The first thing I noticed were the flowers, but according to concierge Demétrios Bueno, I was missing the point. At Unique Garden, the blooms—thousands of impatiens in vibrant shades of red, pink, and orange—are meant to be experienced with senses other than sight.
Located in the Brazilian city of Mairiporã, in the mountainous region just over 20 miles from downtown São Paulo, Unique Garden was founded as a family home in 1984 by the late Victor Siaulys, a leading pharmaceutical developer in Brazil. His daughter Lara suffers from a severe visual impairment, so he designed the property—originally named Sítio Lajota (an acronym of his children’s names)—to be highly sensory, with fragrant flowers, organic gardens, and plenty of tactile surfaces.
Lara responded so well to the home that Siaulys and his wife, Mara, decided to make it the base for their foundation, the Lamara Association, which they founded in 1991 to support the social and educational inclusion of visually impaired people. They would bus children in from the city to play on their 74 acres of land, helping them learn about the world through smell, taste, touch, and sound. But the hilly terrain proved difficult for wheelchair-bound children to manage, so in 1994, they moved the association to São Paulo, where they began teaching in the city’s botanical gardens instead.
In 2005, after opening the five-star Hotel Unique in São Paulo’s Jardins neighborhood, they turned Sítio Lajota into Unique Garden, keeping their villa on the property so they could continue to visit alongside their guests. The Garden may now be more about relaxing in nature than sensory experiences, but its original purpose lies just below the surface—in every breath of fresh air, bite of organically grown lettuce, and chirp from the rare birds that fly overhead.
In fact, the hotel may be Unique Garden’s least compelling aspect, although it does include a serene spa, lagoon-like pool, and 10 contemporary villas designed by famed Japanese-Brazilian architect Ruy Ohtake. What makes this place truly, well, unique is all of the ways it continues to serve its community—and the world at large. Perhaps most impressive is the hotel’s I’ve Found a Friend Project, which works to receive, treat, and promote the adoption of abandoned dogs and cats from surrounding urban areas. Currently, Unique Garden has around 250 dogs, 12 cats, and 23 farm animals—from horses to goats to pigs—living on site. Bueno drove me through the two kennels on my property tour, explaining, as we passed hundreds of happy, yapping pups, that Siaulys’s daughter Tatiana personally funds the entire program. Once hotel guests decide on the right companion, all they have to do is fill out an application and responsibility letter, and, if approved, the dog is theirs. The project provides post-adoption support to make sure the dogs are settling into their new homes.
Bueno also took me to Unique Garden’s conservation center, which hosts around 100 animals rescued from the black market. Amid the wooded area are nearly 50 different species, from macaws and toucans to deer and even anteaters and a lobo-guará (or maned wolf). Had it been a weekday when it’s open, he would’ve shown me the Mara Siaulys Community Center, across the street from the hotel entrance. Here, locals can take free courses and workshops in topics like cooking, sewing, and computer science, plus get school support and health aid from physicians, nurses, and social workers. Speaking of locals, the majority of Hotel Unique employees are from Mairiporã or nearby. As staff members, they earn 40 percent more than the state minimum and receive benefits beyond basic health and life insurance—including food stipends, transportation vouchers, and full meals during their shifts. Almost 50 percent of Unique Garden’s leadership positions are filled by women, and many employees have been working at the hotel for 10 years or longer, including Bueno himself.
It’s a lucky fact because there’s so much more than basic upkeep to be done here. Located near one of the last Atlantic Forest reserves in the state of São Paulo, Unique Garden is often visited by rare birds, which the hotel was granted permission to help maintain and conserve by the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Energy. This work is in addition to the care required of all the dogs and wild animals on site, plus the maintenance of acres upon acres of gardens.
The hotel grows more than 30 different types of herbs, fruit, and vegetables, too—chives, lettuce, carrots, broccoli, bananas, oranges, strawberries, beets, and more—across nearly 15 acres, all without the use of any pesticides. Beyond the tiered gardens, there are several greenhouses, where classical music is played day in and day out because the vibrations help the tomato plants grow. All of these ingredients eventually end up on guests’ plates, in a combination of creative and healthy dishes at Unique Garden’s three restaurants. What’s left over at the end of the day is sent to composting units, where it becomes the base for the hotel’s sustainable agriculture project in one giant, cyclical process.
To make the property even greener, guests are encouraged to plant a tree during their stay. The hotel then sends photos each year so you can track your sapling’s development and be reminded of how you contributed to the more than 30,000 native trees now growing here.
As I shoveled dirt over the young roots of my very own tree, I took a moment to gaze out over the resort, its shimmering lake, and the rolling hills beyond. If only Lara could see all this, I thought, but then I realized I was missing the point again. Unique Garden isn’t somewhere you see, it’s something you feel—and feel it everyone should. >>Next: 6 Ways Hotels Around the World Are Working to Become More Sustainable