Campus life in the Algarve: Can fitness meet fun on a sun holiday?
Is it possible to get fit and have fun on holidays? Absolutely, says Helen Hanley, who is now plotting a significant birthday in Portugal...
Fifty is the new 40. Or so I keep telling myself, as this big birthday begins to sharpen into view on the horizon.
On the upside, however, my half-century will be a hell of an excuse to celebrate, and I know exactly how I'm going to do it - with a health and wellness holiday somewhere fabulous like Quinta do Lago.
Quinta, just a 15-minute drive from Faro Airport in Portugal's Algarve, reminds me a lot of another affluent enclave: Beverly Hills. With its multi-million-euro properties, manicured lawns and three world-class golf courses - North, South and Laranjal - this is a place where high rollers and the private jet set come to play.
But I didn't discover Quinta do Lago on a golf trip. My husband and I travelled there recently to try out The Campus, a new, high-end sports hub that marks the final piece of the resort's sport-and-wellness package - a polished play aimed at luring the fitness-tourism market.
The Campus is designed to attract both professional and lifestyle fitness fans. They've thought of everything: performance gym, studio classes, wellness and rehab, personal training, 25m outdoor heated pool, biking and tennis courts, along with a high-tech pitch to lure international football and rugby teams.
Despite the high specs, however, classes can accommodate all levels of fitness, from beginner to advanced. Walkways and trails throughout the resort make it easy to walk and cycle everywhere, and you can become a member for a day, a week, a month or even a year (if you're one of the many Irish with a holiday home here).
Now, I know to some people the words 'fitness' and 'holiday' simply don not belong in the same sentence. But fitness, gym work and being active is part of my daily routine, and has been for a long time. And - make sure you're sitting down for this bit - I'm someone who works out regularly even when I'm on holidays… much to the chagrin of my husband. So the opportunity to follow a tailored training programme was top of my wishlist.
To get a sense of The Campus, we picked a broad range of activities - beginning with a bootcamp session on the beach guided by our own personal trainer, Graham. It kicked off with a 10-minute run to the sands, with a few lunges and push-ups along the way.
An hour later we were back at The Shack, a coffee bar and restaurant on the fringes of The Campus. We had just enough time for a caffeine pit-stop before our next session - yoga in a studio overlooking the pitch where the Irish rugby team trained prior to the Rugby World Cup. Its grass height can be adjusted and tailored according to each sport.
After that, we felt we'd earned an afternoon by the hotel pool. We stayed at The Magnolia, a relatively new four-star describing itself as a "boutique hospitality experience", set slightly back from the centre of Quinta.
With its retro, neon, Miami-style décor, The Magnolia feels refreshingly different to your average four or five-star resort hotel. The rooms are fairly small, but the attention to detail - from twinkly festoon lighting to complimentary bikes out front - gives it a unique appeal. At breakfast, the emphasis was also on quality, as opposed to the usual hotel buffet, where quantity is king.
Next morning, it was back to The Campus to meet up with Paralympic gold medallist Mark Rohan, who runs the Bike Shed. Mark is a friendly mine of useful information on all things cycling in the region. After tweaking a pair of two-wheeled trusty steeds, ensuring they were perfectly set up for us, we headed off to explore the local Ria Formosa Natural Park. The laidback spin brought us all the way up to Faro Airport - perfect for recreational cyclists like us. If it's something a bit more intense you're after, or you fancy doing a bit of warm-weather triathlon training, the Bike Shed also organises cycling tours. One example is a five-day jaunt along the Atlantic coast, taking in the Algarve's highest point, Serra de Monchique.
With 24 hours remaining, we had just enough time to try our hands at tennis - I'd recommend the racquet sport Padel instead, it's more forgiving - and to hit the high-performance gym for a Tabata class (a type of high-intensity interval training).
For all the exercise, our highlight was probably our final night's blowout at Bovino Steakhouse, a Shanahan's-esque eatery where a 500g ribeye will set you back €52. While the staff all speak perfect English, there must have been some breakdown in communication. A sharing menu for four arrived at our table: an eye-watering amount of food for just the two of us, with over a kilo of beef as its centre- piece. In spite of our workouts, our appetites were no match... though we felt it offered value at €65 a head.
Like almost everything in Quinta do Lago, no expense has been spared in The Campus. As well as international teams, I think it will appeal to the increasingly lucrative wellness tourism market, and celebrity stardust won't hurt either - Brian O'Driscoll, Rio Ferdinand and tennis coach Judy Murray have all been involved with its kids' camps.
Our few days were exactly my kind of break - a bit of activity, balanced out by good food and wine. If you're still not convinced, here's some food for thought: a newspaper article recently pinpointed 50 as being a health tipping point, the latest age at which we should get our health act together. This isn't a bad place to start
Guest Services in the resort provide a dedicated concierge service for guests renting a villa or staying for three or more days. For more info, check the website at quintadolago.com/en/real-estate/guest-service.
Faro Airport is well serviced by Aer Lingus and Ryanair. Helen was a guest of Quinta do Lago Resort. Prices at The Campus (quintadolago.com/en/the-campus) include tennis for two (€65), Express Tabata classes, beach bootcamps and yoga (all €15pp).
Where to stay
Helen stayed at The Magnolia (themagnoliahotelqdl.com), a boutique hotel which has also hosted the Irish rugby team. A standard double costs from €92 B&B or €108 half-board. Family cottages are available from €280 per night B&B. You can get to The Campus by bike or staff can arrange a 5/10-min car transfer.