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Northern Portugal – a hidden gem

Beaches in the Algarve and city breaks in Lisbon are popular with tourists, says Natasha Langan. But northern Portugal is a haven for those looking to escape the crowds.

769-Six-Senses-Douro
Six Senses Douro Valley: a breathtaking bucolic setting

When it comes to holidays in Portugal, most people think of beaches in the Algarve or city breaks in Lisbon.But northern Portugal offers plenty for those looking for something away from the crowds and, with cheap flights to gateway city Porto taking around just two hours, this area is well worth discovering.

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Porto is the city that gave its name to Portugal and the famous fortified wine. A Unesco World Heritage site, its narrow streets run down to the Douro river, the banks of which are lined with the port producers' lodges. The city itself is compact, making all its sights from the blue-and-white tiled churches and Art Nouveau architecture, to the iconic wrought-iron Maria Pia bridge, designed by Gustave Eiffel easily accessible by foot, although the steep cobbled streets will encourage you to stop in the many bars and restaurants.

The central Hotel Teatro, a member of the Design Hotels group, makes an excellent base from which to explore the city. It was built on the site of a theatre that was destroyed by fire in 1888 and the interiors in the hotel reflect its theatrical heritage.

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(Double gallery rooms from €125 per room. Contact: +351 220 409 620, HotelTeatro.pt)

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Leaving Porto, drive around two hours inland along the Douro River to reachthe heart of the Douro Valley its vinhateiro (wine growing) area is also a Unesco World Heritage site. This unique and beautiful landscape of terraced hillsides, sleepy villages, farms and grand houses, has been producing unique wines and port for centuries. Farming methods have changed little over time, so the wildlife in the region has flourished.

The precipitous and winding roadsare not for the faint-hearted, but you'llbe rewarded with breathtaking landscapes on your way to the SixSenses spa, in a bucolic setting onthe bend of the river. This restored historic manor house hotel, marrying 19th-century features with modern design, is surrounded by eight hectares of gardens, and has 57 rooms and apartments spread over the site, with views of the vineyards and river. There are three restaurants, a dedicated wine cellar and a spa offering a range of treatments, including ones that utilise products unique to the region.

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(From €285 per room. Contact: SixSenses.com)

Just north of the Douro Valley, and only an hour from Porto, is Vidago Palace, part of the Leading Hotels of the World group. This grand Belle Epoque pile, in an enchanting woodland setting, was commissioned by King Carlos I and was intended to encourage Europe's elite to partake of the local spa waters. The hotel, which opened in 1910, has been fully refurbished and offers 70 rooms and suites. There are four bars and four restaurants, including the Salao Nobre gourmet dining room, plus a modern spa and a Cameron Powell-designed, 18-hole championship golf course, set among the stunning surrounding countryside and looming mountains.

(From €203 per room. Contact: +351 276 990 920, VidagoPalace.com)

Try something a bit different

769-Pedras-Salgadas

For something a bit different, head toPedras Salgadas Spa and Nature Park,home to Agua das Pedras, a naturallycarbonated mineral water famed for itstherapeutic properties. A thermal spaand hotel were completed on the sitein 1879, and the original buildings havebeen restored, now offering numerousspa and beauty treatments.

Set within the park are a range ofinnovative eco-homes designed by Portuguese architects Luis Rebelo de Andradeand Diogo Aguiar. Constructed from wood and slate, with sustainability a primeconcern, the luxury cabins and treehouses blend in perfectly with the surroundings.

(Treehouses from €180, eco-houses from €140. Contact: +351 259 437 140,PedrasSalgadasPark.com)

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