The Leisure Media Company Ltd
The Leisure Media Company Ltd
The Leisure Media Company Ltd


Going to the source

Two mineral spa and leisure developments are making waves in Portugal – all thanks to investment from the country’s largest brewer. Julie Cramer finds out more

As one of Portugal’s biggest beverage companies, known for its Super Bock beer, Unicer might seem an unlikely business to be operating two leisure, spa and nature parks in the country’s lesser developed northern region. Yet its opulently-restored Vidago Palace hotel, spa and park and eco-centred Pedras Salgadas nature park and thermal spa have been putting this corner of Portugal firmly on the tourist map since opening in 2010 and 2013 respectively.

Despite this, the two sites – designed by several acclaimed Portuguese architects – are still, according to Unicer, just a niche part of its E500m (US$622m, £396m) a year global drinks business. So just how did the investments come about and why did the company feel it would be a good move?

Social responsibility
The story of the parks, located 13km apart around two spa towns of the same name (Vidago and Pedras Salgadas), began when Unicer expanded into the mineral water sector.

In 2001 it purchased drinks company Vidago Melgaço e Pedras Salgadas (VMPS) and automatically inherited 20 hectares (49 acres) containing two nature parks, which were the original source of the naturally-carbonated mineral water.

Paula Marques, Unicer representative and GM of Vidago, says: “With the acquisition of VMPS, Unicer achieved one of its strategic goals – to become the main Portuguese beverage company, with its core business as a brewery and in bottled water – and to extend its activity to tourism.

“We felt a great sense of social responsibility when we acquired the land, and so we undertook a huge project in order to rebuild these two 100-year-old parks. Unicer is known as a company which cares about the preservation of national patrimony and identity.”

Renovation works
The Vidago Palace Hotel, first built for royalty in 1910, reopened during its centenary anniversary year in 2010, with a rich and stylish new look created by interior architects José Pedro Vieira and Diogo Rosa Lã. In contrast to the ornate, marbled and very colourful interiors of the 70-bed hotel, the 2,500sq m (26,910sq ft) spa has been designed with the signature minimalist look of Pritzker prize-winning architect Álvaro Siza Vieira.

The nearby Pedras Salgadas Spa and Nature Park opened in 2013, with a focus on the environment. Lisbon-based architect Luis Rebelo de Andrade built 13 deluxe eco houses and two striking tree houses that literally suspend guests in the verdant pine forest. Siza Vieira was again commissioned to work on the spa by restoring the park’s art nouveau thermal baths. Marques says: “We’ve combined the preservation of the natural environment and renewal of the thermal park concept in Portugal with modernism and innovation.”

Unicer says total investment amounted to E70m (US$87m, £55m) – E50m (US$62m, £40m) for Vidago and E20m (US$25m, £16m) for Pedras Salgadas. “One of our main goals was to renew the thermal tourism concept,” says Marques. “[But] as the two projects were so geographically close, it didn’t make sense to have the same offer. So we decided to create two unique projects, allowing us to attract different kinds of tourists to our region.”

It seems that the tactic is paying off. Pedras Salgadas has captured the imagination of Iberian tourists, with 84 per cent of its visitors being Portuguese, and 10 per cent of guests coming from Spain.

The Pedras Salgadas brand is the most famous mineral water drink in Portugal, which has no doubt helped attract locals. Vidago, on the other hand, appeals to a wider spread of nationalities: 65 per cent of customers are Portuguese; 12 per cent Spanish; and 11 per cent from elsewhere in Europe.

Drawn to the waters
Of course, the USP that ties both sites together is the healthy mineral water, known for its particularly high iron content and for aiding the digestive system, liver detoxification and overall natural purification. Spa manager for both sites, Vera Gonçalves, says: “The Vidago waters are believed to be therapeutic and curative, with only 0.5 per cent of waters in the world sharing the same mineral properties. These waters are collected directly from deep underground granite rock springs and are now used in several of our exclusive signature treatments.”

In stark contrast to the main building, with its belle époque style, the spa at Vidago Palace Hotel is designed as a modern, Zen-inspired space that Gonçalves says “exudes tranquillity and promotes an immediate sensation of well-being”.

Spa facilities at Vidago include 17 treatment rooms (including five for water therapies and two suites); a doctor’s room; a beauty room; two relaxation areas; a hydro pool, plus an indoor and outdoor pool; and a gym with Matrix equipment.

While the emphasis at Vidago is on relaxation and pampering, the focus at Pedras Salgadas is very much on being outdoors. There are cycling, walking and nature trails and the thermal waters are there to revive guests as a complement to the physical activity.

