A new type of vacation: Small Boutique Accommodations in the Algarve provide serenity, tranquillity and privacy
Like many of the world’s popular destinations, the Algarve has gained a reputation for offering a fine range of excellent hotels, from the small and friendly to the exclusive and luxurious. Famous brand names, golden sand beaches and renowned golf courses add to their appeal, along with crafted interior design, manicured landscape gardens and professional customer service. After all, isn’t that what everyone wants? Apparently not.
The region also offers a fine collection of what are often described as “boutique” accommodations, often located away from the coastline, usually privately owned and managed by couples or individuals who have converted their own properties. They offer something that their guests describe as a bit more authentic. In my ambition to uncover what their appeal is all about and to understand the mindset of those who prefer them, l am heading for the hills.
The Farmhouse of the Palms Boutique Accomodation located in São Brás de Alportel
Turning off the main road leading to São Brás de Alportel, a very narrow road starts to climb a hillside and within a few minutes, the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere is unavoidable. With a little time to kill, l stopped to take a stroll into one of the roadside fields. If l was wanting to get an example of the area’s appeal, l didn’t need to wait very long as a small herd of goats led by a local farmer came over to say hello. This is the peaceful countryside with the sound of birdsongs, goat bells and views across the fields of almond and carob trees to the valley below. Now, l am all the more intrigued as to what l am about to find at the Farmhouse of the Palms, just around the corner.
Even by the definition of “boutique” accommodation being small, this place is small, with only seven suites and one more on the way. Here, the word ‘authentic’ fits like a glove and as the charm of this fabulous 300-year-old Algarvian farmhouse hits me full-on, l am met by the owner, Frank. As we walked and talked around his property, the care taken in the restoration and the sophisticated and simplistic atmosphere were everywhere to be seen and felt. The interiors are white, the rooms are spacious with minimalistic decoration and wooden doors and rustic tiles add to the ambiance and the feeling of being back in time. I wouldn’t have been surprised if at any moment a donkey-drawn cart carrying water from a local well appeared from nowhere. The pool terrace is overlooked by no one except the birds, and the star of the show has to be the upper roof terrace with a double bed where you can spend warm summer nights under the stars.
Indeed, Frank and his partner, Veronique, have spent the last few years painstakingly working to keep the property as close to the original character as possible whilst making sure their guests will be very comfortable with modern improvements like double-glazed windows and underfloor heating. When I asked for another word that their customers used to describe the appeal of this place, ‘unpretentious’ was the one given. It seems that the lack of pool bars, reception desks and the standard requirements of a hotel are not missed at all. Instead, serenity, tranquillity, privacy and being away from the busy coast take their places.
The Lemon Tree Stay Boutique Accommodation, right in the heart of Faro
Moving back down to the coast and into the heart of Faro, I visited my second destination, a small guesthouse named Lemon Tree Stay. Catering for a maximum of 16 guests, the other definition of a “boutique” accommodation as providing personal service, also fits like a glove. This property is another old family house, once surrounded by fields and, again, it has been beautifully restored and developed. The first thing that I and everyone experiences when they arrive is a simple yellow door set into a tall white outside wall, that once stepped through reveals a hidden courtyard. And guess what, it has a large lemon tree in the middle. All of a sudden, I am in a private place, and whilst the sounds of a city cannot be erased, it is surprisingly peaceful and very homely.
The owner, Vasco, being an architect, with a wonderful sense of design and attention to detail, tells me that he created it this way more for himself than for his intended guests. He wanted it this way in respect of the property’s family history, and I suspect his own childhood memories. I loved the way that each room has its own character and some of the design choices are a little bold, with the black tiles in the bathrooms to contrast the light walls. One room even has a hammock on the balcony. There is an open-air bar up on the top floor that is open during the summer months. Vasco has also adopted an interesting ‘open’ policy, with an honesty fridge and no staff on site after 8pm, with a system in place for later arrivals. A well-equipped kitchen is available to use, wine bottles are left in the open, and trust is extended to guests to pay for what they use and clear up after themselves. I am assured that up until now this policy has been respected by all.
Both accommodations have the same goal: a desire to keep a local connection and to give back to the community
In both cases, the two owners of these accommodations have created something that very much reflects their own characters, showing a desire to keep a local connection and to give back to the community by keeping as much of the original features and materials in place as possible. Furniture, fittings and decoration are also locally sourced. The same applies to the stone and tiles. These are very personalised places that they would choose to stay in themselves. Fortunately, they want to share it with others as well.
Another interesting aspect of both accommodations is that neither serves evening meals. When I questioned if this was seen as a negative, the answer was no, not really. Frank from the farmhouse commented that when he offered them, guests preferred to go out and explore the local restaurants. In the case of the Lemon Tree Stay, there are plenty of excellent options within a few minutes’ walk, which adds to the pleasure of keeping things simple.
If the success of a concept is measured by being fully booked for most of the coming summer without the need to do any marketing (outside of popular booking websites), then both of these businesses are successful indeed.
Talking about this led to the obvious question of expanding and repeating the formula. The answer came as no surprise to me, with Vasco commenting he had thought about it: “But, you know, I’m Portuguese. This is working fine for me, why take on the extra hassle?” he said. Frank gave a similar response in this is only being about making a good living from their home and not running a business simply for the sake of making money.
Does the rise of these small, intimate and relaxing accommodations represent some kind of change in traveller’s attitude towards staying in the Algarve? Certainly not, but it does serve to show that the more authentic, simplistic option is available without sacrificing comfort and I am sure that, as the rural areas continue to develop, we will have a lot more of them to choose from in the future.