We’d been in two minds about the trip – flying to Faro on Portugal’s Algarve coast and heading not for the famous beaches but for the hills. In November.
But the man at the car hire desk smiled broadly when we told him we were going to be staying at the Macdonald Monchique Resort and Spa. “You’re going to love it”, he said.
An hour’s drive in 20 degrees of sunshine later and hubby and I were already thinking he might well be right. The hotel is of a pleasing modern design, with different levels cascading down the lightly wooded hillside. It almost looks like the hotel walked halfway up the slope, stopped to admire the view and decided to snuggle down where it stood.
Most of the hotel’s huge floor to ceiling windows are orientated around this view which extends over rolling country right out to the sea, sparkling in the distance 20 miles away. And it is this privileged position, set among the pine, olive and eucalyptus forests and close to a natural spring, that makes a stay at the property so special.
Hitting our stride
Because as well as being a wonderful place in which to relax and unwind – the spa is outstanding, of which more later – the hotel offers free guided walks five mornings a week that make enjoying the scenery easy, sociable and great fun. With a choice of three 1-2 hour walks, different abilities are effortlessly catered for, led by helpful, English-speaking guides from the hotel’s leisure team. Our group of eight was fascinated to be shown cork trees freshly shorn of their bark (it re-grows every decade), the cherry-like fruits of the Medronho bush which is used to make the local firewater, and carob trees festooned with blackened pods of chocolatey seeds.
Water of Life
On another walk, we took the scenic route to Caldas de Monchique, the natural spring that has put the area on the map. Pouring from granite rocks set among leafy ferns, the water tastes pure and clean straight from the spout, but with a pH reading of 9.5, it is unusually alkaline and noted for its health-giving properties. And it is this spring which has fostered the growth of the pretty village nearby, and inspired the development of what is now the lovely Macdonald Monchique Resort and Spa.
Originally built in 2010 as a place for recuperation, the Scottish hotel group Macdonald took over and refurbished the property in 2016. Perhaps because of its earlier history, the 184 rooms are all suites with a spacious lounge-diner (complete with Nespresso coffee machine, kettle, fridge and microwave), two modern bathrooms and a separate bedroom, in our case with a large terrace beyond, from which to enjoy That View. With its expansive windows and organic colours, the accommodation is light, airy and a pleasure to spend time in. As a consequence, even in high season, we’re told the property never feels crowded.
The off-season suited us though. The place was quiet but still had an easy rhythm. Our fellow guests were German, Spanish but mostly British, including a couple celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary and four 50-something sisters having a ball on a rare reunion. The Macdonald Monchique staff are a delight – friendly but professional. Luis the barman charmed us with tales of his previous lives. But when my husband said that he hoped to eat wild boar (a regional speciality) during his stay, Luis looked bemused. Something was being lost in translation. “Ah – wild boar! Not wild bear!” he finally exclaimed.
Breakfast was a grand buffet affair in a bright and inviting open-plan area, with freshly squeezed orange juice on tap plus sliced papaya, melon and pineapple, a vast array of the mouth-watering breads for which Portugal is justly celebrated, plus local meats and cheeses, or Full English if you had room. Lunch was available in Mon-Chic, a stylish restaurant offering informal lunches by day and smarter à la carte dining by night. The pork was more flavoursome than we seem to get in the UK these days while the steamed sea bass with sweet potatoes was only bettered by the deconstructed ‘Ferrero Rocher’ dessert of dark chocolate mousse, hazelnut mousse and salted caramel. Yum!
Fortunately, after that dessert, the rest of the free leisure programme was at hand. Anna the Pilates instructor expertly took our group of four older travellers (one recovering from a broken toe!) gently through its paces, from Bridge to Plank and back, and other Stretching, Zumba and Cross-training classes were on offer throughout the week. There’s also a well-equipped gym.
But the piece de resistance of the Macdonald Monchique property is its spa. Carolyn, the Scottish Spa Manager, welcomed us with the ease that comes with over 20 years experience. Once in our bathrobes (and feeling reassured that we kept our swimwear on!) we were wafted through to the deeply impressive Thermal Suite.
This mosaic-tiled, modern-day grotto includes roomy rainforest and storm showers complete with sound and light effects, an aroma room with a choice of scents, a steam room, an ice cave (where you might, like us, discover your inner child as you stuff ice flakes down your partner’s swimwear), a foot spa (like a mini Jacuzzi for the toes and arches) and a smartly-finished sauna where you could lie out and look at the clouds beyond as the temperature rose around you. Heated tiled loungers invited relaxation in the main suite area and on one side of the inviting, heated indoor pool.
No more than 12 people share the Thermal Suite at any one time if you are having a spa treatment as well it’s a lovely way to cleanse and chill.
“You can call me bad names if you want”
After the thermal suite, I was ready for my back, should and neck massage. Softly-spoken John introduced himself and led the way to the treatment room. Now I’m not a great one for this sort of thing – sometimes a massage can seem to me like a rather expensive way of having your back stroked. So after I’d worked out which way round the paper pants went (big bit at the front – it took me two goes!), had chosen Sandalwood and Myrrh as my choice of oils, and John had soothingly asked if the temperature alright, I wasn’t expecting much. With gentle melodies wafting through the darkened room, and John pleasantly massaging my middle back, I was ready to drift off.
But I hadn’t reckoned on John finding what felt like two Kinder Eggs above my shoulder blades. Too much time in front of a computer screen, not enough stretching – I knew my neck was a bit seized up; I could hear the grind of the muscles if I turned from side to side.
For John, this was a mission he was made for. After checking that I was happy to have a deep tissue rub, a massage demon took the place of the quiet man. “You can call me bad names if you like” he whispered as if he could read my mind as his elbows and fingers went to work on all the tangled tendons. But in 25 minutes he had unravelled the Gordian knot in my shoulders and neck where many before had failed. Hubby – not a spa natural – was equally impressed by how much better his back felt after his massage. We left feeling released, relaxed and revitalised.
Like the whole Macdonald Monchique resort complex, this is a spa that really knows how to deliver!