Vila Foz Hotel & Spa – sublime, divine Victorian elegance

 In Fine dining, Hospitality, Hotel, In Focus, News

The Vila Foz Hotel & Spa is a romantic and lovingly restored timepiece from a gilded age whose maritime tasting Michelin menus by Chef Arnaldo Azevedo are a delight. Essential Business embarked on a sensory voyage of culturally and geographically inspired fine dining.

Text: Chris Graeme Photos: Supplied

There is something eerily beautiful about the setting of Vila Foz Hotel & Spa. It seems to nestle in another time and place, an age of late 19th century elegance, of handsome cabs, carriages and women swathed in tulle with parasols.

With the white morning mist blanketed over the waters of Porto’s Foz, you feel yourself a lone figure from an Edith Wharton novel looking up at a Neo-gothic pistachio green façade whose most singular feature is a turret with a roof à la française, which rises like a sentinel to survey the waterfront scene.

If it sounds historic and eminently Victorian, it’s because the building and the experience is. Beautifully restored both inside and out, the wood panels are original; the elegant carving restored to its former glory. Interior wood divisions with frosted glass doors cleverly separate the lobby and reception from the lounge area, while the whole ensemble is dominated by a gracefully sweeping staircase that leads to a set of exquisite suits on the first floor.

Ballroom dining

But the pièce de résistance is the elegant dining room which combines neo-classical and baroque elements and it is here that the magic takes place. That magic is conjured by the very talented Michelin chef Arnaldo Azevedo who takes us on an eclectic journey of sounds, tastes and visual delights that reflect the Porto region, the Algarve from which the chef hails, and the Azores island of Pico dominated by its conical mountain.

It has a beautiful low-lit cocktail bar with golden shelves and bronzed walls offering a plethora of colourful cocktails characterised by the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ from Latin America and Asia to Europe and beyond.

Here you can be served drinks inspired by the intoxicating flavours of Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Italy and India, or refreshing beverages with traditional ingredients from Japan, and Portugal. For example you can try the El Curadito from Mexico that is sweet and spicy with an indispensable tequila base.

Or perhaps opt for the Copacabana, a topical concoction infused with aromatic herbs and a touch of faraway fruits, or even a Machu Picchu that also sports a taste of the tropics with pineapple, passion fruit and mango, conjuring the spirit of the Andes.

They are the perfect pre-dinner drinks before embarking on one of two tasting menus served in this elegant setting that was once the ballroom where an old English merchant family who made their fortune in the mid-19th century from the prosperous port wine trade that was dominated by England at that time, once entertained.

A culinary adventure

We plumped for the ‘Maresia’ menu, predominantly inspired by the sea, and which is not short of dry ice special effects which only serve to evoke the fresh briny smell of the sea air and the low-lying morning mist of the Foz.

Dish after dish is expertly presented; each one with a story, providing a visual feast and tantalising taste accompanied by a carefully curated range of white and red wines, balanced to perfection with the dishes served over a relaxed period of over an hour, or was it two? We were so carried away by the experience we no longer knew or cared so long as we could linger longer. The experience even inspired the table chatter — one of Victorian late-night drawing room seances and fortune telling.

There were berbigão à Bulhão Pato cockles served in a shell, crayfish, cutlass fish, mussels, oysters, carabineiro shrimps and sole. This was a menu rich in fish and seafood with delicate flavours only broken by two tender meat moments.

This culinary adventure was designed by Arnaldo Azevedo, who originally hails from Porto, and in this sense he has come home, back to his roots.

In a way you could say cooking is in the blood since his parents had a restaurant in the city where he took his first sweet and savoury steps before attending hotel school, and then setting sail for a career that initially had him “navigating Portuguese waters”, as he puts it.

Arnaldo, aged 38, worked in the Algarve for a few years and brings some of the seafood and aromatic flavours of the region to the table in this menu. He also spent eight years at the famous Teatro Restaurant and Bar in Porto which is owned by the same proprietors.

“When we opened the restaurant following the pandemic we decided to opt for a top-quality tasting menu and we were delighted to be informed that we had won a Michelin star. I think that any chef who loves doing what he does is flattered by getting a star, after all, it’s like getting a culinary Oscar. They came anonymously and we haven’t had any feed back, so it was all a wonderful surprise,” he says of the award bestowed in 2022 and again this year.

However, the chef says he couldn’t have created the menus without the help of his team of 30 people who work with him in the hotels’ two kitchens which also serve a terrace restaurant.

Arnaldo says that the menu ‘Maresia’ clearly is about the sea, and reflects the hotel’s prime location on the coast, and brings the freshness and quality of seafood caught locally in Portuguese waters.

He smiles wryly and informs that each menu takes weeks of many hours of design and preparation for an experience which disappears on the table in a matter of a couple of hours.

“A menu like this is not rustled up from one day to the next; it takes a lot of creative efforts, trying things out and discarding what isn’t perfect”.

