We are just ten days and three buckets of tears removed from a life-changing trip to South France and Portugal. I still get the itch to bust a jog down to Vieille Ville for some handmade soap from a craftsman, or give an obrigado to my bartender for the free fourth drink.
But saudade notwithstanding, France and Portugal offered not just enough culture, romance, and fun to last a lifetime, but some of the most vivid, over-the-top, sense-heightening experiences I’ve had in the realm of food and beverage. Some may require a bit of a drive, and one or two may be on the spendy side, but the majority are easily achieved and absolutely a must-do for your trips to these one-of-a-kind locales.
Here are the best of the best, from our perspective:
The “BBQ” Dinner at Six Senses Hotel & Spa (Douro Valley)
Deep in the dizzyingly high hills of Portugal’s Douro Valley is the luxurious Six Senses Hotel and Spa, home to arguably the best inland views in Europe stretched across 20 acres that I dare you not to get lost in. This was indeed the biggest “splurge” of our trip and ultimately one of the most memorable and romantic environments of my life. Easily a top reco for any travelers to Portugal, remote as it may be.
On our first day there, the threat of storms chased the hotel’s planned BBQ dinner indoors for the evening, though fortunately it actually remained sunny and clear all day. Inside the spacious, rustic farmhouse-styled restaurant, the Rum & Biscuits Blog and family were subsequently treated to four courses of epic proportions, our servers delivering and even refilling plates with near clairvoyantly precise timing.
The foray began with elevated takes on potato salad (our favorite “starter”), beet salad with nuts, tender and dripping grilled vegetables plucked from their onsite garden, and a hearty bowl of octopus and squid garnished with fresh peppers and scallions. Top quality bottomless sangria kept us company throughout the feast.
The coup de grace, however, was delivered on a hubcap-sized platter: pork, steak, and goat hunks – the goat skin as sweet and crispy as peanut brittle – unapologetically undressed, save a pair of plastic tongs and three cornmeal polenta cubes. My eyes were watering as I yammered about the experience launching to the top of my all-time list, and that’s before they brought out the second serving of the stuff. If you only make one departure from the panoramic poolside of this marvelous hotel, A) no one will blame you, but B) make sure it’s to the restaurant on barbecue day. It will be one to remember, I promise.
Breakfast at the Yeatman Hotel (Porto)
Rising out of the cliffs of Porto’s south bank Minho neighborhood is the glorious Yeatman Hotel. It’s a “port resort” of sorts (nailed it!) literally across the street from Taylor’s Port Cellars. This was my first breakfast outside of Nice. It must have been how Ernest Shackleton felt returning from the pole. This buffet-style spread consumed half of a fifth floor ballroom, with tables and terrace overlooking the city, the Douro river and iconic Louis I Bridge.
So plentiful was the bounty that it had been divided into seven sections and sub-sections. There were baguettes, rolls, croissants, cakes, brownies, donuts, waffles, pasteis; eggs, hash browns, sausages, bacon; melons, berries, passion fruit, pineapple; parfaits, granola, yogurts, jams, butters, cream cheeses; meat pastries, handpies, apple dumplings, and charcuterie. All of this you could fill your plate with…then you could fill it again. But most importantly of all, friends, were mimosas. Self-serve, two kinds. And that is something I saw nowhere else on the voyage.
After planning on grabbing something and hitting the road early en route to the Douro Valley, we ended up actually pushing our plans back an hour and a half in order just to double up on the unparalleled café da manhã that signaled our re-entry into a.m. gluttony.
DIY Bellet Wine Tour (Nice)
An as-promised pro-tip: for the same amount you’ll pay for a van ride up to Nice’s Bellet AOC and a group tour of two vineyards, through the Nice Tourism Office you can customize your own ride and tour as many as you can fit inside of four hours. Granted, you’ll be out-of-pocket for your tastings, but the extra vineyard and opportunity to choose your own adventure make it worth it. In our case, we chose Chateau de Cremat, Domaine de la Source, and Chateau du Bellet, and it would have been hard to choose another three more distinct from one another yet equally impressive.
