Paraiso Escondido, Portugal
Personalised restorative retreats on a stunning estate in the Alentejo hills
Best for: Seekers of the slow life who are open to self-exploration
Not for: Those looking for a detox, unless you can resist the temptation of the well-stocked bar featuring award-winning local wines
Perched on top of a hill in the South West Alentejo and Costa Vicentina national park, Paraiso Escondido has been carefully planned to be a place where you can revel in the slow life. Sharing much of the natural beauty of neighbouring Algarve, the protected status of Alentejo’s coastline keeps development at bay. Lovingly run by its owners, Mozambique-born artist Berny Serrão and her husband Glenn, whose philosophy is living in harmony, retreats are personally designed for your needs and can include art classes, wine tasting and coastal sports as well as yoga, qigong, treatments and healthy eating. The experience is crafted to stimulate the senses and immerse you in the abundance of local nature, and there’s a tranquil spa, scenic yoga studio and refreshing swimming pool. The 10-rooms are spaciously distributed – two are built on stilts edging into the forest below. While respecting rural Portugal, the vibe is African lodge meets Asian temple, which reflects the couple’s journey before settling here.
Berny is a caring and thoughtful host who’ll make sure that this is all about you, from designing a tailored programme of activities to taking time to find out what makes you tick. Thanks to her, you’ll leave feeling royally pampered. The plant-based food has a deservedly fab reputation and is largely sourced from small, local producers.
All the bedrooms are doubles – so you’ll only want to share with those closest to you if bringing a friend or partner.
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An array of creative and physical activities are on offer from yoga and qigong to art classes and horse riding along the clifftops, from cooking demonstrations to wine tasting, all chosen to inspire and immerse you in the local environment.
On these 3, 5 or 7 night bespoke retreats your host Berny will take time to find out about your preferences and tailor a suitable blend of experience to suite your wellbeing goals. Choose from a pick and mix of activities including yoga, qigong, massage, clifftop horse riding, canoeing, wine tasting and cookery demos.
Iyengar yoga and Qigong classes are available with former French dancer Louise Chardon, who lives in the valley below. She’s an attentive and kind guide, whose careful adjustments will shift you back into alignment. The yoga studio is situated on a prime spot with fantastic views over the hills – you wouldn’t guess it’s made from upcycled shipping containers. Louise has been teaching for 20 years and is also trained in Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique. She takes a somatic approach to movement.
Art sessions with Berny can be booked as and when you want. Berny isn’t just a talented artist, she’s a lovely teacher who uses art as a therapeutic tool to increase mindfulness. Rather than learning new techniques, art classes are designed to unblock, liberate and connect to local nature. They’re also a lot of fun, even for those who think they can’t draw.
There are two good masseurs at the beautiful on-site spa, both of them trained in Ayurvedic techniques. Utkarsh Vyas was firm without being brutal on our reviewer, tackling knots and tight spots with a combination of deep tissue and aromatherapy. Head massages and reflexology are also available.
Vegetarian cooking demonstrations are run by chef Hugo Nascimento, who grew up in the kitchens of celebrity chef Vitor Sobral, helping him to reinvent Portuguese gastronomy. With an array of local ingredients including Sorrel flowers, fennel and whatever’s in season in the garden outside, he’ll inspire you with clever tips that can turn home cooking into something much more Michelin-style, taking a simple head of broccoli, for example, and presenting it in three differently delicious ways.
Not only is the vineyard a picturesque spot for a selfie, but you can’t beat the experience of sampling wine amidst the grapes that it came from. Portuguese wine deserves to be better known, and this feels like an immersion in local artisan culture, rather than an excuse to get a bit tipsy.
Paraiso Escondido is set in 20 acres of national park, and it’s lovely to walk in the grounds and stop to gaze at the panorama, especially at sunrise. The only sounds you’ll hear are dogs barking and the clonk of cow bells from the valley below. Thoroughly de-stress by trekking through the eucalyptus wood.