Arnaldo admits that most of the diners are overseas visitors from the US, UK, Scandinavia, France and Switzerland, but only a smattering of Brazilians and Spanish.

Heart and sole

“It’s fun because it provides you with a different interaction. As a rule I don’t keep the same menu for more than six months, and then design a new one. This is partly to do with the seasons and the availability of certain fish ad seafood species at the time of the year”, he says informing us when we dined in July that the sole season was full on.

And despite its heralding from an industrial age of heavy industry, coal and smoke, these days the Vila Foz Hotel & Spa – a member of Design Hotels – is eminently sustainable and has just been awarded Biosphere Certification that promotes sustainable tourism because the hotel has successfully blended a economical, environmental and socio-cultural balance.

In the morning of the last day there was time to relax in the blue-green mosaic surroundings of the spa with its marbled pool, Turkish steam room and Swedish sauna. The entire room is bathed in light from a wall of seamless windows with lovely views over the gardens and part of the house, that flood the space with light which refracts off the surface of the pool and plays in the cascade of water from above providing a pleasing and calming effect.

There is a range of personalised massage options calibrated to suit mood, skin and body type from customised facial treatments using five aromatic oils, and including moisture replenishment, cleansing and subtle support eye lifts, or body scrubs and skin coolers, to holistic body care therapies.

Romantic metamorphosis

Everything at the Vila Foz Hotel & Spa has been designed to echo the past while being contemporary at the same time. The outside had retained the original façades of the building tastefully restored by architect Miguel Cardoso The interiors designed by famed Madeiran designer Nini Andrade Silva feature plush green carpets winding to the spa and bedrooms, lending a living, organic, almost symbolist or art nouveau flow that seems to conjure a collective memory to the past and fits perfectly with the tropical pod-like sofas in the corridors and the chocolate brown recliners around he pool that suggest the cosy containing shells of Brazil nuts, providing a tropical and yet futuristic touch.

The interior designer who has worked all over the world on projects from New York to London and South Africa to Paris says she wanted to preserve the refinement of more than a century of history (The house dates to the 1890s), and a romantic inspired metamorphosis that preserves and enhances the history of the building and its opulent interiors with the iconic location on what was, and still is, one of Porto’s most desired up-market avenues.

Nini Andrade Silva sought to preserve the original elements and has given importance to the symbols, aesthetic idiosyncrasies and architectural elements sublimated by the details, whose expressivity is felt in the quality of the materials, perfection of the finishes, softness of the textures and in the richness of the decorative elements, both of the existing building, and of the new building of bedrooms and the spa, built from scratch.

The 68 bedrooms and suites with sea and garden views — the latter located in the main house — are luxurious, contemporary and done out in tones of green that act as a continuum with the rest of the hotel. The bathrooms boast light travertine marble surfaces and walls, yet the interior fixtures in brassy colours reflect the past.

Some rooms have an organic curtain design above the headboards that mimics the undulating waves; in others the wallpaper feature brown tones of cascading lines, again lending a feeling of watery fluidity.

Whether in the bedrooms, lounges or dining room, arsenic, eau de Nile, caulk and cooking apple green tones abound giving the hotel a maritime 1930s palette, which is a once fresh and calming.

Lovingly restored

But more than anything else, what shows the devotion and respect for history is how much of the original decorative features has been retained and lovingly conserved, including the gilded classical pilasters, the intricate ironwork of the main staircase balustrade, to the Neo-Baroque plaster ceiling cornices and mouldings, and the original fireplaces, all of which are so characteristic of the Victorian fondness for the eclectic borrowing of styles from previous epochs.

The current owner of the Vila Foz Hotel & Spa tells the story of this unique building and why he decided to open a hotel in this part of Porto.

“Having been involved with a pioneering and differentiating hotel project in Porto city centre until 2018, I have seen the extraordinary development of tourism in the city over the last 10 years at first hand.

“I realised that the city centre in Porto was consolidated but there was room and interest from visitors to explore other facets and neighbourhoods beyond the centre. Porto has the privilege of being a city of river and sea. Both have a unique and very particular charm. I came to the conclusion that it would make sense to open a hotel for that part of Porto that is by the sea and opted for the most upmarket part of the city. On a personal note, Foz (The Mouth of the River Douro) is a special place for me, it’s where I live and I like the idea of sharing it with those looking to experience a different side of the city”.

This is how the idea of Vila Foz Hotel & Spa was born: to get one of the emblematic buildings of this area of the city, a 19th-century mansion with history and family stories to tell, on the first line of the sea, and give it the comfort and the glamor of a welcoming, unique and exclusive hotel.

This is the area where upper-crust families built their palatial summer mansions that later became the fashionable residences of the upper middle classes.

If you are planning to visit Porto for a week or weekend, and fancy being near but not in the thick of the city-centre crowds, desire contemporary comforts yet want to feel you’re in the Gilded Age, and delight in sampling a plethora of flavours and fine wines in a gastronomic experience that is nothing short of edible art, I would seriously consider this hotel. You can’t go wrong.