Life Travel

Thursday 18 September 2014

Resort to Portugal for real family break

Brendan O'Connor confounds his prejudices and finds that even parents with young children can chill out with the right mix of convenience and authenticity

Published 09/01/2012 | 06:00

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I'll be honest. Previously, if you mentioned Portugal, and specifically the Algarve, to me, I would think at worst of bellies straining through Pringle jumpers and sweaty red-faced lads chafing their thighs around a golf course. At best, I would think Ronan Keating. Not my scene.

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And then, of course, as with everything else in life, I went there, and realised I should try not to be so prejudiced, because I'm usually wrong. And on this occasion I was wrong again.

I may have mentioned before that we are at a very specific stage in our holidaymaking life. There was a time when we sought "authenticity", the way you do, the fake intimacy that you can sometimes grab when you find yourself eating with the locals or gone completely off piste into an eerily foreign place where you truly feel you are not just another tourist.

We liked character, places that were beautifully disintegrating, mythical beaches that no one could find, late-night shebeens where the locals danced to jazz and smoked dope.

And then we had kids and we still like all those things, but we need them to be within range of a supermodern but perfectly in-context resort where they have all the mod cons and life is easy -- easy enough for you to dip into all the other stuff in the non- committal, limited way that kids are prepared to do.

So we want family-friendly fading grandeur and spectacular beauty, but we want it with a microwave.

The Monte Santo resort near Carvoeiro is probably the best family holiday accommodation I have ever stayed in. Roughly speaking, the place is a very high-end development of holiday villas. You have all the facilities of a hotel, such as breakfast (which is crucial to us), and a chambermaid service, while also enjoying the freedom of having your own house and garden and practically your own swimming pool -- each little bunch of villas had its own pool and so there was just a smattering of us dipping in and out of ours.

It's the little things that count, such as the fact that when the kids were worn out in the afternoon for an hour they could doze inside or watch a bit of Charlie and Lola on the DVD and Mum and Dad could sit out in the garden keeping a general ear and eye out.

Do you know the last time I sat in the sun drinking a cold beer reading some endless article in Vanity Fair about glamorous people I've never heard of who've been dead for years? Years.

You would think three-year-olds would be too young to get nostalgic, but mine still talks about that holiday and that place. We even befriended the neighbours, which is strictly against my rules.

The next-door people had a little girl too, and even though she didn't speak a word of English nor mine a word of Dutch, the two of them could entertain each other for hours through the common language of Dora stickers and laughter and running in and out of the gardens. We even came to an informal agreement that each of us could have some time out from our own one if the two of them were in the other's garden. All this set in beautiful leafy grounds with a great playground, sculpture and fabulous main pools if you needed them.

While lunches were sandwiches in the garden, made with proper gorgeous local meats and cheese and breads and salads, at night we would hit the town. Carvoeiro is a picture-postcard little village by the sea where you could sit of an evening watching the theatre of locals and tourists. While there did seem to be nightlife of a kind for the odd stag and hen and golf group who stumbled on the place, those of us with children exist, of course, in a parallel reality, even if we are in the same town. So I danced on the cobbles by the sea with my little girls to the various acts that played on a makeshift stage by the beach.

We ate simply but well -- maybe a giant crab boiled and broken up, or some chicken piri piri, which seems to have been the local dish here long before Nandos came to Dundrum. So the deal was the adults get to sit eating, listening to the sea, while the kids can run around safely, and can be bought off with candyfloss twice the size of their little heads, luminous windmills and all the other glittery rubbish that the hawkers sell every night. It was like local festival night every night. It was touristy, no doubt, but there was something local and innocent and quaint about it, too. So even the adults got the fake intimacy of feeling we were eavesdropping on something a little bit real, a little bit authentic.

Ferragudo, which was a bit more of a trek, was even more authentic, with little fish restaurants all down the pier where the fish came straight off the boats and were gutted there in front of you and cooked over makeshifty metal barbecues.

And then back up the hill to our little home from home, kids to bed and the adults could sit out in the evening breeze and have a beer or three, with the baby listener on, but feeling, just for an hour or two, as if it was just us again, talking all that stored- up stuff that you get through on holidays, setting it all to rights and swearing inwardly to take this freedom home.

And freedom it is. While freedom for some of you is some shabby hotel on the beach in Goa, freedom for those of us with small kids is having a base and a context that looks after the boring basics so that you can focus on snatching the bits in between. Because family-friendly makes for friendly family.

And that's it, the little things like that they can run in and out of the house as they got hot or not, toddle over for a dip in the pool without having to pack bibs and bottles for the afternoon. We barely went to the beach. We didn't want to go anywhere really. And that, for me, on holidays or at home, is a hard feeling to find, where you actually don't feel the need to be anywhere else in the world.

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