Senses is a camping and glamour camping (or “glamping”) site that sits between the village of Faia and the Mondego River (coincidentally, they are almost neighbors with our last epic hosts Vinha da Manta! #smallworld). Run by Michel, a sand and ice sculptor, and Natasha, a hairdresser, DJ, and yoga instructor, it is a study in contrasts.
The pool area looks like it came straight out of a design magazine, with a weeping willow watching over the kiddie and adult pools, and wicker lounge chairs with white cushions and red pillows that make the whole scene pop. In the middle is the pool bar, a wooden structure that could have been put together by elves (see image below).
Senses offers a range of accommodation, going from a teepee – incredibly cool looking but hard to keep warm – to Safari tents turned log cabins (think Safari tents with added wood walls & floor), including actual beds and even a living room with a wood stove in one of them. There are also “bell tents”, circus-shaped tents that you can stand up in and that are big enough for two real beds and a bedside table.
Every volunteer experience teaches you something different. Here, I learnt about woodworking when I contributed to the building of the pool bar and al fresco dining structure for up to 120 guests: how to pick which trees to cut down in the forest, what to consider when cutting them down, how to debark the felled wood, the need for a protective layer of paint to ensure the wood lasts through myriad seasons and resists insect attacks, and how to use wood in all its natural beauty to put together a structure that is not just functional but inspiring.
In the hours I spent watering the vegetable garden, I also came to appreciate the Portuguese way of doing things: shaping the soil so you can put the hose in one spot and see the water snake its way to all the plants in that particular planting area, without you having to do a thing. It means observing the land and seeing gradients, however minor. And even once the system works, you have to keep an eye out for mole holes which can divert water away from its intended path to unknown depths!
When the garden produced more zucchini than any of us knew what to do with, I played around with zucchini oil conserves (see image on left). Once the tomatoes started to ripen, with two other volunteers we built a drying rack and started making sun-dried tomatoes (which also led to a fierce battle with ants, who felt they had a claim to the goods… in the end we won by placing the feet of the drying rack in recycled yogurt tubs full of water, the best ant barrier we found after coffee failed).
At the end of our time at Senses, we got to work two weddings (see images below). The first was an English-Portuguese couple living in London and thick into the fashion world (he is an Instagram model with 200k+ followers), with 120 guests of which at least half were vegetarian or vegan. Gin and tonics were consumed by the liter, and festivities lasted almost a week.
The second wedding was a Portuguese couple who opted for a single night of celebration plus breakfast the next day. Of the 120 guests, only one was a vegetarian. Beer flowed and the Latin vibe was well-represented in the happy rowdiness that ruled from beginning to end.
Other than loving being backstage (you know me and event planning!), it was also fascinating to get a better understanding of what it takes to host such big events – from food prep (and waste, unfortunately) to the stress placed on water sources when 120 people are taking showers and going to the bathroom, running a bar, and everything in-between.
The team of volunteers we worked with was absolutely brilliant: Karen & Nanna the two Danish girls who kept me sane when things were a bit slow, Chris the woodworking genius who reminded me how fun Yahtzee is, Krystina and Cain from Oz who were always up for a laugh, Remco who happened to be my friend Clodi’s doppelganger and just as cool, Steve who was never more than 6ft from the bar, Helena whose food is always so tasty it’s unbelievable, and Guy who is the only chef and massage therapist I know and makes literally the best salmon gravlax I have ever tasted.
Living by the river was a treat, but temperatures at night were significantly colder than higher up in the valley – and Wi-Fi was mercurial at best. So onward we go, continuing the property hunt and in the meantime returning to Vinha da Manta to close up the season.
See more photos below. Click on one to see captions and be able to scroll through them like an album.