Perched above a sandy beach, on the outskirts of Albufeira, with the Atlantic waves crashing below, Vila Joya is one of Portugal’s finest hidden gems. It is a real retreat; a luxury hotel that understands the true meaning of the word luxury – that is, ease, comfort and quality.
What began life as a family home, Vila Joya still maintains that intimate, cosy, relaxed atmosphere today. It was converted into a boutique hotel in 1982, after its owners – the Jung family – wanted to share their love of good food and hospitality with the world. Up until then, the property was somewhere to entertain friends and family. It’s still very much a home-from-home – a place to eat, drink and enjoy the finer things in life.
The beating heart of Vila Joya is – and has always been – good food. Each night, the restaurant serves a six-course tasting menu – a kaleidoscopic array of dishes that come paired with some of Portugal’s finest wines (and rightly so). It is a magical mystery tour of taste, colour and sensation, without being flamboyant or showy. Just like everything else here, it is tasteful and perfect, without the slightest hint of pretension. Even the plates, glasses and cutlery are carefully selected to enhance the experience of each course or wine.
It was largely serendipity and a meeting of minds that created the Vila Joya you see today. After Claudia Jung turned her home into a hotel, the chef she originally hired quit one day during high season. Undeterred, she put in a call to a friend’s kitchen in Austria. The head chef happened to be off that day, so the sous chef – a young man named Dieter Koschina – answered the phone. Claudia explained her vision to him, and he promptly hot-footed it to the Algarve to embark on what has turned out to be a glittering 25-year career. Thanks to Chef Koschina, Vila Joya has garnered two Michelin stars. For 13 years, it was the only restaurant in Portugal to do so.
I had the pleasure of having lunch with Chef Koschina during my stay, and over lobster arroz de marisco and vinho verde he told me how he invents a different menu every night, creating new dishes from scratch, depending on what’s come in that day. If it’s oysters from Alvor, he’ll use those. If it’s eel, he’ll smoke it and serve it in strips with wasabi. Purple carrots seem to be a bit of a theme, and the hotel has a cookbook named after them. But everything else is pot luck. To devise and execute that level of cuisine on a nightly basis is staggering. And if a guest requests something a little different, he simply goes “John Wayne” on the situation, riffing with whatever ingredients he has. Everything is always seasonal and local. With such an abundance of ingredients on your doorstep, it would be mad not to use them.
There are many things about Vila Joya that are outstanding. The staff, many of whom have been here since the beginning, really know their stuff, and go out of their way to make you feel special and at ease. Nobody seems stressed or harried, which is amazing considering how much work must go into making Vila Joya tick. The spa – tucked away in a separate building – exudes the sort of peace and tranquility that other, larger hotels somehow struggle to create. I enjoyed one of the best massages of my life, then hung out in the outdoor jacuzzi watching the waves below.
The entire property is tastefully decorated with antiques and collectibles from the Jung’s many trips around the globe. The Moorish-inspired buildings are covered in bougainvillea, jasmine and morning glory. And floor-to-ceiling windows make the most of that ever-present sea view. With only 14 rooms and eight suites, it never feels busy or crowded. All but one of the rooms face the Atlantic ocean.
There’s a distinct Asian/North African feel to the place. The current owner, Joy Jung (Claudia’s daughter) has a small boutique in the grounds of the hotel. Here, you can buy the same delicate hand-crafted white crockery and unique cutlery the restaurant uses in its service.
With all this, it would be all too easy to never leave the hotel. But there are some lovely beach walks to be had when the weather’s nice. And, of course, surf on tap, as well as golf – the Algarve is home to some of the world’s best courses.
It is a testament to Vila Joya that many of its guests return year after year. And who can blame them? When you’ve found a piece of paradise like this, there really is no going back.
Vila Joya, Estrada da Galé, Albufeira, Portugal. Telephone: +351 289 591 795. Doubles from 220 Euros per room, per night, including breakfast. Dinner costs 95 Euros per person if booked prior to your stay; otherwise it costs 175 Euros. For information, visit www.vilajoya.com.