Catching up on Bondi beach

Family holidays can lose the magic when the kids hit the the teenage years. Never one to give up, Tommy Barker tries to recapture the good old days with his two grown-up children in the Algarve.

Catching up on Bondi beach

There's one great thing about taking grown-up children (read: twenty-somethings) on a short family holiday — they’ll buy you ice-cream. As they stretch their young adult wings, they might even splash out for a beer or two for Dad, or even more thoughtfully, a bottle of rehydrating water for the flight home. Aaah, bliss; simple pleasures, being minded, role reversal. Weird, though.

Most parents would go to the end of the world for their beloved offspring, no matter what ages they are. In the case of a short and select — ie, just three of us able to travel — family trip to the Martinhal Beach Resort in Sagres, Portugal, we travelled to the end of the known world. Well, at least it was the end of the world as it appeared to Europeans, back in the Golden Age of Discovery, in the 15th century.

A short, three-day break, it was a rediscovery of sorts, different to family holidays of yore, being adult-centred, and a pretty poignant reminder of what can get lost when teenage years (and Leaving Cert holidays, music festivals and summer jobs abroad) break up the once-familiar concept of ‘the family holiday’. We’d always done Irish beach and camping/camper holidays, but with passing years they sort of fell off the radar. So, Portugal and an attempt at surfing on what we quickly dubbed ‘Bonding Beach’ was a fantastic chance to relive those sunny memories, only in real sunshine.

Sagres, at the tail end of the Algarve, is Europe’s most south-western point, rocky and rugged, surrounded by sea, marine and bird life with south and west facing Atlantic ocean cliffs. The land here was the very last fearful glimpse of the Old World to intrepid Portuguese voyagers like Vasco de Gama and Prince Henry the Navigator as they headed to the Americas, or to Africa, for a bit of sacking, plundering and colonising.

Zap up six centuries and village-sized Sagres at the tip of European tourist-colonised Algarve is home to the five-star Martinhal Beach Resort and Hotel! an old fort, sizzling Atlantic sunsets, and a cliff-top lighthouse. Think Portugal’s Mizen Head, only with lots more sun splitting the equally impressive cliffs.

Reached via Faro airport and road, it’s far less built-upon than most of the rest of the 250km Algarve coastline, visited by families of all ages, and by older couples in plush camper vans doing their own European voyages.

There’s also younger, cool surf dudes everywhere, usually in rougher, battered old vans.

The enviable surfer lifestyle cliché is alive, well, and living very cheaply in the Algarve, thank you, while Portugal’s giant 30m waves at Nazaré have given the indented and sandy coastline massive cool kudos and wave-cred, even if more typical summer waves are a ‘mere’ metre or so high.

Typical of an age-denying generation which thinks denim still rocks, I might have wanted to be in that younger, cooler camp. But, a dangerous double-digit age — 55 — is creeping up, along with its ubiquitous presence in ads for cruise holidays, and incipient Golden Years breaks (thanks, Centrum 55). So I was more than glad to have two willing and youthful family side-kicks to kick-back with, a son aged 22 and a daughter, 24.

We three bought a slightly different age demographic to the Martinhal Beach Resort.

Developed by the Stern family who also own the Lissard Estate in Skibbereen, Co Cork, it’s carving out its own niche in the past few years as a five-star family hotel/holiday resort, deliberately extremely child-centred yet luxurious all the way.

Accommodation is designed by no less than the (Terence) Conran Partnership, and villas have Nespresso machines and iPod docking stations.

It’s got a beachside 37-bed hotel at its centre, five kids’ clubs, four pools, three restaurants and a range of villas and townhouse accommodation over 100-acres, within a nature park.

The resort was finished in the teeth of recession two years ago costing over €85m, with lots of Irish having bought/invested. Its developers, and parents of four young children, Roman and Chitra Stern, hope to use Martinhal as a future business template for other five-star, family-focused resorts, pointing out that, generally, standards of adult pampering tend to drop off when children arrive. They’re addressing that sad fact, and point to Rosslare’s famed Kelly’s Hotel as a rare example of another resort combing child-centred holidays with adult luxury.

Activities at the Martinhal include just about every type of watersport, diving, dolphin watching, cycling and mountain biking, tennis and football, with more golf courses (at least 30) along the Algarve than you could shake a club at.

Martinhal can line up free golf for under-16s playing with a parent at the nearby Espiche course, and has even got things like father and child spa treatment sessions among the more usual indulgent offerings in its Finisterra spa.

In a break from Martinhal’s philosophy of local sourcing of staff, wines, foods and furnishings, the spa products are Irish and organic, from Voya, based on Irish seaweeds harvested in Sligo. On our few days away, we heroically shunned the spa’s allure, opting get our seaweeds raw, on Portuguese beaches, in the surf. We had all tried a bit of surfing and body-boarding previously back in Cork and Kerry, with little stand-up success to date.

So we booked a day’s lessons with a laid-back surf instructor (is there any other kind?), Eduardo Lima of the local FutureSurfingSchool. He revealed that one of his previous pupils was a top UK TV survival programme type. No, not Bear Grylls... Eduardo couldn’t actually remember his name: how cool is that?

With dude Eduardo at the wheel, we cruised around in a board-laden van looking for suitable waves on a selection of beaches; being at the tip of the Iberian peninsula means loads of aspects and options.

Another fledgling surf family followed us in convoy in a rental car, a couple from England with children aged eight and five — sort of more Martinhal’s family guest age profile. That dad was aged 50, and hey, did I not get better waves than him? Sad; that’s how competitive you get at 50-plus. No keeping up with the younger generations, though — ducks to water, they were.

A few hours in the broken waves was exhilarating, but exhausting: a half day’s lesson would have been loads. By the end of the session, faces, wrists and ankles were salt and sun-scalded, legs had turned to jelly and arms to floppy, useless appendages, barely able to lift a cool Bondi(ng) Beach beer afterwards to toast a thanks to Eduardo. And, resolve: get a lot fitter, and drink less beer.

The upside was learning proper technique, and that’s something we’ll work on back home this summer, as wave-catching is contagious, and wetsuits have been bought.

Embarrassed by lack of fitness exposed in Portugal’s waves, swims and cycles, I’ve even rejoined a gym — in terms of standing up to an advancing tide of years, it’s possibly a cheaper option than Centrum 55.

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