Sunshine and charm in Portugal

Noel Baker recalls a tranquil few days in Sagres on the southernmost tip of Portugal, with a spin in a Porsche thrown in for good measure.

IT WAS my first time driving a Porsche Boxster, and as you might expect I felt pretty much like Bond — both a little shaken and stirred.

In reality, I was probably more Nigel Bond — famously saggy-eyed snooker player of the mid-Nineties — than James Bond, given that I was ‘driving’ a training car while a professional sports car driver sat next to me, making small talk and, to my eyes, occasionally dabbing at the pedals on the floor in front of him. So I was driving, but ultimately he was in control. It was probably for the best.

Sweeping along the country roads from the Martinhal Resort in Sagres on Portugal’s southern tip in a shiny white Porsche convertible isn’t an everyday occurrence for most people, but then this isn’t an everyday part of Portugal. And while the Porsches are not an everyday event here either — a fleet of them were brought in for an arts fare the weekend of our visit — it also shows that on the tip of our continent, anything can happen.

First of all, while Sagres shares the sandy beaches and sunny temperatures of much of the Iberian coast, it doesn’t share any of the development blight that has scarred much of that area. It is an area of natural beauty, and has one particularly special feature — Sagres Point.

Standing on Sagres Point, on the very tip of the Iberian peninsula, two things hit you: the first is the realisation that back when the world was flat, this was the very edge of the known world. The second is the wind. It can get blustery standing on the impressive promontory here, where the Algarve coast stretches right and left and in front of you lies the Atlantic Ocean. On the headland jutting out into the sea is the Sagres fortress (Fortaleza de Sagres), built here on the orders of Henry the Navigator in the 15th century to provide a safe haven for sailors looking to travel around the windswept coast. Many of the expeditions seeking the new world would have passed this point as they ventured into the unknown.

Chances are if Henry the Navigator was living today he would quite possibly be more interested in mastering the waves that attract surfers from around Europe, and planning a little rest and relaxation in this part of the western Algarve coast.

The exposed Sagres Point apart, the wind isn’t a factor here. Instead warmth and sunshine is the order of the day for a part of the world that has retained its natural charm and mixes rugged landscapes with quiet sheltered beaches and a unique sense of getting away from it all.

The town of Sagres is an hour’s drive from Faro Airport and 35 minutes from the large town of Lagos, but despite its proximity to other popular parts of the Algarve, it seems to be out on its own, hemmed in neatly between dramatic mountains and undulating countryside, and the Atlantic.

The modern day jewel in Sagres’s crown is the Martinhal Beach Resort and Hotel, across the bay from the town and set into the coast offering views of the sea. If the word ‘resort’ conjures up images of bad karaoke and men quaffing lager while wearing Bermuda shorts, relax: Martinhal is a luxury family resort that borders a national park as well as a long sandy beach. It’s defiantly not high rise — everything is strictly two level.

In addition to the 37 hotel rooms, with private balconies or terraces faced towards the sea, Martinhal has close on 20 luxury villas, all of which can be drooled over online, and a range of other accommodation options including the Ocean, Bay, Garden and Pinewoods Houses. Everything is within walking distance of everything else, whether it’s the gym or the market, the beach or the numerous restaurants. Bewilderingly, it also seems to be very difficult to get lost.

Martinhal has a tie to Ireland. Owners are Roman and Chitra Stern, who also run the beautiful Liss Ard estate near Skibbereen in Co Cork.

Sagres, just five minutes’ drive from Martinhal, is a quiet little town but its row of bars come alive at night with each pub seemingly hosting an endless stream of live music. Other nearby towns have a number of small restaurants that come with recommendations from locals, but given the peace and tranquility of the area it’s perhaps no surprise that Martinhal is the epicentre of much of what goes on in this area.

For example, on the weekend of my visit the resort was hosting a national arts and crafts event, with designers and artists from various disciplines gathering to shoot the breeze, smoke cigarettes and generally look stylish as they compared notes.

In addition to the canvas art and fashion, the perfumes and Porsches, the assembled guests were treated to gorgeous food based mainly on locally sourced ingredients, with a great array of seafood in the centrepiece O Terraço restaurant. Located upstairs in the main, unobtrusive hotel building, you can linger on a succession of deep couches and have a drink from the bar before settling in for your meal. It’s refined but unpretentious, much like the food. One of the members of this symposium was an American food writer who has dedicated her working life to describing the many textures and tastes of Portuguese cuisine. On this evidence — particularly the shellfish — it’s hard to disagree.

Moreover, the general atmosphere around Martinhal and Sagres is designed with R&R in mind. So while the Atlantic winds may be whipping it up around the other side of Sagres Point, in the seclusion of the bay the sea is still, bar some off-shore diving by a team of marine archeologists on the trail of a sunken vessel from centuries ago. The low level hotel rooms face the sea, and nothing obstructs the view. The beach is a stone’s throw away, the pool closer again. At night the clearness of the sky is remarkable; light pollution is nil and so the stars twinkle away over the ocean. And if all this sounds too strenuous, you could disappear into the on-site spa for a massage

Of course, if you have children in tow then doing nothing all the time isn’t an option, so handily, Martinhal is extremely child-friendly. I may have conquered all-comers on the padel court (it was doubles, but I still claim 50% of the credit) but if this type of softball tennis isn’t for you then the options on the hotel campus range from kayaking through to yoga for adults, and from T-shirt printing to face painting for kids. There is an on-site creche and playground, as well as tennis and football academies, a baby concierge and for the hard-to-please teenagers, an adventure club that includes bike trips and dolphin watching tours.

The friendly atmosphere, the beach at night-time and the food all left a lasting impression on me, as did the drive to a cliff-top where the waves crashed dramatically onto the beach below and you could count the number of properties on the fingers of one hand. But the highlight had to be the spin in the Porsche, even if I felt like I was only half driving.

Flights

Aer Lingus flies to Faro from Dublin on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday into December and January, with fares currently as low at €54.99 one way. Flights from Cork finish for the winter on Nov 2 and resume next spring. Ryanair also flies to Faro from Dublin on Monday, Wednesday and Friday with fares starting at €25.99. Flights from Cork will resume from the end of March next year. Martinhal can organise transfer from the airport and for anyone hiring a car it takes around an hour on the A22 fast dual carriageway to travel from Faro to Martinhal/Sagres.

Staying there

Martinhal Beach Resort is the main attraction here, from hotel rooms to villas. See its website for any special offers on hotel rooms or accommodation in Martinhal Village or Vilas Mimosa. A beach room in the hotel with full sea view for two people begins at E195 per night in November, a terrace room costs the same while rooms with a partial sea view begin at E163. See www.martinhal.com for booking details and offers.

Where to Eat

Martinhal’s O Terraço restaurant would be worth visiting even if you weren’t staying in the resort — traditional and stylish Portuguese cooking with a strong accent on seafood and vegetables. Elsewhere, Eira do Mel in the nearby town of Vilo do Bispo comes recommended by locals.

What to do

You could do nothing in splendid surroundings, but if you want activities, this corner of Portugal has the lot, from local village markets to scuba diving, clifftop walks to kayaking, and everything in between.

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