HOTEL hacienda de San Rafael
Review by Fiona Flores Watson
Why should I stay there?
In a word, to relax. Situated in quiet, picturesque countryside between Seville and Jerez, it's an enchanting hideaway - a small, family-owned hotel in a converted 18th-century Andalucian olive farm with a chilled yet luxurious ambience, its grounds full of lush vegetation, comfy outdoor sofás crammed with pretty cushions, alfresco bars, and swimming pools. By night, the garden is lit by candles - a magical sight.
What kind of person stays there?
People who like tranquil, discreetly stylish surroundings (most activities are at least half an hour away). You can choose to relax by one of the pools, reading your book and sipping fresh lemonade, or go on one of the host of activities available, from cooking classes on site, to guided hiking, horse-riding and hot-air ballooning. Families stay mostly in August; otherwise it's couples. Artists (painters, sculptors, photographers) can stay in exchange for one of their art works, subject to agreement with the owners.
Where is it?
Midway between the historic cities of Seville, famous for its flamenco and tapas, and Jerez, home of sherry and horses. Easy to find, the Hacienda is just off the old main road, yet with no traffic noise. It's also close to the famous pueblo blancos, hilltop towns in Cadiz dating back to Moorish times; the surrounding area offers great hiking and is home to many bull-breeding farms, while the coastal town of Sanlucar de Barrameda, an Andalucian gastronomic fixture for its superb prawns and manzanilla dry sherry, is only 20 minutes away. Both Jerez (45km away) and Seville (55km) have airports and train stations (AVE high-speed trains serve Seville).
What's it like?
A tastefully converted hacienda (farm house), it is run by two brothers, whose other hotel is Corral del Rey in Seville. Many guests opt for a few nights at each property, for the full buzzy city/peaceful country experience. The hacienda is a restored olive oil farm inherited by the owners' mother, who also did the interior design - it still has a family feel, with framed photos in the elegant drawing room, perfect for whiling away a cooler afternoon flicking through books on art and Spanish culture. This is still a working farm, with fields of olives, wheat, maize, cotton and sunflowers on all sides.
You can see the hacienda's heritage in the massive earthenware storage jars, millstones and agricultural implements dotted about; farming tools are cleverly placed alongside antique furniture, south-east Asian fabrics, wood carvings and statues from China, Indonesia and India. As in their other property, Corral del Rey, this blend works well to create an ethno-rustic décor. Contemporary paintings by their artist brother-in-law occupy many spaces - atmospheric oil portraits which capture the vibrancy and danger of flamenco, bullfighting and gypsy culture.
Three pools mean you'll be able to find a quiet spot for a dip, followed by a shady snooze on an outdoor sofa. Gardens are a lush, heavenly jumble of tumbling cobalt-blue plumbago and fuscia-pink bougainvillea, with fragrant jasmine and tall palms, and lemons, orange, quince and pomegranate trees. Take a wander through those gardens and all your worries will fade away.
As this is such an outdoorsy hotel, and therefore weather-dependent, it is closed from November to February.
What are the rooms like?
All 14 rooms are duplexes, with huge beds and lofty wood-beamed ceilings lined with cane, ensuring that even in the heat of summer they maintain a comfortable temperature; huge windows have shutters and curtains to keep out the sun (essential in July and August). Each has an open-plan bathroom with a bath and separate shower, plus a lounging area for siestas on the mezzanine level. Glass tea-light holders are provided for creating that romantic mood in the intimacy of your own room, with a good supply of spare candles. The deluxe rooms are arranged around the main courtyard with its brilliant pink bouganvillea.
Three thatched casitas are more spacious and private, screened by plants from the rest of the gardens; they sleep up to four - a separate sitting room has a sofa-bed, plus open siesta area upstairs. Best of all, they have their own private outdoor "chozita", a thatched area with table, chairs and built-in sofa where you can feel truly blissed-out, surrounded by plump cushions, fragrant jasmine, and birdsong, plus a shared pool.
There are no TVs in the rooms, but the meeting room has a TV and WIFI.
What should I eat there?
Dinner is a set-price three-course affair with wine, consisting of seasonal, fresh ingredients simply cooked, such as goat's cheese in filo pastry, followed by marinated quail, and pear in red wine for dessert. When the weather allows (and most likely it will) you dine in the courtyard or garden by candle-light - neighbouring diners fade into the darkness. For a pre-dinner aperitif, we loved the two outdoor bars, reminiscent of chiriguitos (typical Spanish beach bars), with a delightful holiday vibe. Breakfast is served on the verandah outside your room, and includes croissants, toast, fresh orange juice and cereal. Cooked extras like eggs are charged extra.
What should I see and do in the area?
If you can tear yourself away from exploring the shady gardens with their trailing tendrils of flowering plants, this hotel offers the most extensive range of guided activities in any hotel we've ever seen. Head to Seville (40 minutes away) to see this stunning city, eat tapas and watch flamenco; go horse-riding or bird-watching in Doñana National Park (one hour); have a sherry bodega tour followed by a tasting in Jerez (30 minutes); go hiking in the pueblos blancos of Cadiz (30 minutes). All their guides speak good English.
In the shop you can buy the pretty bottle-green pottery used in the hotel - it's made by a craftsman in nearby Lebrija - as well as beautiful batik fabrics and chunky jewellery. A two-bed pool villa suite (cabaña) for the ultimate in private luxury, is being built in time for next summer. Plans are afoot for yet more activities: polo, and visits to local artesans.
Hacienda San Rafael,
Carretera Nacional IV (km 594),