Our driver, Nicolas, over-performed to put it lightly. He didn’t even know our itinerary before we got in the van – such is the nature of the custom tour on offer, we could have said we wanted to drive up and down the promenade seven times, or go to Monaco. And yet he had relationships with all the vineyards we were visiting and so could call ahead to let them know if we’d be late, and gently keep us on schedule to ensure we could hit all three in our allotted time. He even acted as translator on one of our visits where our host was not as comfortable with English.
And in terms of the wineries, if you love hilltop views over deep, wide valleys and bright, light, floral wine, you will be in heaven. The appellation, recognized since 1941 but touted as the oldest in France thanks to the Romans (remember how far South we are), consumed just two and a half square miles of the hillside, its chalky soil dubbed “pudding” giving rise to grapes unique to the region such as the Folle Noir (“Crazy Black”) and the braquet, which gives the area’s rosés their distinct notes of violet, orange blossom, and rose.
And if you’d like our cliff notes-recos combo, well, voila:
Chateau de Cremat: Best grounds overall, with sprawling peach-and-cream-colored Neo-Tuscan facilities that have more than once played the role of wedding venue or film set. Coolest history as well – from the 100m-long old Roman tunnels still used for storage, to the interlocking double “C” (as in Chateau + Cremat) that legend has inspired the iconic Coco Chanel logo when the designer befriended the chateau owner in the 1920’s. Chateau de Cremat has the rosés that will forever redefine the wine for you – like drinking liquid perfume. Be sure to get a bottle of the especially reasonably priced 2015 rosé of mostly braquet with a splash of grenache.
Domaine de la Source: More modest and rustic than the other two; it’s a family-run vineyard and easy to feel it. This was the one where Nicolas hooked us up with translations since our guide was more comfortable in French, and the only one of the three to offer snacks – crispy bread sticks and some beautiful fresh figs. We enjoyed their main red, but the you could taste the difference with the higher end 2014 Cuvée Fuella Nera. It ended up being our favorite red from the trip.
Chateau de Bellet: Best view and best tasting room, with an especially knowledgeable and articulate guide. Their whites were pure popcorn on the nose, with a honey finish – we ended up going with that. The rosé we had here was as bright, but sweeter, as those we’d had before. Pure watermelon jolly rancher came to mind. But trust, the scenery and detailed information is just as fun to drink in here as the wine.
Mercado da Ribeira + Time Out Market (Lisbon)
Take a 125-year-old fresh market and put it under the same roof as New York’s Smorgasburg or L.A.’s Grand Central Market in a stunningly historic domed building on the banks of the Tagus River. What do you have? A run-on sentence, yes, but what else? One hell of a time is what, by way of the traditional Mercado da Ribeira and its hip 2014 roommate, Time Out Market. Together they constitute something of a living, edible food museum, tracing Lisbon’s culinary past to its present, with quiet and charming back-aisles sprinkled with souvenir vendors transitioning you between the spaces.
The Time Out space is simply electric – packed and noisy, at once inspiring and paralyzing in their diversity of choice. Everyone is laughing, sharing, and learning (some literally), as they course through lines for traditional fare like bolo de caco sandwiches, canned sardines, ports and local wines, and juicy leitão, to more worldly options like Asian fusion, burgers and pizza, with some of the craziest lines onsite.
We only managed to fit in a wine tasting at Cinco e Meio and solid croquettes at Croqueteria, but even the chance to complete one loop around the place just to see what was on offer and what was popping was worth the trip. Definitely a must-do, in particular when book-ended with a Sangria Stroll down the Avenue Ribeira das Naus.
ViniPortugal Wine Bar (Lisbon)
It’s the visit I made last that I’d wished had been among the first. ViniPortugal is square in the touristy, well, square of Praca de Comercio, but it is also the relaxing, decadent and cheap Portuguese Wine 101 that you need as soon as you step off the boat. In the dimly lit vaulted space, communal tables are flanked by floor-to-ceiling walls of wine bottles from across the country, their curtain of dark glass broken only by two ten-foot-wide wine dispensing machines. Inside are around 32 bottles divided between four sections: red, white, port, and “special.”
This is a self-directed wine-tasting nirvanna, where the purchase of a pre-paid card allows you to get two-ounce tastings for anywhere from .75 to two euros a pop, up to the value of the card. My wife and I got fairly bombed – but educated – off of 20 euros, and there was no indication you couldn’t load the thing with twice that amount, so this just seems like something that should be mandatory all across the world.
