It boasts one of the most expensive massage beds in the world and is at the cutting edge of relaxation. It also has its own organic winery. Just two good reasons we checked into the new Sisley Spa
When my therapist told me that the quartz crystal bed I was about to lie on was one of the most expensive in the world, it made me wonder what my 90-minute massage treatment had in store (what was she going to do with those singing bowls?). But the newly-opened Sisley Spa at Vila Vita Parc (VVP) on Portugal’s Algarve coast has so many unusual and forward-thinking treatments to pamper you, slim you and rejuvenate you on a deep level, that you just end up trusting the process. My three days there felt like a fortnight.
As someone who has scanned many a spa menu in a bid to find something that’s both new and effective to write about, I have no hesitation in saying that this one is truly standout (it's barely been open six months and has already won the 2019 Luxury Wellness Spa Award). A fellow reviewer – who’s clocked up many more spa miles than me – hazarded to say that it was the best she’d ever been to. It scores well on price in the off-season (€210 per night for a double room) which in my view is the best time to go. So eulogies over – here’s the lowdown.
What does Portugal's only Sisley Spa offer?
Having undergone a year-long refurbishment, the 14-treatment room spa reopened in December 2018 in partnership Sisley (which only has a smattering of spas in all of Europe), chosen because their products and treatments were not only premium and wellness-focused but performed as well for face and body.
The sparingly beautiful design is based on the nearby undulating limestone sea caves, giving it a natural and yet sculptural feel – the spiral staircase mimics like the inside of a shell. Choose from signature Sisley facials and body treatments - I had the Phyto-Aromatic Supreme Anti-Ageing Facial (90 mins, €280), which involves multiple layers of gloriously sensory creams, exfoliants and serums as well as facial contouring massage. It instantly made me look and feel like I’d been there a week.
But if you’re after something unusual there’s plenty to pique your interest. The traditional Philippines’ Hilot Massage (€145 for 90 minutes) involves being rubbed with hot oil and draped in banana leaves to keep the heat in. I'm told it's pretty special.
Quite a few of the beds are 4D – they tilt to give you optimum comfort and mean that most of the treatments can be adapted for pregnancy. The Well4D Massage (60 or 90 minutes €95, €140) combines specific bed positions and massage techniques, which will suit you if lying down in one position for too long makes you uncomfortable or twitchy. Or if like me, you simply don’t like being face-down for any length of time – I get neck and face ache as well as a blocked nose if I’m jammed into that face cradle too long.
Drift away on the Golden Quartz massage bed
Quite rightly, the Golden Quartz Treatment (90 minutes €160) is the spa’s pièce de résistance. At the time of my visit, there were less than a handful of these quartz-crystal heated beds in spas around the world - and at nearly €20,000 a pop, they're quite an investment.
The story goes that the wife of the inventor suffered crippling back pain, was about to have surgery and then while on holiday, she found that lying on the warm beach sand alleviated her pain. This bed aims to mimic that beach experience by heating a three-inch layer of ‘sand’ (actually tiny quartz crystals chosen for the energetic healing qualities they are said to possess) to 42C.
Rain, my therapist, gave me a heated neck pillow to pre-relax me while she put a tarpaulin on the stones and a towel for me to lie on. She then pushed the ‘sand’ (which stays under the tarpaulin, so doesn't actually touch your skin) around me, packing me in. It not only warmed the muscles but made me feel wonderfully ‘held’. The face rest is pleasantly cooled, so you don’t feel as though you might overheat.
There follows a full body effleurage massage (a circular motion technique) with Sisley's relaxing Montana Oil. Warm sand poultices are pressed into acupressure points too.
But that’s not all, the bed tilts slightly which helps the therapist to really reach into your muscles and gives a pleasant floating sensation. But this only lasts for a maximum of five minutes so there’s no disorientation.
I loved the part where singing bowls were placed along my spine as well as the edge of the oak bed and then struck to produce a harmonious resonant soundbath. The effect was even more cocooning – it took over my entire body and gave my thoughts a chance to quieten. It’s proven that low-level sound waves directly stimulate the vagus nerve, activating our relaxation pathways and switching off the stress response. It all makes for a deeply healing and dreamy, drift-off treatment.
And lastly, when you turn onto your back, you feel a gentle rippling sensation beneath you from air jets positioned below the sand. It's a gentle massage that deeply connects you to your body. I find that towards the end of any 90-minute treatment, I can already be stressing about what have to do next but the gentle pulsations stopping you getting too much in your head.
If you are after the deepest, most womb-like experience, this will make you feel reborn. (If it’s a bit too woo-woo, they do straight Swedish and aromatherapy massages too).
The power nap Spa Wave couch
Ever lain on a water bed that pulses, plays music and sends you into a meditative state that’s more powerful than sleep? No, me neither until I booked in for a Spa Wave therapy session.
