When Europe’s leading boutique hotel (for 11 consecutive years) invite you to stay, you don’t say no. Especially when it is 5 star, has a restaurant with not one but 2 Michelin stars and oh, did I mention, is in Portugal?
Where: Vila Joya, Estrada da Galé, 8200-416 Albufeira, Algarve, Portugal www.vilajoya.com
First Impressions: Arriving at Vila Joya in time for breakfast, every member of staff greeted us with “Welcome to Paradise”. By the time breakfast is over, you see why. Originally a family villa, Vila Joya has discreet luxury written all over it. Even the painted sign on the front gate gives nothing away – driving past you’d think it was simply a holiday home – but inside, meticulous attention to detail and impeccably attentive but not at all in-your-face staff create a feeling of calm and familiarity, as is you are in your own home. In my suite (No.7 – my favourite of all I saw), a hand-calligraphed note welcomed me further, with a red rose and bottle of Champagne welcomed by me.
The Look: It’s no exaggeration that the decor of Vila Joya resembles that of my dream home. Antique pieces of furniture from across the globe sit alongside thick, heavy natural linen curtains, cream tweed sofas, cork flooring and pearlised shell ornaments. If you’re wondering where the luxurious element comes in, the fact that my suite is larger than my flat in London should just about explain it (85m²). A walk-in-wardrobe that was itself almost the same size as the bedroom would’ve sufficed, as would the wet room with double power shower and Molton Brown toiletries. My bathtub came in handy for a very indulgent morning bath and the sitting room – well, I didn’t actually get a chance to use it. Pottery and china throughout the hotel is handmade by local artisans and available for purchase should you wish for a useful and actually nice momento of your holiday. The cappuccino cups with pointed bases and twisted handles are a must.
The Area: Known for it’s world-class golf courses and beautiful beaches, the Algarve is a great spot for a total escape. Less than 3 hours from London and only about half an hour from Faro airport, Vila Joya is enviably positioned overlooking (and with steps down to) the beach. If you manage to drag yourself out of the hotel, let alone out of your bed, the area boasts gorgeous countryside and some wonderful beach front restaurants, of which we dined at two. The locals are unbelievably friendly and welcome you like long lost family members, proud to share with you their traditions and hard-work. If you don’t like seafood, be it oysters that were brought in 15 minutes ago and now sit on ice before you or sea bream, grilled to perfection and expertly de-boned at the end of your table, then skip the Algarve.
Facilities: A small but perfectly formed spa boasts sound healing and yoga as well as sauna, steam room, hot tub and indoor/outdoor showers. Any shower which has the choice of Siberian rain (howling wind sound effects) or tropical thunderstorm (birds tweeting and the smell of foliage) is fine by me. My favourite area in the spa was the candlelit curtained-off alcoves, ready for you to lie down in, either asleep or with a book. My back, neck and shoulder massage was performed by angelic hands and from that moment on I’m sure I wafted around the hotel free of any trace of London stress. Amazing really, since it was the first day, only a few hours after we arrived and the effects of my 2am wake up were starting to kick in.
What We Ate: The restaurant at Vila Joya is Portugal’s only 2 Michelin star restaurant, and one of only a handful worldwide. Such a gastronomical experience tends to be somewhere you seek out and travel to if you’re lucky enough to get a table and although non-guests can experience the magic, guests can of course enjoy it whenever they wish. Remarkably, Head Chef, Dieter Koschino, changes the menu every single night, depending on the produce brought in that day. A 1am phone call to local fishermen gives him a few hours to dream up that night’s menu – all six courses of it. Despite being unbelievable demonstrations of culinary flair and artistry, the food was overwhelmingly recognisable in terms of flavours and ingredients – nothing was so far removed from it’s original state that it defeated the point of eating quality fresh local ingredients and, actually, I think this is harder to achieve than a nondescript and relatively irrelevant cloud of smoke across your plate. What the menu referred to as pork belly, pulpo and chorizo was actually a layered cube of smoked ham, chorizo tortellini, delicate pork ballotine, a foam full of flavour and mini leaves of basil. The perfect example of remaining true to ingredients but bringing them out in the best possible way.
Somehow we managed to work up an appetite in time for breakfast and just as well because it didn’t let the side down. The marble dining table is full of every fruit you can imagine as well as cured meats, a cheese trolley, dessert table and, my favourite, the juice table. About six different juices to choose from every morning, the vibrantly coloured bottles ranged from carrot and mango to strawberry and blueberry. A detox shot is brought to the table without asking, and eggs and bacon are available whichever way you like them. Scrambled were my favourite.
What We Drank: Where good food is, good wine follows. Portugal is known for it’s amazing wines but unfortunately they are often overlooked, partly due to insufficient volume for export, it just makes drinking it out there even more special. Vinho verde was a favourite during our time; a crisp, fresh, young Portuguese white, unlike anything you can really get at home. A wine tasting from Head Sommelier, Arnaud (yes, he’s French), had us trying some amazing bottles, and the pairing option with dinner means this continued. If nothing else, it’s worth it for the incredible selection of wine glasses brought over to you. Including one that was without a doubt the biggest glass I’ve ever seen. As well as regional Portuguese wines with dinner, Port was brought over towards the end. Post-dinner (I am still unsure how we managed to consume anything else), cocktails in the lounge were expertly and imaginatively made by the barman and my espresso martini was one of the best I’ve had.
Go With: The hotel was fully booked when we were there but we barely saw another person. I did see staff carrying empty trays away from bedrooms though, and you can see the appeal of room service – I never wanted to leave my room. When we did spot other guests, they were, as expected, slightly older, impeccably dressed and very relaxed looking. A very intimate wedding was taking place during our stay and, as someone who has never really seen the appeal of an overseas ceremony, I would absolutely make an exception here.
Final word: Vila Joya have proudly and successfully redefined luxury. No one wants white-gloved doormen any more and if they do, they go to Dubai. I completely agree that that kind of service – whilst amazing – has you slightly on edge the whole time. Here, you wouldn’t flinch at the thought of your waiter passing you as you float through reception in your towelling robe, post massage. Speaking of floating, I wish I could have floated around in my robe forever but, as they say, all good things must come to an end. Paradise indeed.
Monarch, the scheduled leisure airline, operates flights to Faro from Birmingham, Leeds Bradford, London Gatwick, London Luton and Manchester airports with fares, including taxes, starting from £69 one way (£134 return). For further information or to book Monarch flights, Monarch Holidays or Monarch Hotels, please visit www.monarch.co.uk.
Thanks also to Phizz who kept us hydrated on the flight.
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Fran can be found sipping espresso martinis by night and, by day, on the hunt for London's best brunch. Bonus points for a runny yolk and the perfect flat white.