whites and bold, fruity reds, but to learn a little more along the way. Wine-tasting trips out into the vineyards to visit the traditional white-washed quintas are a fun way to explore the region. A boat-ride up river immerses you in the landscape as you sail the morning away en route to lunch at one of Portugal's most highly rated restaurants, DOC, on the riverbank. The new visitors' centre at Quinta da Roeda is housed in the old farm buildings and, as well as tasting the famous Croft ports (est. 1588), at harvest time you can join a group and tread the grapes by foot as they still do up and down the valley. Back at the resort, if you can tear yourself away from the pool terrace, explore the forest - either on a guided walk or by yourself, or on a forest meditation, or simply book an organic picnic in one of the three Nestrests - pods with a view.
Fresh, healthy, tasty is the Six Senses way, and the Douro Valley is famous not only for its wines but it also grows an abundance of olives and almonds. For lunch and dinner on the restaurant's secluded terrace, or inside by the open kitchen, go light with Atlantic fish and seafood from the Portuguese coastal waters; or hearty dishes come in the form of local stews with pork, sausage, white beans and rice. The test of a good restaurant is if the locals keep coming back, and the chefs need to be on their game to please the local winemakers and vineyard owners who have feasted on delicious home cooking all their lives. The menu always includes an authentic Portuguese dish of day, from oven-baked cod, with cornbread crust, tomato and migas; to sautéed pork Alentejana style, with clams, potatoes, coriander and lemon; or octopus, with baked potatoes, sautéed turnip tops and olives. Homegrown organic herbs, salad leaves, fruit and veg are tossed into quinoa tabbouleh or accompany regional cheese and charcuterie as homemade pickles.
If you have a head for heights then the tree climb activity in the forest is exhilarating. Over in the spa, they have launched their Integrated Wellness consultation (introductory offer of €90, usual price €250). Just a few minutes with their 'wonder machine' and it produces a flood of data for the spa director to analyse. It's not certified medical, let's call it wellness, but I found his consultation fascinating. The data lets you know what, in your body, is in the normal range and what's over and under that mark - so my bmi and hydration, for example, are spot on, but I should take a closer look at my nutrition and perhaps get a thyroid check. I'd love to go back in a year and see how the lifestyle changes that I make have taken effect.
Words: Laura Ivill