Anjana Gosai discovers a more scenic corner of the Algarve.
My first visit to the Portugal’s Algarve was far from impressive. I stayed at a tourist hotspot scattered with cafes serving English breakfasts and plates of chips – it was nothing like the chic Mediterranean escape that I had hoped for. A decade later, I decided to return to the real and virtually unspoilt Algarve and I’m so glad that I did.
MARTINHAL BEACH RESORT & HOTEL
My first destination was Sagres - in the laid back and relatively untouched far west of the Algarve – an area surrounded by sea-carved cliffs and golden sand beaches. With its Atlantic breeze and year round moderate temperatures, locals often refer to this corner of Portugal as the ‘California of Europe’, making it an ideal destination for a winter getaway. I stayed at The Martinhal, which has a feel of a chic boutique hotel in a family friendly setting. Just a 90-minute drive from Faro Airport, for me, the appeal of the resort was mainly in its sense of isolation, plus access to pristine beaches, a large spa and several sporting activities to choose from. Its intimate setting makes it a great choice for a romantic getaway. However, if you’re travelling with children, this is a place where you can truly relax. With four children of her own, there is nothing the hotel’s owner Chitra Stern hasn’t thought about to make it an enjoyable break for parents. Everything from bottle warmers, plastic cutlery, dedicated children areas in the restaurants, a kids club to a games and cinema room is available at the hotel.
ACCOMODATION Having had a tour of the rooms, houses and suites at Martinhal - I can assure you that all the accommodation is luxe, comfy and practical. If you’re travelling with your partner, pick a room in the five star hotel. Here you can chose from nine terrace rooms, which open onto the hotel gardens, one of the 26 wooden-clad beach rooms, or you may prefer the beach suites, which feature loft-style, double height living spaces. The village houses are best suited to families. They comprise of ocean houses with stunning views of the sea, bay houses that overlook the National Park and garden houses that are arranged around a pretty flowers. The pinewood houses are set apart in their own close and each has its own private pool.
WHERE TO EAT
There are plenty of dining options at Martinhal. Beautifully prepared Portuguese cuisine and local wine can be enjoyed at Terraco, which is open for dinner. Dunas was my favourite lunch spot – the beachfront eatery serves the freshest seafood and is also open for dinner. Os Gambozinos is an informal Italian restaurant located at the village square – here you can pick from freshly prepared pizza, pastas and salads. Conveniently, all restaurants offer a take-away service, so you can enjoy dinner in your own room.
WHAT TO DO
Whether you want to relax or be active there are an array of options available at Martinhal. Choose from a game of tennis, learn some padel tennis (a game adapted from tennis that has really taken off in Spain), go out for a bike ride and enjoy the tranquil views or take part in some water sports - like kayaking or windsurfing. You can also opt to do nothing at all. I spent several hours at the Martinhal beach hangout – a scheduled area with sun loungers overlooking the sea – a great spot to get stuck into a book. There are four swimming pools set around the grounds, including one that spans from indoor to outdoor, which is ideal if you visit during the winter season. The Club Pool Bar is a popular meeting point and don’t miss the ‘M’ Bar – a ‘surf’ themed bar showing sports with a handy children’s area kitted out with iPads to keep the kids entertained. For ultimate relaxation, the Finisterra Spa is worth a visit. The treatment menu is vast and comprises of a selection of therapies using organic spa brand Voya. It also includes family rooms where parents can enjoy mini massages with their kids. From November to March Martinhal organise various themed events that include wellbeing, yoga, hiking, biking and gastronomy.
Sagres is home to some of the most impressive landscapes in the Algarve. Take one of the resorts bikes and cycle to the menhirs – very large upright standing stones that were planted into the landscape between 4000 BC and 3000 BC.
The hotel is surrounded by one of the most celebrated national parks in Portugal – Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina. The preserved stretch of European coastline covers 100 kilometres from Porto Covo in the Alentego, to Burgau in the Algarve. Look out for the unique species that can be found here, such as rare fishing eagles and the white stork.
