Tuesday 27 September 2016

Brendan O'Connor: How to become a beach bum in four days in Portugal

Away in the Algarve

Published 26/10/2015 | 02:30

Dona Ana beach, Algarve, Portugal
Dona Ana beach, Algarve, Portugal
Martinhal Beach Resort: Keeping the kids happy is central to everything here, because they figure this is how you keep the adults happy.
Brendan O'Connor relaxes and enjoys the delights on offer at the beach resort.

I'm not sure at what point I realised that everyone is wrong and I could live at the beach. It was around day three, I think.

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People tell you you'd be bored, that you'd go crazy after a while. And maybe I'm being cocky, but I think I could handle it. It possibly occurred to me in the morning. Before breakfast as the sun rose I would make my way down to Martinhal beach. There would be just a handful of us there, each indulging his or her own particular madness. There was usually a couple with a small kid who were saluting the sun yoga-style, and maybe a few runners. I was usually the only swimmer.

It's hot out here at the end of the Algarve, also the end of Europe, until October, but the sea was not warm in late September. Not warm by their standards anyway. By our standards it was 'refreshing'. So off I'd go, parallel to the land, in this beautifully crisp, clear virgin sea. It helped, I guess, that we were in the middle of a nature reserve.

Like a madman I would keep going, lost at sea and feeling alive. Every day, I threatened to swim in as far as the little surfing town of Sagres, but I never went past a bunch of rocks that came between me and the town. But I was tempted. I was tempted to keep going into town, and then, like Burt Lancaster, keep going through everyone's swimming pools.

Back for breakfast then, and the next delight of the day. I could relax and enjoy breakfast. I should explain first that Martinhal Beach Resort is really only for people with kids. They will actually warn you, if you try to book for your honeymoon or a romantic break, that you may not like it. Keeping the kids happy is central to everything here, because they figure that this is how you keep the adults happy.

And while I've been to many family-friendly resorts over the past seven years, Martinhal, I suspect, is the holy grail. They understand it. The kids thing isn't tacked on. It starts with the kids, and they built an adult resort around that.

Brendan O'Connor relaxes and enjoys the delights on offer at the beach resort.
Brendan O'Connor relaxes and enjoys the delights on offer at the beach resort.

So back to breakfast then. This is how it works. We eat in As Dunas, overlooking the sea, which doubles as a seafood restaurant at night. The walls are all glass and they all fold back so you could nearly reach out and touch the magnificent seascape. But the real beauty is that after the kids have eaten, they go down a few steps below the restaurant into a sandy play area with a trampoline and swings and slides. And they play. And you sit and keep an eye, still at your table. And you can get down to them in 10 seconds if you need to. So you kick back and have another coffee.

We even indulged in the breakfast sparkling wine one morning, so relaxed did we get. It was unprecedented. I met one of the owners of Martinhal, a former Price Waterhouse consultant who developed this place with her husband as they started a family of their own, and she told me that one of her notions was that this should be a place where mothers get to have the foam on their cappuccino, rather than having it cold a half an hour after it has come.

We ate up in the 'Village Square' most nights. This didn't just have a playground attached - the restaurant and bar are actually built around a playground. And again, the walls roll back and you sit there relaxing while the kids run off and play in your line of sight. Now obviously the downside of this is that there are kids everywhere. But you'd be surprised how quickly you learn to ignore other people's children - and your own.

If you're looking for action at night, this was not the place for it. We were usually gone home shortly after nine but with that nice tight-skinned and exhausted day-at-the-beach feeling. Most people stay in little houses, so Mum and Dad can repair to the spacious first-floor balcony after the kids have crashed out downstairs. The house set-up also meant you could lunch in your own kitchen if you were sick of dining out. And there was a shop with fresh bread and roasted chickens and Magnums. So when we didn't eat on the beach or by the pool, we repaired in for a lounge and a break from the sun.

My wife kept marvelling at little details. How the welcome pack was actually useful in that you could get the kids fed straightway and get down to relaxing. We left Dublin on the 6.20 to Faro and we were in the pool shortly after noon. She loved the kiddie toilets, how there were bean bags everywhere, which are much handier for kids than hard old sunbeds. There were even bean bags that floated. So you could chuck your kids across the pool in a really alarming fashion and they would land bang into a floating beanbag and scream with giddy relief. It is possibly the only resort I've ever been to actually designed and conceived by the mother of small children. And it's amazing no one thought of doing this before.

The one problem you can often find with places like this is that you become institutionalised and get a touch of cabin fever. Martinhal overcomes that firstly because it doesn't feel like an institution. It's all beautifully done and is in keeping with the stunning natural beauty around you. There's loads to do, from tennis and cycling to spa to watersports, and a heated pool for every mood. And also, when you make the one-minute walk down to the beach you are more or less out of the resort. You can have lunch or a beer in non-resort beach-shack places, and you actually feel like you're somewhere quite remote and unspoiled. And you are. Except you have all the facilities and luxury you need two minutes away.

We only went for four nights but by the end, I was gone pretty native. I was thinking I could be one of those dudes with just two pairs of shorts and two T-shirts. I could sit around all day in and out of the shade, having the odd beer, swimming in the sea, reading and exchanging idle chit chat with my fellow beach bums. Of course, my problem would be that I would need the backing of a luxury resort to retreat to in the evenings. Maybe I need to build my own. The owners of Martinhal actually live on the property with their kids. It takes the kids an hour to get to school every day. But, as their mother explained, it's worth it to live at the beach. I'm thinking mine could maybe not bother with the school bit.

Getting there

Autumn special four-night package includes: Four nights stay in a two-bedroom house (max. two adults, two children 3-12 years, and one child up to 2 years - cot free of charge). Valid for Garden House and Vilas Mimosa. €1,080.

Also includes: breakfast and one other meal per day (lunch or dinner - three-course menu, drinks not included); use of Jacuzzi, steam room, sauna at Finisterra Spa and indoor/outdoor heated pool; One-hour complimentary tennis court hire per day; complimentary Kids Club (until March 18, 2016); complimentary Wifi throughout the resort.

See martinhal.com for more.

Martinhal Beach Resort: Keeping the kids happy is central to everything here, because they figure this is how you keep the adults happy.
Martinhal Beach Resort: Keeping the kids happy is central to everything here, because they figure this is how you keep the adults happy.

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