It takes place on contoured bed (shaped a bit like a sun lounger) that ripples and changes colour as it goes through a sequence of pulsing vibrations in time to ‘spa’ music. You don’t need to undress to lie on it. You don headphones, an eye mask and a therapist covers you in a wonderfully fluffy duvet as you choose from one of two programmes; both are calming but one is better if you are prone to low mood and the other if racing thoughts (yes!) and anxiety are your default setting.
You can choose 30 or 60 minutes (€35 or €65) and the therapist leaves you to have your power nap in peace. I found 30 minutes to be plenty and I felt like I’d gone pretty deep in a way that I do when I practice yoga nidra (incidentally you can book a private yoga nidra and other meditation sessions session at the spa). True rest, where your body and mind melt is so hard to come by in our ‘always on culture’ that I wouldn’t be surprised to see these beds in more spas, gyms and yoga centres soon.
The fitness offering - aerial yoga turns your frown upside down
Above the spa there’s a stunning yoga studio with glass walls that bring in beautiful sea views. A good range of yoga styles are offered – some of the newer and lesser-known ones too from yoga wheel to power yoga, yin to aerial, where you use silk slings as support – great if you are working on your inversions or just want to turn your frown upside down. The mats are made from sustainable Portuguese cork (VVP itself has won sustainability awards).
The spa offers TRX classes, personal training, Pilates and aqua fitness. There’s a fitness pool but it’s in the main building – and of course, there are several outdoor pools to choose from. VVP houses the only Hypoxi studio in Portugal, and if you are staying for a few days and want to shift fat, a few sessions of exercise in this special bodysuit do bring results. There are beauty treatments too, including the only Margaret Dabbs medi-pedi in Portugal.
The healing power of outdoors
But for me, one of the most blissful and energising things was simply going for walks in nature along the vast expanses of empty beaches and clifftops and the bracing Atlantic breeze. In January, it was T-shirt weather at 20C with bright sunshine and cloudless skies (you definitely need SPF). I walked half an hour along the beach to the seafood restaurant Arte Nautica, which is owned by VVP. It serves market fish, including the local speciality or barnacles, which look like monster feet.
You can walk on another half an hour to the hotel’s Villa Hibiscus if you’re lucky enough to have booked this Boho beach hideaway (stars stay there, but they are not naming names). Even if you’re only an outside observer, the hotel's free shuttle will drive you back from any of its outlying properties and if you give them a call.
Fresh food, Michelin stars and personalised wellness menus
Let’s just say you won’t starve. Here you're in gastronomy central. The Algarve has no fewer than 12 Michelin stars, two of them at VVP's Ocean restaurant. Ocean is one of eight restaurants on the resort (there are also three off-site) which range from Moroccan to Japanese to a wellness-focused cafe serving green juices and homemade granola bars. Not all the resort’s eateries were open in the off-season but the lack of footfall added to the serenity of a spa break.
VVP has its own organic farm nearby where everything from the fresh veg to the honey and the wine are grown. There’s a sumptuous buffet breakfast in the Bela Vita restaurant and in the low-key rustic Adega restaurant by the lake serves traditional Portuguese food including a delicious fish soup. And if you have special dietary requirements, you want to lose weight or simply reboot your eating regime a culinary concierge service will give you advice from a qualified nutritionist who will liaise with the chefs.
Wine buffs will love the secret Cave de Vinhos, a vaulted underground wine cellar with 11,000 bottles, where you can also have a candlelit dinner.
VVP is set in 54 acres, two-thirds of which are gardens and water features (no wonder they employ 40 gardeners). There are 180 rooms with all manner of accommodations from super swanky villas with private pools and gyms to family suites, spa suites and adult-only areas. At its busiest, the hotel looks after 450 guests.
I stayed in the adults-only Residence – a few paces from the clifftop where I could l watch the pink skies of sunrise over the Atlantic (a civilised 7.30am in winter, followed by a 6pm sunset). My room was big and light with the kind of cushions you want for home, but had no bath (if you like a soak, make sure to check what your room offers).
If you’ve already got that ‘summer’s over’ anxiety, then put a weekend at Vila Vita Park in your diary for the New Year. It’s something you could equally do alone, as a couple or with a friend/mother/daughter and there’s the option to go as healthy or as indulgent as you like – or a bit of both.
For my money, the quiet season is the perfect time to visit a large resort like this - I’m not a fan of peak-time pools and restaurants and hotel entertainment although I’m sure VVP does it in the most tasteful way. With the abundant parkland, beachside location and balmy Algarve winter sun, you get a sense of being in nature without having to travel far. Plus the spa is as is cutting edge as an urban metro spa – if not more so.
It’s not surprising that half of the guests are repeat customers. With the new Sisley Spa and overall upgraded wellness offering and focus on sustainability, I can see a whole new generation of stressed-out wellness warriors making this an annual date in their calendar. I for one will be.
For information go to vilavitaparc.com
To book, call +351 282 310 100 or email email@example.com
Double rooms start from €350 per night in high season and from €210 per night in low season