On the resort you’ll find Praia da Martinhal – a long stretch of golden sand and a popular hub for surfers. The beach also has its own windsurfing club if you fancy giving it a go. There is also a marshy lagoon at the back and an island out to sea, with views of the fishing harbour and a little lighthouse. The small Praia da Baleeira is next to the fishing harbour overlooking Sagres bay. The sandy beach is a lovely place to sit and watch the boats go by. The unspoilt and calming Praia do Beliche is a magnificent bay of soft golden sand, surrounded by huge towering cliffs. - it lies between Sagres point and Cape St Vincent and has the perfect surroundings for you to relax and enjoy the real Algarve beauty.
7 nights, half board from £97 per night, per adult at Hotel Martinhal or £136 in a two-bedroom house. Active Winter Package (1st November – 26th March 2015) - 7 nights, half board from £66 per night, per adult in Hotel Martinhal or £102 in a two-bedroom house. From 2nd November – 26th March 2015 guests can benefit from complimentary kids club and crèche sessions. www.martinhal.com
CASCADE WELNESS RESORT, LAGOS
My next stop was at the tranquil Cascade Wellness Resort – a 20-minute walk from the historical town of Lagos. The resort is perched on a cliff top with beautiful views of the ocean and some of Portugal’s stunning landscape. Cascade’s décor has been created with local history in mind, paying homage to the Portuguese heritage of the Discoveries, which were led by Henry the Navigator. This heritage is reflected in all aspect of the resort – from the pale tones of yellow, ochre and terracotta on the exterior of the building to the themed decor of the rooms.
The hotel has 86 rooms and luxury 4-bedroom villas apartments, which are available for rent. The resort is divided into four wings, which reflect the journeys of Henry the Navigator’s forays through the continents: Africa, Asia, South America and Europe. Rooms are spacious and luxurious. I stayed in the Africa section. My room was comfy and came with a huge four-poster bed, a natural stone bathroom with underfloor heating, a spacious bath, showers with rainfall showerheads and L’Occitane amenities. My favourite spot was the balcony with where I spent most evenings admiring the sunset.
WHERE TO EAT
The hotel has two main restaurants. Portuguese chef Luís Batalha heads Senses - the food here is prepared with great attention to detail and tastes as good as it looks. If you have a sweet tooth then the onsite chocolatier, Kristof Deschuymere will take care of it, with his delicious macaroons to petit gateaux - all of which look like mini works of art. Moods restaurant is open throughout the day, it serves snacks and flavour-filled lunches using local produce. I recommend sitting in the relaxed and airy terrace, which is perfect for al fresco dining. Wine enthusiasts will love Adega – a traditional cellar where you can enjoy fine Portuguese wine and food specialities. While the Purpur bar is the perfect setting for a post dinner drink.
WHAT TO DO
There is very little to do at the resort itself. I got the impression that most guests use it as a base to explore the nearby caves, beaches and natural landscape. If you wish to simply relax and unwind, pop over to the Tainai Spa, where you will find a heated outdoor pool, jacuzzi and sauna. The body treatments are inspired by the landscapes and scents of Europe, Asia, Brazil and Africa and they are definitely worth a try. German skincare brand Babor is used for facial treatments. If you fancy a workout – the gym is decked out with all the equipment you will need and classes include Pilates, trampolining and circuit training. There is also an outdoor pool and children’s pool for those who wish to zone out and take in the sun.
Lagos Old Town
Be sure to roam around the endless cobbled streets and pretty plazas in the old town, which are surrounded by boutique shops, outdoor restaurants and historical sites.
If you only do one thing in Lagos, book a grotto tour by signing up with one of the vendors along the front of the town by the pier. The landscape of caves, grottos and arches are stunningly beautiful. During the tour you will be navigated around the caves, through the natural tunnels and into the grottos – the whole experience is magical.
Ponta da Piedade
Located towards the west of the town, the best way to experience this landscape of caves and grottos is from the sea, but if you prefer to stay on land, take the steps by the lighthouse. The 182 steps will take you down to sea level where you can enjoy stunning views.
7 nights from £165 per night for two people staying in double classic room including breakfast. www.cascade-resort.com