At Sul Villas & Spa on the island of São Miguel there’s one word that sums up the experience — contemplation. This small boutique hotel is the ideal place to plan, to dream or simply the ideal spot to rest the mind and escape the worries of a busy European metropolitan life.
Text: Chris Graeme
You don’t come to Sul Villas & Spa for a hectic action holiday — although you can and the Island of São Miguel offers a vast array of radical sports such as canyoning, body boarding, surfing, canoeing, deep sea diving, volcanic walks through prehistoric forests and trips to the ocean to view majestic Sperm whales that will truly humble — you come to this little spot of paradise to get in touch with your soul, recharge your batteries and contemplate what’s really important in life, and these are usually the small but precious things: family, children, friends, good food and wine, and nature.
The first thing you notice from the balcony of your self-contained villa is endless ocean preceded by a swathe of lush green, a small white church and few fishing cottages.
The calm is overwhelming and washes over you like the sounds of the waves crashing on the dark volcanic cliffs to the right. At night you hear nothing apart form the sound of crickets, waves and the solitary intermittent bell softly sounding from the steeple. If you happen to be there during a full moon, as I was, you see the moonlight literally scintillate on the black, heaving ocean.
Sul Villas & Spa opened its doors around a year ago, immediately making the list of indispensable luxury getaways on São Miguel, the largest island of the Azores archipelago.
The luxury is best defined as discreet simplicity, because it offers the luxury of space, time, peace, fine regional cuisine and the kind of intimacy that can only be found with few people. It is the absolute antithesis of the bustling Algarve resorts and at a fraction of the price of those secluded six-star golf resorts found in Quinta do Lago.
Located on the South side of the island, close to the picturesque town of Lagoa, the Atlantic Ocean is the main star of the Sul Villas & Spa.
All of the villas offer an unimpeded view over Santa Cruz Bay with the ocean as the stage. A salt water infinity pool on the terrace below the main building with panoramic windows which houses the reception and joint breakfast/dining room, adds a splash of blue to offset the green, earthen browns and volcanic greys in the surrounding landscape.
The architecture is white and contemporary and the entire project is completely hidden from the main overhanging road and unless you know of its existence, you would never guess that the development was even there.
The project was designed by Rui Sabino de Sousa, from the SAL Works studio in the capital of São Miguel, Ponta Delgada.
The 12 villas are divided into three types – Junior Suites, Junior Suites with Pool and Prime Suites – all of them have one thing in common — space. (with areas between 38 m2 and 64 m2), offering total privacy and maximum comfort. All boast a fully equipped kitchenette, air conditioning and heating, o Bluetooth sound system and feee Wi-Fi, to make this an even more complete experience.
Defined as studio villas, the Junior Suites feature wide and spacious terraces from which you can soak up the magnificent view in total privacy.
These villas can only be described as natural, minimalist and organic. Clean lines offset by noble woods and materials from the region dominate and each with a terrace and small heated pool, private garden and outdoor shower.
The larger elegant Prime Suites offer 64 m2 divided between an ample room with a double bed, a dressing room with sofa-bed and the terrace with jacuzzi with unspoilt ocean views.
In search of whales
We got up early to enjoy a yoga session under the pergola with its comfortable sofas. The crisp morning air whets the appetite for a continental breakfast although scrambled eggs and bacon or pancakes are also on a menu with traditional Azores breads including the famous Pão Lêvedo which are soft, sweet and kind of like crumpets without the holes.
I was more frugal with my early morning intake than usual, as the often rough seas off the South coast of the island beckoned for a spot of whale watching. Setting out mid-morning with local company Terra Azul, I needn’t have worried about ‘feeding the fishes’ as the term of being sick at sea is know here, as the sea was like a millpond and we managed to spot no less than five different species of whales, two female sperm whales and a young male who courteously displayed his fabulous tail fin before disappearing beneath the blue.
We were also guided on either side of our orange inflatable speed boat by pods of curious Atlantic spotted dolphins on their way back to Miami, and a rare kind of beaked whale that is very shy and which, we were reliably informed by our French guide and whale expert, hadn’t been spotted since 2015. The tour takes about two and a half hours while more extensive day trips can include a stop-off at the Vila Franca Island Nature Reserve. Whale watching packages start from as little as €70.
The sea air had fired up a healthy appetite, and of course you cannot go to the Azores without sampling its fresh fish and seafood caught daily from the surrounding seas teaming with skipjack, wreck fish, black scabbard, squid, octopus, the freshest tuna you will ever taste, amberjack, gulley jack and emperor. At a simple local restaurant off the beaten tourist track we plumped for a delicious fresh fish and prawn strew and white grilled fish with boiled potatoes, salad and olive oil dressing but crab and limpets with garlic and lemon are also a speciality in these islands.
And while the Azores are not well known for their wines, we did sample a light, crisp and dry white wine produced on the island of Pico which goes so well with fish we ordered it again in Ponta Delgado at one of the best Peruvian-Japanese fish fusion restaurants in the world – Õtaka with signature cuisine by Chef José Pereira who took us through no less than 12 courses of ‘amuse bouche’ in what can only be called a chilled culinary seafood safari of subtle but exquisite tastes wit dishes that are as much a feast for the eyes as they are for the taste palate.
With a visit to a local pottery Cerâmica Vieira which has been producing high-quality local clay ware since 1862 to pick up a few souvenirs we head back to our little piece of paradise for an Ayurvedic message in the spa. Sounds relaxing and ideal? I am informed by my practitioner that I am basically a musculoskeletal car crash, there is no gain without pain and get pulverised mercilessly like a piece of raw steak in need of tendering. I am told this will do me good – and must add that I willingly signed up to this more vigorous massage option – I didn’t feel so good the next day and fear I may need a wheelchair, but am assured of its long-term benefits.
The Spa and small gym fitted with exercise equipment, features massage rooms, a Vichy shower room, with aromatherapy and chromotherapy, and a whole host of treatments with Azores brand products ‘Essentia Azorica’ made from local plants and evergreen trees.
Still, apart from such horizontally challenging moments, there was a more uplifting one on the last afternoon when we head up into the volcanic heights of São Miguel through corridors of blue, pink and mauve hyacinths …. Don’t worry Mrs Bucket was nowhere to be seen … to look down over the two volcanic craters of Sete Cidades and marvel at one of the wonders of the natural world, two lakes, one turquoise, the other sapphire blue, separated by a narrow winding road which snakes between them and the result of collapsed caldeiras from volcanic activity millions of years ago.