IT’S hard not to pinch myself to see if I am still dreaming when I awake to the chorus of birdsong as dawn light creeps across undulating fields to the valley below.
I don’t even have to lift my head from the pillow to marvel at the unrivalled views across to the Grazalema mountain range beyond as craggy cliffs transform from a deep mauve to a creamy pink with the rising sun.
A greater spotted woodpecker hops along a branch just outside my window. Bees buzz and if I strain my ears, I can just pick up the soothing trickle of the mountain spring that feeds the natural water swimming pool located down a winding path through lavender bushes on the terrace below by quarters.
I am sleeping in a yurt, but if you think that means camping, or even glamping, then think again because at La Donaira, it’s all about luxury.
The estate centres around a beautifully restored cortijo with just nine rooms (including two yurts) so even if at full capacity, guests will never feel crowded.
Dotted around the gardens are carefully curated resting stops for romantic moments or just somewhere to read a book; cushioned nooks in an old stone outbuilding or a gorgeous Andaluz style patio filled with geraniums.
There’s a sybaritic spa with an indoor infinity pool and picture windows that mean you can watch golden grasses in the fields outside ripple in the breeze while you float in the warm water within. The pools, sauna, hammam and plunge pool are open 24 hours, so you can always be sure to find a time to have the place to yourself.
A platform perched on a hillside provides a place for the nimble to enjoy some aerial yoga and doubles up as a concert space on summer evenings when the Steinway is rolled out and villagers from the nearby pueblo of El Gastor join guests for sunset musical performances.
In a leafy spot beneath cork oaks, those brave enough can don a bee suit and climb into a wooden crate specially built over hives to create a humming meditation chamber.
There’s a medicinal garden boasting around 200 varieties of herbs and flowers, many of which are used to produce unguents, soaps and lotions that equip each bathroom, while others appear on delicately plated dishes served in the open kitchen or brewed to make teas.
But outstanding as the setting is, I have to admit, that’s not why I’m here. I have made the journey from the coast up through the Serrania de Ronda to La Donaira because I’ve heard on the grapevine that this luxury boutique eco-retreat is doing something incredibly exciting with horses.
The finca of 1,700 acres is home to a herd of some 90 Lusitano horses, an ancient breed whose images archaeologists have found daubed into caves illustrated by prehistoric man in this very valley.
I am told that the owner of La Donaira fell in love with the breed and has dedicated the last decade to preserving and evolving the species through natural breeding.
The studfarm produces noble steeds, ideal for dressage, which have become sought after the world over.
The team of stable staff train the horses into some of the finest dressage partners on the market, and guests are invited to ride them either for a lesson in the arena or for a session of natural horsemanship under the guidance of Seamus, the resident Irish horse whisperer or Paulina, a 24-year-old from Austria with a natural affinity for equines.
My session in ‘grounding’ starts with Dante, a beautiful grey stallion with soulful eyes and expressive ears whom I am taught to communicate with using only body language and voice while enclosed in a high-walled lunging ring
Mounted stretching exercises follow with a focus on breathing techniques – a sort of horseback version of yoga – and then miraculously I am changing paces from walk, through to trot and into canter using my breathing alone.
An hour session flies by and by the end of it I feel a deep bond with Dante and a better understanding of horses that I have no doubt I will carry with me on future riding adventures.
It’s an activity that would suit absolute beginners, even those wary of horses, as much as it benefits an old hand like me.
A change of steeds and I am mounted on another grey, Ultrajado, and hacking out across ancient grasslands recently harvested for hay accompanied by French stable manager Celine and Alfredo, who has worked with horses at La Donaira for five years and knows the trails like the back of his hand.
We gallop alongside vineyards whose grapes provide La Donaira with its own wine while in the distance we hear the cow-bells and lowings of a herd of Pajuna, an ancient breed of cattle that now numbers less than 1,000 in the world and that are yet another of the rare breeds under conservation on the finca.
Free-range chicken and geese roam the pastures as do flocks of goats and sheep, all of which provide produce for the kitchens which accompany seasonal vegetables picked each day from La Donaira’s extensive huertas.
Back at the outdoor arena beside the stable block, one of the farm’s professional riders is putting a young horse through a dressage training session guided by an instructor who is watching from Switzerland via video link.
The scene sums up the ethos at La Donaira. It is that perfect combination of rustic free-spiritedness and eco-tourism sustainability teamed with modernity and absolute luxury. The only downside is, you won’t want to leave.
Finca La Donaira caters to beginners and advanced riders – individuals and groups – and offers everything from invigorating hacks to natural horseman classes to its guests. Minimum stay two nights. For more information visit the website HERE.
- La Cuadra Ronda: The boutique hotel for dressage horses
- Paddocks Paradise: An unforgettable horse-riding experience in Andalucia’s Serrania de Ronda
- Check out our Andalucia travel section for more travel ideas