We’re on the ground floor of the Anantara Vilamoura learning how to make objects out of bamboo - clips with which to seal bags or hold cards, a magic toy, a bird caller, all demonstrated by a wonderfully warm and vibrant woman who’s been creating such things since childhood. Even if I didn’t love crafting, I’d be relieved for the break it’s providing in what seems an endless cycle of eating. The Anantara does several things exceptionally well, but I’m certain that their preoccupation with fantastic food is making the dent in my wonderfully comfortable bed appear deeper and deeper each morning.
One of the hallmarks of the Anantara brand is a sense of place: the belief that an Anantara hotel must be inherently recognisable as such, while incorporating features distinct to its location.
On the Algarve, the first Anantara hotel in Europe, this is translated into various design features: cork crafts and accessories are ubiquitous in the area and in the bedrooms the remote controls were cunningly concealed in cork wallets. The breakfast buffet was even more appealing thanks to local Porches pottery, and in the common areas the upholstery mirrors the designs of azulejos (traditional ceramic tiles). And of course, one can’t forget the gloriously emotive Fado singers who perform in the lobby on Friday and Saturday nights.
The cuisine – The Anantara Spice Spoons experience
When it comes to food, the focus on what’s indigenous is omnipresent; every meal uses local produce and flavours to create an experience that’s truly a feast for the senses. As we marvel over the array of colours and textures at one such lunch, a staff member proudly tells us, “Here, you eat also with your eyes.”
Swaddled in the luxury of the resort, it’s easy to feel a little distanced from the real world, which is one of the reasons why the Anantara Spice Spoons experience, which I’ve previously enjoyed in Sri Lanka, is such a popular component of the brand’s offering. Available to guests in every Anantara resort, it allows you to fully immerse yourself in your meal’s journey, if not quite from field to fork, then at least from stall to stomach, providing what appears on the table in front of you at each meal with some form of a backstory.
Accompanied by chef Luis Cristina on Saturday morning, we’re driven to Loulé, a traditional town located a 15-20-minute drive from the resort. It’s market day and the array of goods on offer is incredible: tomatoes as big as your head, dried fruits looking too succulent to merit the term ‘dried’, locally crafted beers, liqueurs and wines in bottles as tempting as their contents, and honey in so many flavours, forms and sizes that you’re almost drowning in sweetness just looking at them.
There’s a genuine sense of camaraderie at play here, with customers and stallholders greeting each other cheerfully, readily offering samples and tasters, while, out on the street, leisurely tables full of locals are taking a coffee and enjoying the mild winter sun. It’s perhaps a measure of the market’s authenticity that we run into Bruno Viegas, Vilamoura Anantara's executive chef, at the fish stall, buying provisions for his day off at home with family.
It would be all too easy to spend hours here. Deep in the corner of the covered market, an old man with a wild beard holds court, sharpening knives for his clients. Butchers, whose quarters are necessarily in rooms lining the building’s perimeter, offer tantalising glimpses of sharp metal and bloody flesh. Even the seemingly ‘ordinary’ fruit and vegetable stores offer up exotic rich purple jewels; the fig-like fruits of the cactus plant.
Provisions purchased, we make our way back to the resort for our Spice Spoons cooking lesson where, armed with glasses of sparkling wine we watch - and occasionally assist - the chef in preparing an incredible lunch.
Local bread - pão Alentejano - is rubbed with a whole chorizo, which has been heated to release its flavoursome fats, before being cut and set atop the moistened slices. The sea bass we bought is filleted in front of us as we peel prawns, and placed in a type of sealable pan, called a cataplana (its lovely beaten copper appearance has me sold even before I eat its eventual contents) along with potatoes and a pre-prepared sauce of tomatoes, garlic, onion, peppers and herbs.
After being sealed and placed in the oven, it is finally opened, in a cloud of steam and scent, at the table in front of us: a simple but utterly delicious main. Meanwhile, long grain rice has been simmering alongside a slowly warming mixture of cream and milk infused with cinnamon and lemon to create, with the addition of egg yolk and sugar, the most ridiculously amazing rice pudding imaginable. It’s eventually served to us cold - with a liberal sprinkling of cinnamon on top - but we can’t resist sampling it warm, before we’ve even sat down for our meal: both are sensational, but the pre-chilled version is really something else. In a few days of great food, it’s telling that we’re still talking about this one days later - even more so when half of our group, including me, admits to usually ‘hating rice pudding’.
Dining by Design
Dining by Design is another Anantara-wide culinary journey to be experienced, although for this one your involvement is very much that of a guest, with a specially created menu - along with accompanying wines - served to you in one of the resort’s private spaces which, depending on the weather, may range from poolside to the Presidential Suite. Each course - in our case, from a toothsome King Prawn served with a green pea texture, to turbot atop a surprise-for-the-senses curry of sweet potato - is presented and explained, as is the paired wine.
Wine is key, also, to the offering at EMO, the resort’s sleek restaurant. At around 350 wines, the list is relatively petite compared to similarly upmarket restaurants but chosen with meticulous care to complement the local flavours - each of which is given a twist with contemporary flair - that the menu celebrates. We feasted on quail in vinaigrette, spicy corn soup and black pork tenderloin with lemon grass, before declaring ourselves too full for dessert, a thought that rapidly evaporated when presented with a confection of citrusy meringue and lemongrass.
Relax and unwind with any array of activities
Warm winter sunshine, with temperatures of around 17 degrees, meant that time in the heated outdoor pool could be enjoyed each morning. Inside, the spa’s indoor pool and range of treatments provided a sanctuary which, given how cosseted we already were, was not needed, but very welcomed anyway.
Golf is central to the resort’s offering - the Victoria course, which is visible from a large number of the bedrooms, plays host to the Portugal Masters each year and there’s an on-site valet to take you to the fairway.
Craving some beach time? The hotel shuttle will speed you to sister resort Tivoli Marina: here, at its Puro beach bar, you can soak up the wide sands and impressive waves of the Algarve, with a cocktail - the Pompidou is as deliciously pretty as it is delicious - in hand.
Back at the resort, the cocktail of choice is the 1755 - a heady concoction of gin, triple sec, apple juice and lime juice, infused with basil, ginger and cinnamon - that has me craving another, unfeasibly hot on the heels of the first. When I try injecting a modicum of good sense into the evening by pacing my drinking with some chit-chat, the bartender tells me that the drink’s name is a tribute to the earthquake of the same year, which caused the city of Lisbon to be virtually destroyed and claimed the lives of around 60,000 people in the capital alone. There’s not, as far as I know, any link between the disaster and the rise of Fado (the word itself means fate and is characterised by melancholy and a sense of the course of life running counter to one’s desires) but when the performers emerge that evening, their mournful tones make my spine tingle.
Anantara Vilamoura nightly rates start at £223 / €255 in a Deluxe Double room for two persons on a B&B basis with VAT included.
Av. dos Descobrimentos
nº 0, 8125-309
A summary of our stay at Anantara Vilamoura
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