Being a forgotten backwater has been a huge advantage to Alejente. The beaches here rival the Algarve’s for white sand and bounteous surf, but tourist development has been kept at bay due to the district’s protection as a natural national park. If you want to avoid the crowds, stay away in July and August.
A clifftop ride with the wind in your hair is a great way to lose inhibitions. The session starts with a spot of grooming, where the German couple who run the local riding school observe your personality so that they can match you with the right horse. The group size is reassuringly small.
Not as strenuous as it sounds, the favourable current means that you can almost glide 15km down to the lovely seaside town of Vila Nova de Milfontes. Because of the wide river, this is prime kayaking territory, and the experience of being immersed in nature is unforgettable.
Bedrooms: Each room is named after a tea and has its own theme, with furnishings and artwork from Berny and Glenn’s time in Africa and Asia. From the Jasmine and Verbena suites to the Lúcia Lima double, white paint and white linen bedding act as a cool backdrop to pops of bright colour and soft cushions. They’re all marvellously comfortable, relaxing and beautiful spaces with ensuite bathrooms and a private outside sitting area. Bear in mind that the beds are doubles, so you’ll only want to share with those closest to you.
Wooden bungalows on stilts: For a forest immersion with an African lodge vibe, there are two comfortable en suite bungalows which sit on stilts about five minutes’ walk from the main house. These have large outside verandas so you can privately revel in the fantastic views over the surrounding eucalyptus wood. Less colourful than the main house, they’re decorated in Scandi tones with soft beige furnishings, allowing you to focus on the beauty outside.
Grab a cup of tea and walk to the secluded hilltop bench for an awesome orange sunrise. The temperature drops at night, so its fun trying to figure out the hills from the misty cloud. Out of season is perfect for a blast of winter sunshine, but it gets really cold in the evening, despite the cosy fire. Pack slippers and a warm scarf to keep snug.
When to Go
The retreat is open all year and the busiest period is July and August. Best to avoid the crowds and head there in springtime to enjoy the copious flowers which come into bloom. In winter, on sunny days the temperature can reach 20 degrees with a brilliant blue sky.
Meals take place in the main dining area with a panoramic view over the Alentejo hills. You’ll want to eat here because the unexpectedly good food is inspired by Asian cuisine and seasonal produce. The menu is plant-based, built on ayurvedic principles and big on flavour and presentation. Where possible ingredients are sourced from local artisan suppliers and Glenn’s organic vegetable garden. For those who want to take advantage of the local seafood, they’ll book you a table at a nearby restaurant.
The breakfast highlight is Glenn’s scrambled eggs – a dish that has been praised by visiting chefs. It’s served alongside freshly baked local bread, goats cheese from a neighbouring farm and a hefty bowl of fruit. Expect a selection of healthy salads featuring seasonal roasted vegetables, spicy soups and nourishing bowls for lunch, often with an unexpected twist. The plant-based dinner menu features delights like cauliflower tandoori with roasted butternut, coriander, hazelnuts and pomegranate. It’s a riot of colour and flavour. Topping the desert menu is cacao fondant with matcha ice cream, orange and olive oil reduction.
Pukka herbal teas are available, as well as fresh herb brews from the garden. Sustainability is a big deal and they’ve made an effort to source coffee in recyclable pods. Bottles of filtered water are in each room. If you fancy something a bit stronger, there’s a gin menu, local spirit Medronho and a wide choice of regional wines available at the honesty bar.
Situated in a national park, sustainability is a priority. Water is heated by solar power and ethical products are used for cleaning and washing, including refillable REN products in the bathrooms. To reduce washing, guests’ towels are labelled and line-dried in the sun. They’re always seeking ways to improve, like changing the swimming pool from chlorine to salt and removing plastic. Glass bottles of filtered water are in all the rooms and they use compostable coffee pods. The yoga studio is made from upcycled shipping containers, covered in local cork (a naturally renewable wood) and there’s a charging station for electric vehicles.
Caixa Postal 5550-A, Casa Nova Da Cruz 7630-568 São Teotónio, Portugal
Nearest airport: Faro
Transfer time: 1 hour 15 minutes