Friday, 3 June 2011

The Yeatman hotel


Ask anyone in the wine trade if they’ve been to the Douro Valley and their eyes tend to brighten. Among the cognoscenti, it regularly ranks as one of the most beautiful wine regions on the planet, and yet the rest of the world doesn’t seem to have caught on yet. This is soon set to change. Enter Adrian Bridge, the towering CEO of The Fladgate Partnership – owner of Taylor’s, Croft and Fonseca, who is on a one-man mission to turn the UNESCO World Heritage site Oporto into a destination city through his ambitious new hotel project, The Yeatman, which opened its polished doors last September to much fanfare.

The family-owned five-star hotel is named after the much-loved Port producer and personality Dick Yeatman (Bridge’s father-in-law’s uncle), and occupies a monstrous slab of land in quiet Vila Nova de Gaia, a hop across the bridge from Oporto proper. Set amid 2.6 hectares of landscaped gardens atop the city’s historic Port lodges, the hotel boasts magnificent views of the Douro River and city below, speckled with terracotta-roofed houses that shine like new pennies at night.

With the aim of regenerating Vila Nova de Gaia and giving wine tourism a big push, the project began in 2006, took 20 months to build and cost €35 million. Embarking on such an ambitious undertaking in the midst of a recession may seem misguided, but Bridge is adamant that it was the right decision to see the hotel through to fruition. “It seems like a mad thing to do during a recession but travel is the one thing people don’t cut. They may stay closer to home, but they never give it up altogether,” Bridge tells me over lunch at The Yeatman Restaurant on a grizzly Monday in March. It’s his birthday, but he’s taken time out from celebrating to meet with me and explain his aims for the hotel.

An outpost of the Roman Empire and home to Port shippers for over three centuries, Oporto is one of the oldest European centres and was historically a merchant city. Bridge believes that the continued consolidation of Port companies is leaving warehouses empty and freeing up space in the city for culture, tourism and gastronomy initiatives, with The Yeatman serving as Oporto’s flagship hotel. “I want to put Oporto on the map. I want the whole city to benefit from the hotel – a rising tide lifts all ships,” Bridge enthuses.

“The Yeatman was designed around the view,” Bridge continues. “It was very important to me that every room had a view. With such a stunning cityscape on our doorstep, I wanted to make the most of it.” And make the most of it he has – not only do each of the 82 rooms (ranging from €240-€780 a night), have a jaw-droppingly beautiful view and private balcony, but every bathroom, prettified with traditional Portuguese ceramic tiles, has shutters that open out into the bedroom and the view beyond. “We wanted the rooms to be light and bright,” Bridge tells me. “Light is incredibly important.”

The expansive presidential suite is very Bond-like, equipped with a copper bathtub and a round revolving bed operated by remote control. Another suite boasts burnt orange walls and a barrel-shaped bed with a mirrored ceiling. “I had some explaining to do when I showed some old ladies round last week,” jokes general manager Pedro Alvellos. Continuing with the quirky design theme, the outdoor infinity pool is shaped like a decanter. On my visit it was covered with a net to keep out the local seagulls that have taken to landing in it for a dip. “It’s a real problem,” admits Alvellos. “I don’t know how to keep them out.”

Most of the rooms, including the 12 suites, are sponsored by a wine partner and furnished accordingly with paraphernalia relating to the corresponding winery. “We have 65 wine partners from across Portugal, including Dow’s, Graham’s, Niepoort and Quinta do Noval,” explains Bridge. “I could have gone down the Taylor-Fladgate route, but I wanted to be an ambassador for all Ports and Portuguese wines, and for the hotel to show off what we as a region and a country can do.”

In “The Library” reading room (as well stocked with cigars as it is books), Yeatman Restaurant and Dick’s Bar, pastel colours abound, from mint green to powder blue – the set-up is straight from the pages of Country Homes & Interiors, minus the labradors. The hotel enjoys a diverse clientele, mainly from Portugal and the UK, but also from France, Spain, Germany, Scandinavia and America, with a sprinkling of Brazilians and Chinese. “We get the Spaniards at Easter, the French in August and the Brits throughout the summer,” says Bridge.

The Yeatman’s 25,000-bottle cellar stocks the world’s largest range of Portuguese wines. “We’re lucky because our wine partners sell us old and rare vintages,” says Bridge. “We’ve got nearly 1,000 wines on our list.” Winemaker dinners are held at the hotel every Thursday. Focusing on a different wine partner each week, they attract wine lovers from across the city, while a cookery school is in the pipeline.

Wine director Beatriz Machado has created three lists for the hotel: an affordable selection kept in Enomatic machines that changes weekly, a seasonal selection to pair with award-winning chef Ricardo Costa’s cuisine, and a top-end library selection. Costa is going great guns at The Yeatman restaurant, serving up traditional Portuguese ingredients reinterpreted for 2011. Presented with flair, Costa's cooking is exemplary, and will do much to raise the game of Portuguese fine dining, perhaps even putting it on the international map.

The accent is on fresh produce, with a large offering of locally caught fish. The tasting menu matches dishes to a selection of wines by the glass, and experiments with everything from duck foie gras and truffle mash to crayfish and apple, and a peanut butter, banana and toffee tart. The hotel also features a 10-room wine spa – Portugal’s first, based on the Caudalie Vinothérapie Spa at Château Smith Haut Lafitte in Bordeaux. This offers an array of treatments (from €65) such as barrel baths, pulp friction massages, Merlot wraps and Cabernet scrubs, along with a Roman bath, sauna, Turkish hammam and the rather meek sounding “tepidarium”.

The eco-conscious hotel uses solar panels and a reverse osmosis system to purify harvested rainwater, while the sprawling gardens are managed as a refuge for endangered local plant species and a haven for migratory birds – there are even plans for a butterfly greenhouse. Other al fresco features include a croquet lawn and lounge bar. Bridge is confident in his quest to send tourists home as Port lovers and to put Oporto firmly on the wine tourism map. “Oporto receives 700,000 visitors a year. My aim is to train them up and have them go away as ambassadors for both Port and the Douro region. We’ve been around for over 300 years and we aren’t about to leave. This isn’t about a self-serving short-term goal. This is for the long-term.”

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