The renovated thermal baths are much starker. Architectural details such as the art nouveau doors and original signage remain intact, while modern light wells added by Siza Vieira ensure healthy amounts of light are projected into the spa spaces.

The spa has 14 treatment rooms (including five for hydrotherapy). Other facilities include a heated indoor pool, an outdoor pool, sauna, hammam and two relaxation areas.

Water wellness
Gonçalves says that extensive wellbeing programmes (with themes such as Purifying, In Balance and Keep Moving) are offered at both spas, with seven- or 14-day packages both being popular. Programme prices start from around E2,600 (US$3,240, £2,060).

A ty00-pical package would include medical and nutritional consultations, a biometric evaluation, personalised spa cuisine, facials and massages, water treatments and traditional therapies like shiatsu, as well as fitness activities such as PT sessions, yoga and walking.

Gonçalves adds: “Our guests also like to experience our waters even when they have shorter stays with us and the most popular is the Vichy scrub [treatment] and the personalised relaxing massage.”

Currently both spas average the same amount of treatments per month. At Vidago, 20 per cent of hotel guests have spas treatments, but the capture rate at Pedras Salgadas is slightly higher at 25 per cent.

Combined overall revenues for the Vidago and Pedras Salgadas spas was E250,000 (US$311,060, £197,860) in 2013, with expectations for 2014 being around E325,000 (US$404,370, £257,220).

The two parks may have started out as an incidental business for Unicer, but in a world where wellness tourism is growing year on year, they’re holding their own. The mix of history, luxury, nature, therapeutic waters and eco-consciousness has created a twin centre that’s sure to attract an increasingly international and affluent group of health tourists.

As Gonçalves concludes: “We want to present to the world the quality and effects of our waters and help the maximum number of people achieve a healthy lifestyle without using medication and to obtain immediate effects on their health with the help of nature…and our reputation is growing.”


Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira is known for his minimalist style and his projects range from swimming pools to mass housing developments, offices, restaurants, art galleries and retail.

Some of his best known works are in his home town of Porto including the Boa Nova Tea House (1963), the Faculty of Architecture at Porto University (1993) and the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art (1997).

He has won numerous awards over his 60-year career, including the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1992.

The jury citation for the position of Pritzker Laureate said his work was “a joy to the senses and uplifts the spirit. Each line and curve is placed with skill and sureness...Like the early modernists, his shapes, moulded by light, have a deceptive simplicity about them...To paraphrase Siza’s own words, his is a response to a problem, a situation in transformation, in which he participates.”

Álvaro Siza Vieira
Álvaro Siza Vieira


• Unicer is one of Portugal’s largest beverage companies, with multiple brands and 13 production centres around the country. Focused mainly on brewing and bottled water, the business also comprises soft drinks, wine, malt production and sales, and latterly, tourism assets

• Fifty-six per cent of Unicer is owned by Portuguese shareholders – Viacer Group (BPI, Arsopi and Violas) – and 44 per cent is owned by the Carlsberg Group

• The company has a strong international presence, with brands now in 50 countries


Helen Merchant
Helen Merchant

Helen Merchant, a UK-based spa consultant oversaw the final phase of development and pre-opening of the Vidago spa. Although she’s been involved in a number of international projects, the Portuguese spa – and working with Siza Vieira – is a highlight. She says: “Vidago Palace is a truly unique property. Its modern, minimalist spa sits in complete contrast to the historic palace yet blends in beautifully… In homage to the location’s natural springs, the spa’s therapeutic water treatments are a signature offer.”


Vidago Palace Hotel
Room rate: E200 for two people (B&B)
Annual occupancy: 40 per cent
Type of guest: 70 per cent leisure, 30 per cent MICE

Pedras Salgadas Spa and Nature Park
Room rate: E200 for four guests (B&B)
Annual occupancy: 50 per cent
Type of guest: 98 per cent leisure, 2 per cent MICE


Julie Cramer worked as news editor for BBC New Online for more than 10 years. She is now a freelance design, health and travel writer

Click on an image to open the image gallery
company profile
Company profile: Gharieni Group
30 years of innovation and German engineering, are the cornerstones of the Gharieni Group’s premium global brand – known for its Mind/Body Verified Wellness Technologies – and the highest quality medical, spa, and wellness equipment.
Try cladmag for free!
Sign up with CLAD to receive our regular ezine, instant news alerts, free digital subscriptions to CLADweek, CLADmag and CLADbook and to request a free sample of the next issue of CLADmag.
sign up
Snohetta’s underwater restaurant
"Should a thousand year wave occur, you’ll be completely safe"