Arguably best of all, though, is that some but not all of the bottles available for taste are sold in the tasting room, and the friendly staff are more than happy to point you in the direction of shops that will carry anything else. I was a bit heartbroken that I couldn’t find (for purchase) any of the transformative vinho tintos I’d expected until my very last afternoon in town, so I’d recommend this as an early stop to all future travelers just to get particularly focused on your search. But I guarantee it’s a good time for anyone at any point, as it was for my wife and I at the end of our very special trip!
Niçois Bread Crawl (Nice)
I have to admit, this move was hardly planned. But even if it was just my body revenge-carbing after six months of speedo-prep, I damn sure appreciated it. After two days of observing that French mornings are for bread, or espresso, or both, I dove in head first and decided to learn something.
I hopped from one bakery to the next, working my way down from the train station to the promenade. I snatched anything that looked good and unfamiliar, politely speaking bad French and not asking questions. By the time my brother and wife were up, I’d gotten nearly a dozen rolls, loaves, and slices for “us” to “share.” From the flat, crackling sugar cloud of the sticky palmier, to the chewy decadence of the eggy brioche. I dabbled with the familiar croissant, beignet, and pain au chocolat, and was introduced to suitors I probably won’t call back, like the Paris brest – something of a disappointing donut meets disappointing sandwich creme cookie.
But the best of them, oh Lord, the best of them had to be the pain au lait. Soft and dense long rolls with buttery skins that tore apart in slow motion to reveal snow white insides. I won’t get all Adult Fiction with the detail here, but do yourself a favor and see how these babies stacked up against the best of the trip. Then, dear reader, YOU decide.
Bottle and a View, anywhere in South France (Nice, Cap d’Antibes, St. Tropez)
This is always the right decision, and maybe, one day, the title of my memoirs. We started with a high bar: two bottles of Provencal rosé on Le Meridien Nice’s hotel rooftop, La Terrasse. It was the first time we’d seen the Cote d’Azur waters in the daylight and stared mesmerized (and likely a tad buzzed by the end, sure) at the blinding sapphire waves that put the Bahamas to shame.
Keep the views and booze going in Monaco with Hotel de Paris’ eighth floor Le Grill, your ocean panorama book-ended by the palace and Port Hercule to the south, the skyscrapers and mountains of Monte Carlo to the north. Then head south to Restaurant du Bacon, whose vibe and sun-soaked view back over the water to Antibes screams country-club-to-end-all-country-clubs. Another hour further and you’ll be on the warm sands of Saint Tropez and the comparatively tranquil Cabane Bambou for a cool, refreshing bottle of the local Pampelonne.
Lastly, circle back up to Nice and the other La Terrasse, this one La Terrasse du Plaza at B4 Plaza Nice just down the Avenue de Verdun. Cue more ocean porn, but this one charmingly infringed upon by the bustle of the Jardin Albert and Place Massena below. This is how you Cote D’Azur, ladies and gentlemen.
Old Town (Nice)
Sometimes the Tripadvisor pick is the right one. Take an indulgent stroll down to Rue de Collet for classic Niçois staples like socca, the savory, toasty chickpea crepes (try it at René Socca). Get some streetside rabbit or sausage, and killer wines from La Cave de Stephane. Make sure you make it up to, Fenocchio, though, for some of the best ice cream the town has to offer. We were very, very close to investing in the all-in food tour offered by A Taste of Nice, which looks unbelievable. For better or worse, though, four hours is a big commitment and 9:45 an early one for three jet-lagged childless 30-somethings. Fortunately, Nice Tourism Office comes in big again, with a free “Nice Greeter” offering a customized tour of the city based on your interests. We did the same thing in Bahamas and were obsessed with it, so we jumped right on the Nice edition. Do this AND the Food Tour if you can!
Together these comprise some of the all-time top food experiences I’ve ever enjoyed, because in each case the surrounding context – be it the atmosphere, service, education or company – all propel the food or beverage items to something bigger than the sum of their parts. Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny that any food experience lives and dies by one single factor: the food itself. And that’s why over the next two posts, we’ll take a closer look at THE individual foods and beverages that blew me away over the trip. It’s a series I expect to lose more than one or two readers and friends over, so hope you’ve enjoyed everything so far, and hell, read this one again when you have a sec!
‘Til next time.