For anyone who has grown up in the countryside, the wellness trend of “Forest bathing” might seem rather contrived. Almost as silly as “Earthing”. But when you’re toxic and dulled from the office hours and soulless commute, slipping off one’s shoes can feel rather liberating. As for taking the time to acknowledge the dappled light filtering in through the trees – euphoric. An ineffable image neatly captured in the Japanese word “Komorebi”.
There’s a reason why Forest bathing or “Shinrin-Yoku” is a national past-time in Japan. Studies have shown that time spent in forest environments as opposed to cities, reduces cortisol, lowers pulse rate, blood pressure, promotes parasympathetic nerve activity and lowers sympathetic nerve activity. And it’s down to phytoncide that helps trees to protect themselves from germs and insects. Inhaling the stuff appears to improve the immune system and decrease stress levels. I suppose I never thought to question it. Nature has always been my best healer. When Keats wanted to escape “the weariness, the fever and the fret”, what did he do but head straight for the forest to quite literally get drunk on nature. Which is exactly what I intend to do over the next few days in the pinewood playground of FeelViana.
After a 45 minute Uber ride from Porto, the smell of pine hits me like a bulldozer, overwhelming my senses. Designed by architect Carlos Castanheira, the beautifully situated facility made primarily of wood, blends naturally with the vast forest that made its home. Centre Parks comes to mind – but on a big budget. It’s also far more intimate with only 46 rooms and 9 wood cabins. Instead of buffets, find haute cuisine, and instead of water rapids, a pristine, undeveloped beach that thanks to a horse-shoe shaped bay, provides perfect windsurf conditions all year round.
The beauty of this hotel is that it appeals to all family members, bound by a shared love of being active in the outdoors. And there’s a lot to pack in with 400km of biking routes to explore, varying in intensities to satisfy the laid-back traveller to seasoned athlete. Bicycle trailers are provided for kids, a Pumptrack for teens and a workshop offering every conceivable mechanical repair – a keen cyclist’s fantasy.
My companion and I opt for a medium intensity trail and set off towards the town of Carreço. I hop on not quite feeling worthy of my wheels, a winner of world cups, world championships and Olympic medals – especially after that tumble in Austria.
We spend 14 miles taking in our scenic surroundings, winding through beachside boardwalks, recharging on negative ions from crashing Atlantic swells. We sooth our weary bodies back at FeelViana’s Spa, with circuits of the pool, sauna and Turkish bath, rounded off with a VOYA seaweed facial and re-mineralising Mermaid’s mask. Our skin is left looking hydrated and plump like when we were teenagers. Now to the wine. Given the hotel’s proximity to The Douro, it would be rude not to imbibe…
We dine on cod carpaccio (a local speciality) and Octopus in lemongrass courtesy of chef Paulo André, as our host introduces us to José Sampaio, the man behind the impressive project who turned his dream into a reality.
I wake to a storm that sets off the aromatic pine. Never before have I spent so much time vigorously inhaling through corridors. I can feel the cortisol lessening by the second. I decide against the morning run and head straight to breakfast to sample a wide selection of cheese. We make our way by foot over a vertigo-inducing bridge, to the nearby town of Viana do Castelo. My ambling efforts are rewarded with a pastel de nata.
We return for some more spa time, a dynamic hatha yoga session and seabass in a pea puree. The food is exquisite with generous portions to make up for energy expended on battling the elements. I’m not sure 30 minutes in a sauna quite cuts it. I somehow make room for a soufflé.
While the hotel has been open less than a year, it feels as if it has been going for longer. The staff are friendly, attentive and speak several languages that combined with the jaw dropping location makes for a winning combination.
Whether you’re a kite-surfer, paddle-boarder, biker or spa-seeker, there’s something for everyone. I arrived frazzled, with too many tabs open in my brain, so over-stimulated that I was practically whirring. Now I know there’s a name for my affliction. Nature Deficit Disorder. Whether it’s due to the phytoncide or time spent mastering my balance with a dear friend, 48 hours immersed in nature certainly did the trick. As for “forest bathing” as the next yoga or meditation, I’m all for it.
The Healthy Holiday Company offers 7x nights at FeelViana from £695pp based on two sharing a Garden View Bungalow on a B&B basis, including return flights from London Gatwick to Porto. Book via their website or call 0208 968 0501.