A sneak preview of one of the world’s largest underwater restaurants

Feature: The exciting new materials shaping the built environment
"Curiosity drives us and I think we all have a little bit of the geek within us"

The innovative new materials shaping the future of architecture

Catalogue Gallery
Click on a catalogue to view it online
To advertise in our catalogue gallery: call +44(0)1462 431385
The design of the new HQ for the International Olympic Committee was inspired by the movement of athletes
Kim Herforth Nielsen founded 3XN in 1986 with Lars Frank Nielsen and Hans Peter Svendler Nielsen
"I always wanted to do more than just designing buildings"

How Danish firm 3XN is harnessing the power of architecture to shape human behaviour

Meis has helped design some of the world’s most successful stadiums
"It’s one of the tragedies of the US that so many of our stadiums get replaced after 20 years"

The Everton and AS Roma stadium architect talks through the challenges and rewards of sports facility design

The Cherry Circle Room
Susan Ungaro has been president of the James Beard Foundation since 2006;
"It was a truly one of a kind look"

On the winners of the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Restaurant Design Awards

The hotelier said his ambition is ‘to upset the status quo’
"Everyone deserves a one-of-a-kind experience that lifts their spirits and makes their heart beat faster"

On upsetting the status quo with his latest hotel

Tokachi Millennium Forest is being marketed as having a sustaiable vision of 
a thousand years
"It’s a public space that’s managed very beautifully and has a strong message of sustainability"

It’s a huge source of sadness that the Garden Bridge became as political as it did, says the project’s landscape designer

The architects Dean Mackenzie and Hamish Monk
"We’ve designed the space so that the atmosphere is intimate"

Les Mills’ new studio spaces at its iconic Auckland City Gym showcase a trend away from masculine ‘grunty’ gyms to something altogether different

cladkit product news
Mather & Co and ITV unite to create Coronation Street Experience
Mather & Co has transformed the visitor centre into the ultimate haven for ardent Coronation Street viewers
Magali Robathan
Experience designers, Mather & Co, have orchestrated a remarkable collaboration with ITV to unveil the new Coronation Street Experience, a ...
Alberto Apostoli designs tech-forward Wellness Therapy furniture collection for Varaschin
The furniture collection draws on absolute geometries, pure lines, neutral colours and strong references to nature
Megan Whitby
Furniture manufacturer Varaschin has unveiled the new Wellness Therapy range, designed by Italian spa and wellness architect and designer Alberto ...
CSI Design Expo Americas 2024 announces new Attractions & Entertainment Technology Zone
The event will allow buyers and suppliers to meet
Magali Robathan
Cruise Ship Interiors (CSI) invites cruise lines, shipyards, design studios, outfitters, and suppliers to take part in CSI Design Expo ...
cladkit product news
Alberto Apostoli and Newform collaborate to launch the A.Zeta showerhead
The showerhead offers two modes; rainfall or waterfall
Megan Whitby
Italian architect Alberto Apostoli has renewed his partnership with Newform – an Italian wellness company – and designed A.Zeta. A.Zeta ...
Ojmar introduces battery-free electronic locker to cut carbon footprints in health clubs and spas
Ojmar says the batteryless lock is easy to install and features a user-friendly interface
Megan Whitby
Smart lock manufacturer Ojmar has released the OTS20 Batteryless – the first battery-free electronic locker lock on the market. The ...
Siminetti unveils iridescent decorative panelling range inspired by plants
The Clematis design
Megan Whitby
The Botanicals is Siminetti’s newest Mother of Pearl decorative panelling collection, inspired by the distinctive patterns found in botany and ...
cladkit product news
Koto Design introduces wood-fired hot tub
Koto is known for crafting modular, energy-neutral cabins and homes
Katie Barnes
A striking wood-fired hot tub has been unveiled by Koto, an architecture and design studio which has a passion for ...
Codelocks develops new glass door smart lock
The new lock model allows facilities and building managers to create and manage access via an app or online portal
Megan Whitby
Codelocks has launched its first glass door smart lock to bring intelligent access control to modern spa, leisure, fitness and ...
Eco Resort Network conference to convene in Mauritius this May
The event will be hosted in the Mauritius in 2024
Megan Whitby
Hospitality industry event Eco Resort Network is set to take place at the Ravenala Attitude Hotel, Turtle Bay, Mauritius, from ...
The Leisure Media Company Ltd
The Leisure Media Company Ltd