Sugar the pill with a wee break in Estoril
Ireland may be under the weather in more ways than one at the moment, so to get away from its woes, John Masterson jetted off to the Portuguese Riviera
OH, I do like to be beside the seaside. I like the smell of the air coming off the sea, the sound of the seagulls, the pleasant smiles on the faces of people enjoying the sun... I particularly like all these things at the start of the year, when the still short, dark days in Ireland would drive anyone to drink. So instead of sinking into couch-potato mode, I headed to Portugal for a long weekend break and am feeling the better for it.
Estoril has become one of Portugal's most popular tourist regions because of its temperate climate and closeness to Lisbon. It has become known as the Portuguese Riviera.
My hotel, like most, had a wonderful sea view. Day one I exited to the boardwalk that runs along the coast. During the short walk to Cascais there were walkers and joggers out enjoying the sun, people reading the paper in coffee shops, and tourists enjoying the view, including the many fine buildings occupying the prime locations.
Many of the fine buildings date from 1870 when King Luis made the Citadel of Cascais his official summer residence. The wealthy followed. The imposing 16th-century citadel still overlooks the fishing port with its calm bay, fine marina and Pescadores Beach.
There are fine restaurants and winding cobbled streets with good shops and tat cheek-by-jowl. It has a very fine fish market, which is really for the restaurants. They have an interesting selling technique. The auctioneer starts at the highest price possible and then reduces it until someone bids and the fish is theirs at that price. I visited the nearby Paula Rega House of Stories, a modern art gallery. It is a striking building adjacent to a park in the middle of a good residential district.
A few miles away the Oitavos Hotel, five-star and absolutely minimalist, took my fancy, not least because of the golf course and sea views that surround it. There is a very in-your-face statue of a curvaceous woman carrying a few extra pounds at the entrance. Inside you would feel good even if you had just been taken over by Nama. This is the sort of hotel where your only decision of the day is whether to wear black or white.
The drive along the western coast is not unlike that of the best of the west of Ireland. It is ideal for surfers. There are people fishing from the rocks. We stopped at Cabo da Roca, “where the land ends and the sea begins”. It is the westernmost point of mainland Europe and you can even buy a certificate saying so.
I travelled on up the coast and stopped for lunch at a memorable restaurant. Azhenas du Mar is a cliff-top village and the restaurant is literally hanging off the cliff. It overlooks a natural seawater swimming pool with the waves rushing in. Fantastic fish. Unforgettable view. Moving inland is the Sintra region, which is a World Heritage Site. At the peak of the mountain is a romantic palace commissioned in the early 1800s on the site of a 16th-century convent. Fascinating architecture and famous for its use of tiles, it boasts a fantastic view out to the coast. The castle is surrounded by an 85 hectare park featuring several historical gardens and a nature trail.
At night it is easy to be drawn back to Cascais. We ate in the Hotel Baia on the port and then adjourned to one of the Irish pubs in search of a place where a rugby match of significance could be viewed the next day. No problem.
I played golf at Quinta da Marinha designed by Robert Trent Jones Snr. I hired a set of Callaways and looked at my Big Bertha driver with respect. She and I bonded. I was playing with two Portuguese men and was delighted to give them the opportunity to practice saying “good shot”. Both had better English than mine and after I had dumped a few balls into oblivion they showed they could do humour in most languages too.
The holes have all been given descriptive names — such as Atlantic Ocean (for the best view), Ravine (no explanation needed), and Gone With The Wind (which described the flight path of my ball perfectly). The course reminded me of Clontarf with its criss-cross fairways. You needed a bit of local knowledge to know where you were at times. It was an enjoyable Sunday morning even if my hired Odyssey White Hot putter contravened the trade descriptions act.
My favourite restaurant was the Costa do Estoril, where the atmosphere reminded me of Dublin's Trocadero. Then, across the road to the largest casino in Europe. I got out as fast as I got in. I picked the 10¢ machine, put in a tenner, pulled the one arm... and lost €7.50 immediately. It was probably my fault because I didn’t understand it — but then, did I really want to? Next day another fine fish lunch at Peixa na Linha, again overlooking the sea.
Then on to Gestair, a local firm based in the Cascais Municipa Aerodrome, where I had a spin in a Cessna 172 and then a go on its simulator. I crashed repeatedly. Thankfully my copilot training was there to save me. Gestair has teamed up with Carlow Institute of Technology for an interesting course where students will study for a degree in aviation engineering combined with a language, and also a pilot's licence. If you are touring in the area it is possible to sample some of this experience by enrolling for a trial lesson for €250.
On my final night I had dinner at The Hemingway restaurant on the Cascais marina. Its chef won a best-chef-in- Portugal award recently and my taste buds can tell you why.
Lisbon is easy to visit from Cascais and if I made one mistake it was that I did not go there earlier. It is only half an hour away and unbelievably costs just €2 on the train. What a city. I will be going back, to both places.
You can fly directly into Lisbon International Airport with Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) from Dublin and Cork. For more information on Estoril see www.visiteestoril.com