The first time I went to Portugal’s Azores islands to check out the White hotel, shortly after it opened nearly five years ago, the owners, João and Catarina Reis, told me they had taken their inspiration from a particular hotel in Santorini—all whitewashed floors, driftwood and macrame. “It’s white,” added João at the time, “so there will be no colors to distract you” from the blues and greens of the ocean and the hills of São Miguel, one of the most spectacular islands in the world.
It was all quite lovely, and done well enough to inspire many of the design-forward boutique hotels that followed in the Azores—along with the Reis’s other hotel, Santa Bárbara, it was a pioneer in luxury travel in the archipelago—but truth be told, it felt a little out of place. I like Santorini style, but this is a very different island.
The Reises recognized that too, and so this winter, they closed the ten-room, clifftop hotel for a complete renovation. They brought in designer Daniela Franceschini, and gave her a brief to make the hotel more connected to the volcanic island, while giving it generous doses of her signature calm and artisanal style. The result is something that makes more sense in this part of the world, has a stronger point of view and feels more expansive. (João Reis admits that some people found the previous all-white rooms “claustrophobic,” and it’s true that having more contrast gives them a feeling of spaciousness.)
For starters, there’s a lot more slate gray and black—which, during my recent visit, led to more than one joke about changing the hotel’s name—in the floors and also some of the walls and, in some rooms, even in the shower tiles, which are made of basalt, an unusual bathroom material that turns out to have a very nice patina. The renovations in some of the rooms gave way to original architectural features, such as vaulted ceilings from the former wine cellar and the old kitchen fireplace.
Most of the furniture and finishings were made on the island, much from a native wood called cryptomeria. To be sure, this was to reduce shipping costs and avoid the logistical problems that have bedeviled everyone lately, but it also has the effect of adding to that sense of place and connection.
They also moved the wellness area from a room adjacent to the main house, to a freestanding pavilion at the far end of the grounds, where all you can hear is the sound of the ocean as the resident therapist works his magic. They added an outdoor jacuzzi, turned a largely disused space into a pretty outdoor dining pavilion that’s sheltered from the elements, and made the cliffside infinity pool black, which not only fits with the new volcanic theme but also makes the water warmer.
What hasn’t changed is the quality of the hospitality. The service is snap-to-it—something appreciated by the hotel’s many North American guests—but relaxed, personalized and friendly. Everyone gets a glossy map of the island’s best secret spots, chosen by the hotel’s owners and staff. They’ll also organize excursions to most of them—because as dreamy as it is to lie by the pool, no one goes all the way to the Azores and then chooses to stay poolside instead of exploring the majesty of São Miguel.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is the quality of the food, although there is a new chef. Now the kitchen is run by chef William Blake. (Long story about the name—he is, in fact, Portuguese.) Blake worked alongside White’s previous chef, André Fragoeiro (now doing good work at Santa Barbára), and then went off to cook next to Michelin-star names like Dieter Koschina at Villa Joya and Vincent Farges at Epur.
Here at White, he’s produced a well-edited menu that focuses on produce from the hotel group’s extensive farm at Santa Bárbara, fresh-caught fish and prime Azorean beef. There are a few novelties, like a hot dog made of shrimp and squid on the lunch menu, but also a good selection of dishes that pay pure homage to the location, like Azorean hake with pil-pil herb sauce, grilled periwinkles and vegetables from the farm. The colors of the food, it turns out, are just as enticing as the new, more vivid palette of the hotel.