Most world-class luxury retreats will pamper you and cater to your every whim, but can a couple of nights away from the hustle and bustle of life truly change you?
If any weekend getaway can be transformative, it is Andalucia’s Finca La Donaira.
Described as an exclusive eco-escape, La Donaira is situated on 1700-acres in the spectacular mountain region of la Serranía de Ronda. The land was purchased by the current owner in 2002 and developed into a world-class equestrian estate. In addition to 81 thoroughbred Lusitano horses, it is now home to 300 sheep, 200 hens, 32 goats, 61 rare or endangered cattle, as well as a few resident pooches and a plethora of wild birds.
In 2005, 700 hectares of the land was cultivated following the biodynamic principles of Rudolf Steiner. Today, La Dehesa Biodinámica produces 95% of what is consumed on the estate – by humans and animals. Last year this included 5.488 kilos of olives (making 462 litres of extra virgin olive oil), 528 kilos of almonds, over 2000 kilos of grapes of the Petit Verdot and Blaufränkish varieties and 236kg of medicinal honey.
Leave your car, and your worries, behind
La Donaira boutique-style hotel, which opened its doors in 2015, was voted one of Spain’s most charming hotels by Vogue Spain in 2018. At 850 metres over sea level, this mountain oasis will give you a chance to reconnect with nature and be reminded what it is like to be truly alive.
Even before you get there you feel that this will be no ordinary stay. Hotel guests are asked to leave their cars in the nearby village of El Gastor and get chauffeured the remaining way to the property. This is probably a good thing, as the jaw-dropping views are such that one could easily let go of the steering wheel.
On arrival, La Donaira’s press director María is waiting to give us a tour, while our luggage is taken to the room. “This is not a normal hotel,” she explains. “We want our guests to feel as if they are at home. We are like a family. There are no room keys and everybody eats at the same table.”
Does this sound too flower child-like to you? Well, it is far from it. The hundred-year-old white washed cortijo has been transformed into a rural chic state of the art luxury facility with seven distinct guest quarters in addition to two 50-m2 yurts for those who prefer glamping in the quasi-wild.
The bespoke designed main house is furnished with a mixture of French farm antiques, original art and a few retro-modern touches to give the ambiance just a bit of funk.
Each room also has its unique characteristics, such as our airy split-level suite where the natural rock grows out of the floor and the snow-white canopy bed mattress is covered in lambskin, to assure an extra deep sleep.
Some suites have generous bathtubs designed by William Holland, showers and taps are custom designed, while the natural soaps, shampoos and lotions are made in-house.
Throughout the estate there are homemade bees wax candles burning and vases with fresh cut flowers, so every corner whiffs of sweet, vibrant life!
From Steinways to Stallions
Such a natural sanctuary might inspire you to find a quiet bench to meditate on the state of the soul.
However, for the more active visitors there are no lack activities. In the morning, you can do sun salutations on the yoga platform with only the sierra as your audience. You can also try one of the many hiking trails, borrow a mountain bike, jump in the outdoor pool, take a trail ride, wander around the medicinal garden, or pick your own free-range eggs for breakfast.
In the afternoon, you can take a lesson in natural horsemanship with Seamus the resident ‘horse whisperer’. Having been with the horses since birth and understanding their natural instincts and forms of communication, he is able to train them without causing stress or fear. Lusitanos are the oldest known saddle horses in the world, a species that La Donaira aims to preserve and evolve through natural breeding. Known to be noble, strong, intelligent and sensitive, they are well suited for dressage and ideal partners for horse therapy.
“This is peace,” says German-born Gloria, as she stops by a field of pregnant mares on our way to visit the generous vegetable garden. She is responsible for La Dehesa Biodinámica, a permaculture project that includes soil revival, land cultivation and ecological animal husbandry. Based on sustainability and innovation, they aim to re-educate about holistic farming practices. On the recently introduced Family Sundays, children and adults will be able to see for themselves what happens with the soil and our food when a farm is treated as a functional ecosystem.
Gloria tells us that almost everything we eat at Le Donaira is picked here only minutes before being served. As if on cue, the chef comes speeding down the hill in an electric golf-cart to pick his last additions for lunch.
Bee beds or horse-back yoga?
This unique sanctuary offers all the amenities of a high-end luxury resort, and much more.
