Are they tree houses? Flying cobras? Or UFOs? These thoughts leap to mind with the first glimpse of architect Luís Rebelo de Andrade’s latest additions to Pedras Salgadas Spa and Nature Park.
An hour and a half’s drive from Porto – in the Vila Real district of northern Portugal, renowned for its mineral springs – the park offers a getaway combo that features the natural environment, a thermal spa and a history lesson. Owned by beverage conglomerate Unicer, which now bottles the famous naturally carbonated Pedras Salgadas water, the park recently added some unique accommodations to its varied attractions.
Nestled into 20 hectares of woodland, the newest cabins are referred to by the architect as Tree Snake Houses, although management has other ideas. “They want to call them Tree Houses, but they’re not. I couldn’t put them up in the trees, because the sensitive species won’t support the weight,” explains Rebelo de Andrade, whose firm has been involved in renovations and additions to the park since 2011. Whether Tree or Snake Houses, the two contemporary structures, completed in 2013, hover among the boughs, poised on five-metre-high steel supports.
The cabins project off a knoll shaped from the rubble of an old hotel. From the man-made hillside, guests traverse suspended footbridges to enter the cabins, which are bright and womb-like inside. The open 22-square-metre spaces are panelled in local pine and fitted with a kitchenette, a table for two, a bathroom and a sofa bed. The focal point is a queen-size bed perched atop a pine platform – the perfect roost for meditating on the branches swaying outside an ample window, or for lying back and stargazing through an overhead skylight.
Developed with the Portuguese company Modular System, the project showcases non-orthogonal form, contradicting standard notions of prefab construction. Like a snake gliding between the trees, the cabins blend in to their surroundings, their native slate and wood cladding the perfect forest camouflage. “My goal was that everything new in the park should be invisible,” says Rebelo de Andrade, adding, “The real jewels at Pedras Salgadas are the old buildings and the trees.”
He applied the same principle to his 12 Eco Houses, which were finished in 2012, also using prefabricated units constructed by Modular System. They were arranged around the existing pines to minimize their impact on the forest; consequently, each Eco House has a different layout, though the modules remain the same: an entrance and bathroom unit, a living room and kitchen unit, a unit with one or two bedrooms, and a spacious deck. The larger houses have two bedrooms and sleep up to six, while the smaller ones accommodate four. Like the tree cabins, the Eco Houses sport a suit of pine and slate scales.
While the Tree and Eco Houses are über-contemporary in appearance, Rebelo de Andrade has also been renovating neglected structures from the park’s heyday in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The most recently completed is the 1910 Casino, a pink palace with a lavish ballroom that was never used for gambling and now functions as an event space. “I wanted to take these historical buildings and make them shine, because they’re the identity of the park,” he explains. The Balneario (the thermal spa, the park’s focal point) occupies the original 1875 art nouveau building renovated in 2010 by Pritzker laureate Álvaro Siza Vieira. Around the park, several other early 20th‑century constructions await Rebelo de Andrade’s paintbrush.
Where medical-tourists of a century ago came for the benefits of the waters, today’s visitors to Pedras Salgadas Spa and Nature Park are just as likely to be drawn by the allure of the old and new architecture as well as the stress-relieving tonic of the pine forest.
If you go
How to get there
From Porto, it’s an easy hour-and-a-half drive northeast to the park. Well-maintained highways wind through countryside freckled with farms and braided with grape vines.
Things to do
In the late 19th century, the spa town of Pedras Salgadas was a holiday destination for the Portuguese upper crust and even royalty. They came to take the waters, which continue to bubble up throughout the park and can invariably be found along the eight kilometres of paths. Treatments featuring this spring water are still offered in the original Balneario, renovated by Álvaro Siza Vieira. Today’s cure seekers choose from remedies such as Vichy shower, Turkish bath, and full-body massage. An indoor heated pool with a waterworks section is open year-round, and an outdoor pool near the pond opens for the summer season. Just 15 minutes from the park by car, golfers will find an 18‑hole course at the Vidago Palace Hotel. A 30‑minute drive brings you to the district’s capital, Vila Real, a gem for discovering Portuguese baroque architecture.
Where to eat
The sleepy village of Pedras Salgadas offers few restaurants, and the park’s eateries are limited to a café and a seasonal restaurant. A 15‑minute drive takes you to the Vidago Palace Hotel – a palace built for King Charles I in 1910 that was turned into a five-star hotel in 2010 – where you can sample local fare fit for a king in the lavish ballroom restaurant.
→ From $242 per night.