Nature has a way of prevailing, especially in the Azores. After the dairy farm they had planned ran into stumbling blocks, Helena and Manuel Gago da Camara embraced the floral and faunal wonders of their 103 hectare (255 acre) property, Furnas Lake Villas in Sao Miguel transforming it into an eco-retreat. The result is a series of modern showpiece villas surrounded by heather-covered slopes that play peek-a-boo with Furnas Lake.
It may not appear so on a map, but Furnas really is the centre of São Miguel island. From here, most destinations, including the capital of Ponta Delgada, are only forty minutes away. Furnas Lake Villas occupies a unique spot – site of the last volcanic eruption in 1630. Although the land has been in Manuel Gago da Camara’s family for hundreds of years, in the last three generations, fate has stepped in, continually returning the property to native scrub and bush. By the 1990s the government had put a stop to farming near the lake ending Gago da Camara’s dream of reviving his great-grandfather’s dairy. “Before [we built the hotel] it was a place to come on the weekends and holidays but now it is home. It was always a dream to live here year round,” says Helena Gago da Camara.
The entranceway curves past a grove of Japanese cedar, the same locally sourced material used by architect Fernando Monteiro to create the 10 villas. Modelled after local cafuas (corn granaries), raised above the ground, the clean, angular lines of the cladding, weathered to a comforting caramel, contrast the verdant environment. Inside the villas a small kitchen, living room and separate bedroom and bath are flooded by sunshine from the south-facing windows. Ponds that host ducks, frogs and fish sit perpendicular to the villas’ porches, and orchards where pomegranate and citrus cling to branches weave past the Chestnut House, a furnished stand-alone guesthouse.
In 2015 the reception building was built as a “place for people to gather so that they are not always stuck in their room.” A cozy wood-stove, wood panelling, floor-to-ceiling windows and cork floors give the space an airy, cabin feel. Design features take inspiration from the surroundings like a glimmering basalt countertop. The couple have plans to build 3 additional villas, and turn a portion of the property currently used by the government for aggregate extraction into a terraced garden. The aim, though, is to keep the ambiance. “We don’t want to grow more; we want to keep it a family place.”
Hiking trails, endless gardens, and a round saltwater pool make the property ideal for relaxing and enjoying nature. One of the highlights of my trip was touring the property in Manuel’s 20 year old Jeep. Properly suited up, our first foray was the beehives. Smaller than continental bees, and having feasted on heather, the dark honey they produce tastes divine. “It’s exciting and scary. You have to focus, it forces you to do one thing at a time and stay calm. If you go around swatting the bees then it will be worse,” admits Manuel. Eventually we made our way to the highest point on the property with panoramic views to the lake beyond. There, we had a lovely picnic (Helena insists on beautifully arranging everything with accompanying flowers) and chatted about whales, rocks, birds and plants (the pair have a genuine care for the environment).
Helena and Manuel excitedly usher me into the spotless kitchen proudly showing off their Thermomix machine. Nearly every item here is homemade. Breakfast features bolo levedo, the local English muffin-style bread, yogurt, cheese, cold cuts, and fruit. One afternoon I join one of the kitchen staff who lines a large stock pot with onions, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, fish, and olives all seasoned with an olive oil and pimento sauce. That night, I accompany Manuel to the nearby volcanic grounds where the pot has stayed underground for hours, and retrieve the cozido. Dessert is magical – pineapple tart, a coconut Swiss roll, and chocolate fudge brownie.
The couple live onsite, their home once serving as reception, and guests are treated as extended family.
This original hotel article first appeared in the Winter 2017/18 issue of City Style and Living Magazine