For those who need help unwinding, there is yoga on horseback, otherwise known as grounding. This is an exercise in strength, balance and trust done on the back of a stallion named Dante. Paula from Poland, La Donaira’s wellness responsible, starts by letting you pet and talk to the horse, finally walking it to an enclosed riding circle. Once you are mounted, you are prompted to do simple stretching exercises while the horse is led around in circles. With her calming voice and gracious ways, Paula helps you slow your breathing and relax into the natural rhythm of this powerful animal. And I thought I was afraid of horses…
Another not-to-be-missed activity is meditating on a Bed of Bees. (I mean who can resist such a name!) Concerned about the current bee situation, the estate began natural beekeeping, focusing on the genetic improvement of the bees, strengthening their immune system. There are currently 30 hives, in trees, old trunks and in the regular wooden box units. Three of the latter are put together to create the so-called bee bed, which I soon am to lay on.
Dressed in full beekeeper suits, Paula and I approach the hives to observe these hard-working insects. Then, entering carefully from the back of the hives, I lie down on the wooden platform literally on top of the hives. When the lid closes above me (yes, there are breathing holes…), I feel as if I have entered a buzzing echo chamber. I am becoming one with these amazing little creatures that are so essential to life on earth.
After all this action, you might yearn for some pampering. Perhaps a lavender manicure or a sweet almond oil massage in the secluded stone massage hut?
Though full capacity at La Donaira is 22 guests, you never feel crowded. In fact, you will sometimes wonder where the other guests are, when you have the entire spa to yourself, swim in the spring-fed outdoor pool or the 21-meter indoor infinity pool, sweat in the log-heated sauna, detox in the hammam, or if you are a mad Scandinavian like myself, take a plunge in the ice pool!
Indoor types will find a Steinway grand piano, guitars, a vinyl record collection, a home cinema and more books than you can possibly read during your stay. Surrounded by floor to ceiling windows with views to the Andalusian courtyard garden, just add a glass of La Donaira 2010 organic Syrah and you are in heaven on earth.
0 km field-to-fork experience
Our first lunch is taken at a long reclaimed wood table on the open terrace in the company of a family from Portugal.
The vast majority of la Donaira’s guests are foreign and most are repeat costumers. A comment in the guest book reads “The experience exceeded our highest expectations, so much that we extended our stay by a night within an hour of arriving…”
The kitchen is the heart of every home, including here. This is where guests can share meals and observe the cooks at work. Nicky from the UK will serve you breakfasts like you have never eaten before, with fresh juices and brews, hot out of the oven bread, organic honey, jams, butter, yoghurt, and fruit, all grown or made on site.
Whether you eat in the kitchen, the library or in the living room, as you might at home, the table is set with beautiful French linen, a sprig of rosemary, and antique silverware.
The food is at La Donaira a chapter in itself. Both lunch and dinner include at least half a dozen dishes, arriving as succulent sculptures on the plate, topped by micro greens and edible flowers. Fabienne from the Belgian Congo serves each dish with a sense of pride, giving detailed descriptions of the taste symphony we are about to partake in. This all-organic zero-kilometre cuisine created by their Swedish master chef Fredrik and his capable team, always ends with a piece de resistance, a homemade dessert, such as a sorbet from almonds grown just down the hill.
Until next time
After a leisurely dinner we lounge on huge leather couches awaiting nightfall, so we can go stargazing with David the astronomer. There is nobody at the grand piano tonight, since the owner is not on the premises and my grade-3 climpering simply won’t do…
Besides the eco retreat, La Donaira offers popular summer concerts, organic cooking and wine workshops and lectures on sustainable farming. Sharing knowledge is part of their all-encompassing philosophy. This is particularly apparent in the international volunteer program, where people from diverse backgrounds and interests contribute with their special skills and ideas, while leaving with new knowledge and awareness.
The staff is also a virtual United Nations, adding to the poly-culture of the mind that La Donaira is so passionate about. There is no apparent hierarchy and everybody is on first names.
When I ask María what they hope that the guests will get out of their stay, she answers without hesitation. “Respect! Respecting our environment and taking care of it. You have to be very cynical not to be affected by such a special place. We hope that La Donaira will inspire all who come here to a healthier, more sustainable way of life. ”
On our last morning we hear that a new Lusitano foal has been born. 14 more are due later this spring, as the animals here are allies that help maintain the balance of nature.
La Donaira has been a sensory journey like no other. Simply being here is therapeutic. As we bid out good-byes we realise that though we arrived as just another pair of visitors, we are leaving as friends. And what I can promise is that this is not goodbye, but Hasta Luego!
A shortened version of this article was published in this month’s issue of Essential Magazine – July 2020.
For more information, please go to Finca La Donaira