Land Of The Explorers
With world class Michelin Star restaurants, 5* award-winning luxurious resorts and villas, championship golf courses, a vibrant art scene and stunning scenery and beaches, it’s little wonder these two particular regions of Portugal are attracting more and more discerning travellers – particularly during spring and autumn, when free from the main tourist hoards.
With the sophisticated metropolis of Lisbon now just two and a half hours away from the Algarve, many needing be in the city for business decide to stay on and spend a few days on the Estoril coast before driving down to the Algarve to enjoy the golf, surfing, and top class resorts there.
Estoril (www.estoril-portugal.com) and its swankier neighbours of Cascais and Sintra are within surprisingly easy reach of Lisbon airport. Take a scenic drive along the coast road through herb-scented wild natural parks to the famous Roca Cape, and you’ll find yourself at the most western point of Europe, marked with a lighthouse and affording lovely views out across the ocean.
This is a great place to watch the sun set, as it blazes a glittering sea trail to the horizon of burnished gold. Here it’s easy to visualise the country’s first New World explorers, setting off with great ambition but little certainty of a safe return.
The people of Estoril, and of course Lisbon, retain their love of the sea, and numerous top class yacht and powerboat races take place here each year, drawing in sophisticated sailing crowds. Lacking a cruiser of your own, definitely take a RIB from Cascais to Lisbon, for a thrilling high octane ride down the coast, where you’ll race by the foot of the city’s famous and imposing Cristo Rei, located at the mouth of the Tagus river, a smaller replica of the Statue of Christ the Redeemer at Corcovado in Rio.
From Water to the Greens
Estoril has a number of highly regarded golf courses, including Oitavos Dunas, situated next to a stunning beach and the new-ish 5*luxe Oitavos hotel. A masterpiece of steel and glass, it’s super- modern, minimalist, filled with unique artwork, and provides its guests with fantastic views from pretty much every room of the uber-stylish pool areas, golf course, beach and Atlantic Ocean beyond.
The Arthur Hills designed golf course was voted 68th best in the world by a leading golf magazine, and if you like your golf mixed with some serious R&R, the hotel has an excellent spa.
Should you wish to stay closer to town, try the new 5* luxe Pousada de Cascais, set within the walls of Cascais’ 16th century citadel, and a lesson in the tasteful adaptation of old building into something again super-modern yet classic.
Rooms are either facing a lovely courtyard or out to sea, and the hotel is complete with its own cellar space used by some of its wealthy guests to host amazing private parties.
Opposite the hotel is the Taberna Praca restaurant which again is stylish and offers artfully presented dishes, and a stone’s throw away is the simply excellent ‘Hemingway’ – dining here is a must on any stay. The owner and wonderful host is a genius at matching food and drink, creating combinations you’d never think of, but taste divine.
High Rolling Nightlife
From dining here, you could take a short taxi ride to Estoril’s famous casino which offers something of an assault to the senses if you prefer your décor to be muted and tasteful, not that the many high rollers there seemed to notice or mind. If you’re keen to embrace the full Bond experience, stay or enjoy a drink at the Palácio Hotel, where scenes from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service were filmed. Decades on the hotel’s characterful doorman, who appeared in the film, and still holds his post today, will greet you with great cheer, and even better stories from his touch of fame in those glory days.
A Touch of History
If you love a good view, artisan shops and bistros, with a sprinkling of historic might, treachery and tragedy, drive out to the world famous Sintra. Climbing through pretty woodland, past gated multi-million pound villas, you’ll pass through Sintra village, with its attractive pastel coloured houses, art galleries, bakeries serving the traditional extremely Moorish Portuguese sweet cheese tartlets, wine shops and, bizarrely a yoga loving local in a loin cloth assuming a lotus pose on a bed of a B&Q’s worth of nails.
Continue the steep drive up to the top of the hill to the Palácio Nacional de Sintra, which even if scores of rooms with fusty smelling ancient furniture and art doesn’t inspire you, is well worth the hike due to its incredible architecture. It is eclectic and attractive, and has wonderful views out across forest clad hills, to an ancient fort and the sea beyond.
On a windy day, (they have plenty of these there), watch out for the death-defying walk high up on the turrets. It literally feels like the gales howling round this precariously perched Palace will rip you off the foot-wide path, down what has to be a thousand feet drop below.
Leaving Estoril behind, the only option for the budding explorer is to head down to the Algarve. If you just want to head to the ‘Golden Triangle’ of unadulterated golf heaven then you won’t be disappointed by the quality of the courses available here, or alternatively head to the historic fort town of Sagres, the most south westerly point in Portugal. Here you’ll find a coastal nature reserve and the 5* luxe Martinhal resort, winner of Europe’s Leading Luxury Resort, which offers a mixture of luxury designer villas and a hotel with stunning views over a broad golden sand beach that’s a favourite of surfers. With a variety of restaurants and numerous swimming pools, a beach and a tennis club, Martinhal is perfect for couples with small children, or family groups. The resort also rents out a few large super-luxe villas perched right on the headland, with enviable vistas out to sea.
From Sagres and Martinhal, head towards Faro, past the tourist favourites of Albufeira and Lagos, dropping down to Porches, famous for its pottery, to what those in the know regard as the very best place to stay in the Algarve, the 5* luxe Vila Vita Parc, with its gorgeously lush grounds, private beach and 2 Michelin star ‘Ocean’ restaurant. Travelling as much as we do, expectations become really high, and this is one place that exceeded these by some way.
From the friendliness of the staff, to the quality of the spacious rooms, lovely position nestling in tropical flower-filled grounds where you can sit high up above the beach and look out across the ocean, and cocktail in hand, it’s an oasis of luxurious calm. It’s little wonder many guests we met come every year.
Vila Vita also has its own luxury yacht which can be hired out for couples or groups, where you can cruise to tiny coves, dine in style and sip champagne watching the sun set. And, for those who enjoy wine, Vila Vita own their own vineyards and winery Herdade dos Grous set deep in the countryside, offering cellar tours, wine tasting, horse riding and also accommodation. Many of their wines are award winners.
Leaving Vila Vita and heading to Faro airport, it’s worth taking a final boat trip through the stunning Parque Natural da Ria Formosa. Head to Faro’s marina, and there you can book your two hour cruise with Formosamar, an ecotourism company operating in the Algarve that organises activities and tours in the Ria Formosa Natural Park and on the coast of the Algarve. After, lunch at Restaurant Faro & Benfica, is just a short walk away.
Main image above copyright FreeImages.com/Emmanuel Wuyts