Nature and Tradition in the Azores
Nature and space are at a premium in these anxious times of Covid-19. One ancient Azores family have come up with the perfect place to relax and unwind away from the tumultuous crowds at the Senhora da Rosa Tradition & Nature Hotel.
By Chris Graeme
I don’t usually get super excited by an invitation to cover a new boutique hotel or resort development. After all, when you’ve seen as many as I have, it ends up by being an overload of luxury underwhelmed by a lack of local context.
Unless, of course, there is an interesting story behind it. A fascinating history stretching back centuries, or a tale of struggle, self sacrifice and the sheer willpower to succeed when all of the odds were stacked against you.
The Senhora da Rosa Tradition & Nature Hotel project by Joana and Miguel Damião Melo amazingly has both! It is just the project to admire and inspire, not because of the ecological and sustainable ethic behind this boutique hotel on the island of São Miguel in the Azores; but rather the sheer story of blood, sweat and tears that lies behind it.
This project comes from the ancient Azorian Damião Melo family which can trace its lineage back several hundred years when it was used to hobnobbing with the local island aristocracy in the 18th and 19th centuries.
I feel a little background history is needed to show not just why this development is so exciting, but how the family faced financial disaster at least twice in its long history.
Joana Damião Melo tells the remarkable story of a wealthy merchant family which grew oranges on its estate for sale to the English market which traditionally had had close commercial relations with Portugal, Madeira and the Azores since the times of Catherine of Braganza who married English King Charles II in the second half of the 17th century.
Indeed, perhaps one of the oranges sold by wanna-be actress Nell Gwynn to the King while on a stroll in Green Park, London – she would go on to become one of his favourite mistresses and a leading theatre star — may have come from one of the surrounding estates, one of which Joana’s family would go on to found later in the 18th century.
A few of the orange trees on this 3 hectare estate dating from that time still exist in the orchard of Senhora da Rosa, although Joana admits that they are the sole survivors of an orange blight that ravaged the island in the 19th century and destroyed the oranges for decades to come.
But rather than face financial ruin, the resourceful Damião Melo family switched to growing pineapples which they still produce to this day in special greenhouses on the estate and which also supply the hotel kitchens and restaurant.
The second major family crisis hit in the Great Recession of 2007-2014 and destroyed the long-cherished dream of her father who had invested millions in the Senhora da Rosa project which opened 1994, only to see the tourists dry up when the economy collapsed and the bank loans were called in during the crisis.
Now, 25 years later, the former Estalagem Senhora da Rosa, in the São Miguel capital Ponta Delgada district of Fajã de Baixo will reopen after nine years closure as a four star boutique and spa hotel linked to nature and tradition in a €6 million refit and refurbishment by Atelier Vietas in a project that will create around 20 new jobs.
The Senhora da Rosa Tradition & Nature Hotel will have 35 rooms and suites (4 single rooms, 16 standard rooms, 11 deluxe rooms, 1 junior suite, 1 two-bedroom family suite, and two tranquility garden lodges — all of which have been completely rethought and refurbished with interior décor by Joana’s mother, well-known interior designer Lili Damião and her brother Miguel who took the stunning giant-size photographs of dramatic São Miguel landscapes which adorn the walls of the bedrooms and suites. A restaurant adjoining a family chapel, which will draw on fresh produce from the estate’s vegetable and herb gardens, is slated to open in the autumn and the hotel itself by the end of this year or the beginning of next.
The hotel’s reception and public areas will feature various services and facilities including the Magma Restaurant and Bar serving food using fresh seafood and garden produce from the Azores island, the Mirante Rooftop Bar, 2 meetings and events rooms, the Musgo SPA with 4 treatment rooms, sauna, steam bath, gym and studio with pilates machines.
Many of the treatments offered at the spa as well as the toiletries in the hotel suites and rooms use locally produced herbs and products.
Other facilities include an outdoor swimming pool and a hot tub within the pineapple plantation, a kid’s club, 2 padel tennis courts, private parking space, gardened areas and a chapel built in 1897.
Both Joana and her brother Miguel mortgaged everything they had and went through hell and high water to secure a loan from Portugal 2020 arguing that the estate and project were of special economic and historic significance to the island after several Portuguese banks slammed the door in their faces because the family was tainted by the past association of bankruptcy.
The brother and sister (70% share) have also joined forces with the investment company Raposo & Salazar whose members are José Pedro Sousa and José Salazar (30% share).
Joana Melo serves us a sumptuous dinner based on local beef, seafood and fresh fish and explains the frustration she had trying to convince the banks that the project was a worthwhile investment.
From her glass apartment with 360º views over the project which will include a rooftop bar open to the public, she apologies for the seeming disarray. Her desk is literally piled high with papers that have formed a mount but then neat and tidy when you’ve got a young son to bring up and a project to run isn’t always a priority.
Joana left the Azores when she was eighteen years old, returned in 2015 after 18 years abroad after her father’s project collapsed and worked in hospitality and hotel management for various hotel chains and five-star hotels both in Portugal and overseas including Starwood Global Sales Office in Madrid, Sheraton Lisbon Hotel & Spa, the Martinhal Sagres Family Resort in the Algarve, Ritz-Carlton Penha Longa in Sintra near Lisbon and Santa Bárbara Eco-Beach Resort.
So far, two apartments on the estate are open to receive guests: the Sumaúma and the Mirante Loft. The first is classically decorated — actually Joana’s mother was a successful interior decorator and has designed the décor of the rooms and public areas in the hotel.
Artillery and oranges
Joana Damião Melo tells us that the site of the ‘Mirante’ served as a watchman’s office during the period when the estate was given over to orange production between the 1780s and 1880s from which it was used to detect possible robberies from this and the surrounding estates, as well as looking out for the arrival of English ships that would fetch the oranges and take them to England.
In World War I the ‘Mirante’ was used to look out for enemy shipping, particularly German submarines, one of which approached the coast in 1917 and fired salvos which killed someone at Fajã de Cima.
Now the mirante has been rethought for a different concept — tourist accommodation and has been turned into the glass-walled cube with a 360º view over the estate. It has a kitchenette, living room, dining area, double bedroom and private bathroom and it is from here that we meet the hotel chef João Alves who prepared the marvellous menu we sample and the staff which Joana has carefully cherrypicked from the various hotels and resorts she has worked at over the years.
Within the main garden in front of the accommodation block — actually it seems more like a plantation garden from Out of Africa with its array of tropical and fruit trees and plants — are two wooden lodges – Tranquility Garden Lodges – built around a tree and which offers an authentic in-the-woods experience.
The Tranquility Garden Lodges cost €200,000, mix both vintage and modern elements, and each have a kitchen, living room, refreshment area, bar, private bathroom and double bedroom and can double up as a family celebrations venue or the ideal honeymoon retreat. It also features a seasonal outdoor pool.
Resurrected and repositioned in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis, the Senhora da Rosa Tradition & Nature Hotel is a daring risk but one which we think will take off.
Why? Unlike the past crisis, which was economic and fuelled in Portugal by both over leveraged developments, a weak banking system and a sovereign debt crisis, this current crisis has been provoked by a health pandemic in which space away from the crowds comes at a premium for affluent travellers.
And on the peaceful and dramatically beautiful island of São Miguel of the Azores, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, equidistant from the Americas and Europe, with a low population density of 140,000 on the entire island, you can’t get a more tranquil and away from mass civilisation than The Senhora da Rosa Tradition & Nature Hotel.