Movers and shakers find exit strategy in Algarve
Portugal's in turmoil, but the recession hasn't hit this hot spot, writes Daniel McConnell in the Algarve
IT seems if you're Irish, looking for an escape and seeking to ride out the recession, then this summer the Algarve has been the destination of choice.
Whether drawn by the glorious unbroken sunshine, five-star exclusive golf courses of Quinta Do Lago, or beautiful beaches in Silves, Sagres and Luz, this summer the Irish are here in force.
During the day, as temperatures soar into the 30s, the golden beaches and the glistening swimming pools along the coast are thronged, and at night the restaurants and bars in towns such as Lagos, Portimao and Carveoiro come alive -- and we Irish are at the heart of it.
Portugal, like Ireland, may have fallen into the clutches of the IMF and EU overlords, but down in the sun-soaked Algarve, there is little sign of recession.
Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen, media mogul Denis O'Brien, pop star Ronan Keating, millionaire businessmen, Nama developers such as Joe O'Reilly, TV stars including TV3's Colette Fitzpatrick (who has just returned home), bankers, and wealthy retirees have all sought refuge here from the harsh realities of what's going on back home.
Walking past the many plush fish restaurants along the Marina in Villamaura or through the small narrow streets in the old town of Lagos, the Irish are hard to miss.
The women have their heads buried in their Marian Keyes or Cecelia Ahern novels and the men devour the Irish daily papers.
Given the heat, everything is done at a pace slower than back home. Initially it can be infuriating, but quickly you learn there is nothing you can do but relax and go with the flow. Apart from the normal two-week holiday breaks, golf breaks and the ever-increasing number of Irish using the Algarve as the perfect backdrop for their wedding day, more and more of us are making the sunny south coast of Portugal our home away from home.
It is now estimated that about 16,000 Irish people own properties in this part of the world, down from the peak of 20,000 in 2007 and 2008.
For example, developer O'Reilly's five-bedroom villa is located in Monte da Quinta, one of the most exclusive resorts in Quinta do Lago. Even in a depressed market, a five-bedroom villa would fetch upwards of €1.5m. The Dundrum Town Centre developer's posh pad is minutes away from an exclusive enclave where a host of top British footballers and golf stars own mansions.
Boyzone star Ronan Keating and businessman Denis O'Brien also own properties in Quinta do Lago.
Former Kinnitty Castle owner Cornelius Ryan sought refuge in the Algarve after he said he "was made homeless" in Ireland, following KBC Ireland seizing the hotel from him last year.
For many, the Algarve during the boom became the perfect opportunity to invest and has become their perfect haven to escape to.
"We have owned our place down here for six years, but now we are both retired we like spending at least four months of the year down here. Why not try and escape all the doom and gloom back home?" asks Patrick Lyons from Dublin who, along with his wife Catherine, own a two-bedroom townhouse outside Vilamaura.
"It's so easy, a two-and-a-half-hour flight, a rent-a-car at the airport and a short jaunt down the A22, and we're in our little paradise," Catherine adds.
Ronan and Sally Keegan bought an apartment outside Lagos seven years ago, and have just returned home after spending a month in the sun. "We rolled up our holidays to allow us take one big break before it got too hot over here. We're very lucky that this place is so child-friendly as we have two girls under the age of five. It suits our needs perfectly," Sally says. "But other members of our family use the place when we are not there."
Irishman Michael Cunningham, who moved to Lagos with his wife and now manages properties for Irish clients, says the recession in Ireland is certainly affecting business here. "Certainly, they are not coming down as often, but are consolidating their trips in to one longer break," he says of the Irish.
"I often get English and Dutch people remark on the number of Irish accents here. We have quite a mixed client base. Some retired couples, some young couples with young families. Mostly, they come and stay here off-peak. People who bought as investment properties ... in the beginning they were not utilised much. But as time has gone on, more and more family members, friends, work colleagues are using the apartments."
One feature of the boom, however, is no longer evident. "Many used to come down for a long weekend. They simply aren't happening anymore," Mr Cunningham says.
There are suggestions on the other hand that some people are commuting on a weekly basis between Ireland and the Algarve. "Weekend flights are particularly strong -- suggesting that many families are spending the summer in the Algarve while the breadwinner travels to and from Faro each weekend," said Stephen McNamara of Ryanair.
Joanne Swift, another booking agent who handles properties for Irish owners in the western town of Praia da Luz said that one major trait of the Irish owners is they tend to stay away during peak season.
"I look after quite a few places and all the owners are Irish. This year, the pattern has been the owners are coming out for a week to two weeks at a time. Given how hot it gets and the money they can get, they tend to rent out their apartments during the peak periods of July and August," Ms Swift says.
"Many of them tend to come out in September and October, when things are quieter yet the weather is still good," she adds. Praia da Luz, a small rustic village, suffered badly in the wake of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in 2007. Then the 2009 recession also hit tourism hard but this year, numbers are up.
"Numbers are up, but revenue is down. Everyone is much more price conscious. Others who are renting are trading comfort or standard of accommodation in order to stay longer," Ms Swift says.
The Algarve has increasingly also become a hot spot for teenagers and university students. "The waves off Cape St Vincent (the most westerly point in mainland Europe) are some of the best in this part of the world. It is a real draw for many surfers, including the Irish," says Rick Valnack, a surfing instructor.
Like a reassuring comfort, the Algarve seems to have something for everyone in need of a break from the harsh realities of home.