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 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 and its swankier neighbours of Cascais and Sintra are within pretty easy reach of Lisbon airport. Take a scenic drive along the coast road through herb scented wild natural park, to the famous Roca Cape, and you’re at the most western part of Europe, marked with a lighthouse and affording lovely views out across the ocean – 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 hunters 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, at the mouth of the Tagus river, a smaller replica of the Statue of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado in Rio.
From sailing to golf: Estoril has a number of highly regarded golf courses, including Oitavos Dunas, right next to a stunning beach and the new-ish 5*luxe Oitavos hotel. The Oitavos A masterpiece of steel and glass, it’s super-modern, minimalist, filled with unique artwork, and providing 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 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, Pousadas 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, facing a lovely courtyard or out to sea, 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’ Hemingway Cascais – 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.
From dining here, you could take a short taxi ride to Estoril’s famous casino – 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 dink at the Palácio Hotel – where scenes from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was filmed, and now, decades on, the hotel’s characterful doorman, who appeared in the film, still holds his post today, with great cheer, and even better stories from his touch of fame in those glory days.
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 chap in a loin cloth assuming a lotus pose on a bed of a B&Qs worth of nails. (yes.. really). Continue the steep drive up to the top of the hill to the Palácio Nacional de Sintra, which even if miles of rooms with fusty smelling ancient furniture and art doesn’t inspire you, it well worth the hike due to its incredible architecture – eclectic and attractive, and its wonderful views out across forest clad hills, to an ancient fort and 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.
Algarve – Martinhal and Villa Vita Parc
Leaving Estoril behind, head down the … to the Algarve. Turning left at the end if you just want to head to the ‘Golden Triangle’ of unadulterated golf heaven, or.. right to the historic fort town of Sagres, the most south westerly point in Portugal, where you’ll find a coastal nature reserve and the 5* luxe, Martinhal winner of Europe’s Leading Luxury Resort. A new-ish mixture of luxury designer villas and 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, it’s perfect for couples with small children, or families 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 to can sit high up above the beach and look out across the Ocean, cocktail in hand it’s an oasis of luxurious calm, 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, own their own vineyards and winery Herdadedosgrous 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, its 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, just a short walk away.