The Lapa Palace is set on a hill overlooking Lisbon’s Tagus River, amid tranquil gardens dotted with ornamental fountains and streams.
In through glass doors, in front of you is a large single-floor lobby that seems larger because of trompe l’oeil fabric on walls and table tops. If you go straight on through, you come to the Ristorante Hotel Cipriani – on again, to the restaurant terrace, and you look down three floors (past balconies of bedrooms beneath) through lush gardens to the curvilinear outdoor pool. For those swimming or sunbathing, beds are set up, a supply of magazines and paperbacks is provided, and polo-shirted waiters offer complimentary fresh fruit punch. At right angles to the main palace, on the north side, is a seven-floor modern block, with balconies overlooking the garden. In the apex of the two areas is a multi-level blue-on-white tiled waterfall, with water trickling down through a pair of 12-step falls, either side of the door into that garden.
The original Palace was built in 1870 for the Count of Valencas. It was his family who sold what was by then a vandalized shell to financier Antonio Sinoes de Almeida, who in 1983 had restored the Albatroz hotel in nearby Cascais. At Lapa, he spent a fortune on restoring the marble, stucco, wood carving, richly-patterned azulejos hand-knotted carpets. He added the pool, the modern block and the health club (with its own indoor pool) and in 1992 he opened it as the 94-room Lapa Palace Hotel. Six years later, however, he tired of hotel keeping. He sold the Albatroz to his brother Carlos, and the Lapa Palace to Orient-Express Hotels, Resorts & Trains.
Sandro Fabris, the charming Italian General Manager, personally escorted us up to room 701. He opened the wooden door beaming with pride. Look, he said. The foyer had walls covered in braid-edged blue pictorial fabric. Inset into the marble floor was a white azulejos hand-sewn carpet with blue flowers and a hint of the same yellow that highlighted the four pairs of closet doors (inside these were a safe, wrapped umbrella, masses of hangers and the minibar, with Krups Nespresso, Dafour organic teas and Cloer kettle, and white Villeroy & Boch china, and fresh milk available from room service). On the inside of the main door are two fabric bows, one red, one green, with brass signs ‘do not disturb’ and ‘please make up now’.
Leading off the foyer to the right was the big bathroom, most of its walls completely covered, to the ceiling, with blue and white pictorial tiles. Above the double Jacuzzi was a heated towel rail. There was a separate power-shower stall, and a separate – but door-less – toilet area. The double sink, with big surround, had a copious supply of ribbon-wrapped Helleboro Italian toiletries, including a walnut and carrot sun-tanning lotion. There were scales, hotel logo robes and slippers.
First things first. The broadband access is one of the fastest in memory: there is also a free business center. Copies of today’s Financial Times and International Herald Tribune were waiting, mid-morning, on the bedroom table, which also had a giant white lily display. This room has cream walls with a lower discreet dado of yellow-edged blue tiles, and the two-level ceiling has panels edged with soft yellow and blue. Part of the parquet floor – I think original, and somewhat noisy – was covered with a large blue, yellow and white azulejos. Awaiting us were a ship’s decanter of port, and a plate of irresistible Pasteis de Belém bite-sized tartlets (apparently in 1837 Domingos Rafael Alves came here from Brazil and met Elias Martinez, a Calician pastry chef at the Convent of Jeroninos; together they opened a Belem shop and these pastries, best eaten with cinnamon powder and vanilla sugar, are one of the symbols of Portuguese gastronomy).
The king size bed has double dark-wood headboards regally set underneath a ceiling-high blue and yellow fabric fall. At the bed’s base is a mirror-facetted wood box from which the flat-screen television rises, and swirled through 360° as required. There are two terraces, one of which has loungers: a 35-ft over-roof walkway leads to the other, a stone-sided octagonal eyrie, with table for four, looking down to the Tagus River far below.
The restaurant is eat-inside, or out, on the terrace looking into the floodlit gardens. A guitar player strummed softly. Tables were set with white linens, Villeroy & Boch china and Sambonet cutlery. An amuse arrived, a shot glass filled with magnificent clear tomato jelly topped by mozarrella foam. A basket-tray of home-made breads included bite-sized flavored focaccias, to go with Beurre Echiré butters. The maitre d’ suggested a tasting menus of three appetizers, say a chervil-perfumed egg soufflé, with soft egg yolk inside, in a puddle of pea sauce; white and green asparagus with parmesan flakes; three bresaola and ricotta sandwiches filled with, in turn, asparagus, peas, artichokes. We also tried green gnocchi with pesto, and a Cipriani specialty, a classic flattened veal cutlet, still on the bone, breaded and served with a rocket and dried cherry tomato salad. The wine list uniquely starts with waters, with a range of nine still waters and five sparkling waters. The list then goes on to such enticing sections as ‘whites that make forget reds’. We drank wines from the Alentejo region, south of Lisbon en route to the Algarve. As one would expect from such a luxury hotel in Portugal, service at Lapa Palace is thoughtful, and discreet.
In the morning, to avoid getting lost in what is a somewhat-confusing hilltop area of town, for my pre-breakfast I merely passed the Dutch and US embassies and followed tramlines right down to the main river-side road. Back home, I could have made myself a cup of espresso from the lobby-set trolley but I rushed upstairs to shower. We breakfasted in the mornings-only restaurant, inside, or out on a lower terrace. We sat outside, at a table set with pale apricot-coloured damask. There were piles of Financial Times, International Herald Tribunes, and today’s faxed news, printed on different colors for each language. The exquisite buffet came with seven fresh juices in tall glass jugs with side-set inner receptacles for ice. There was J Charpentier Champagne and Absolut. The main food station had whole figs, papaya, cereals (and colorful M&Ms), an array of different breads, smoked salmon and trimmings, baby goats’ and other cheeses, and cold cuts. Among the already-opened big pots of Schneekoppe preserves were Marmite for the Brits and Nutella for the Germans. A chef, on another station, supervised small quantities of excellent-quality hot dishes.
The coffee was strong, and slightly chocolatey. It was time to go. Bags down, pay bill, a young doorman put us in the taxi, said come back soon, and he would be waiting for us.