Paradise in Portugal: Heaven up here with the family in Sagres
Portugal is all the rage for holidaymakers, says Ed McCann, who took his family on a holiday to Sagres
Portugal seems to be all the rage these days for many holidaymakers. While Spain is still by some distance the top destination for Irish sunseekers, its smaller neighbour seems to be gaining ground quickly.
The tourist boom is fuelling the Portuguese economy's phoenix-like rise from the ashes of the recession and nowhere is better placed to take advantage of this than Martinhal in Sagres.
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This bespoke destination for families with young children is a self-contained resort in the far west of the Algarve - at a distance from the better known tourist resorts to the west such as Albufeira. Looking at the map before I left I thought it may be a bit too isolated - but that's the beauty of the place. It's in splendid isolation.
The deal with Martinhal is that when you go, you never have to leave. It is like being on a cruise ship - except you're not on the sea but looking out at it. There is a wide array of services on site, including high-quality restaurants, a small supermarket, a spa, tennis courts and swimming pools. It is cashless - so everything you buy is charged to your account.
This way you can track what you are spending and it also means that it's generally residents in the resort who are in the restaurants.
The resort aims to make your holiday as hassle-free as possible and that's worth a premium to a lot of families seeking to have a relaxing trip abroad. You can even get an air-conditioned transfer (a high-end taxi) from Faro Airport to Martinhal which picks you up at arrivals.
What I liked in particular about Martinhal is that it feels decidedly like a 'special' experience. From the moment you arrive you get a warm welcome at reception from the multilingual staff, a complimentary soft drink as you wait and a golf buggy transferring your luggage to your accommodation. The staff fuss over your children and it feels like an occasion - and that's before you have even got to your house. They do all the little things right. Of course, this comes at a certain cost but going by the amount of people there and the infrastructure that has built up around the resort, it's a cost many believe is worth paying. The British make up the biggest contingent of visitors but the number of Irish is growing.
Martinhal is unique in my experience in that it is all about the children while at the same time catering for parents who want a bit of luxury or relaxation. Getting the balance between those two competing demands is quite a feat. For the children there are play areas, swimming and paddling pools, tennis courts and various outdoor activities. There is also a nice gelato counter.
For the adults, there are the restaurants, bars and a spa. In full relaxation mode, I tried a massage which made a nice break from the sun.
We were staying in a self-catering, two-bedroom 'Ocean' house.
The houses are beautifully designed. Our three-year-old succinctly described it as an 'upside down' house and it says a lot that the accommodation in itself was one of the highlights of the trip both for us and the little ones. The 'upside down' part comes from the fact that the open-plan kitchen/living area is on the first floor, while the bedrooms are on the ground floor. This allows you to have a perfect view over the bay and in the evening you can see the lights of Sagres shimmering in the darkness.
In fact, sitting on the balcony in the evening was one of the highlights of the holiday. A nice touch was a 'welcome pack' with various essentials. The supermarket may be small but has most of what you would need to get by if you are self-catering. There's a supermarket in Sagres as well which is cheaper but the shop in the resort wins for convenience.
We ate out on two evenings during our stay at the Os Gambozinos restaurant which serves Italian food. The food and atmosphere were excellent. The restaurant overlooks a large outdoor play area where the children can play before, between and after courses. It also has a play area inside, as do Martinhal's other two restaurants.
The best food of all though was the breakfast. There was a massive choice of everything from eggs done to order, cereals, breads and juices and the kids couldn't wait to get out of the house in the morning to get stuck in.
Neither my wife nor I can swim but even we liked the pools. There are five throughout the resort, including one indoors meaning that they are never too overcrowded. Another big bonus is that the resort is effectively traffic-free and there are buggy ramps to help parents with children to get around.
It's not every day you can say you're away with the fairies but we genuinely were - there's an Irish fairy trail, which came in handy as my six-year-old lost a tooth on holiday.
Another Irish connection is that beauty products by Irish company VOYA are stocked on site.
The resort tries to be ecologically aware and is situated within a protected natural park and blends in with its surrounds as far as possible. And the beach really is as good as it gets. A beautiful little haven.
Martinhal is situated in a cove overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. We were told that it can be quite windy sometimes as you might expect but it was almost serenely calm during our visit. An added bonus was that there were no insects - the McCann family is often plagued by nasties when in hotter climates.
Sometimes family holidays can mean you are on top of one another for the whole time away which suits some - but others like to have a little headspace now and again.
The kids' clubs (which cover various age ranges) are excellent and allow you to take a break from the wee ones - and let them get a break from you.
Of course, you can leave the resort if you really want to.
We walked along the beach to Sagres which is about a half-hour walk. The town has an end of the world feel and you could definitely film a spaghetti western there. For us, the highlight was the pirate shop with all sorts of interesting paraphernalia.
But for someone who is normally into sightseeing and wandering, I can genuinely say I was happy to stay in the Martinhal resort for the five days. We took a stroll down to the beach before leaving and as the water lapped against the golden sand, we wondered why we hadn't stayed longer.
* Ed McCann was a guest of Martinhal Resorts. For further details go to www.martinhal.com.
* Until March 30, 2020, the following deal is on offer: 7 nights in a two-bedroom Garden House (2 adults + 2 children up to 12 yrs) on half-board: €1,862. This includes: breakfast; one meal per day (lunch or dinner - 3-course menu, drinks not included); Use of steam room, sauna at Finisterra Spa and indoor/outdoor heated pool; One-hour complimentary tennis or padel tennis court hire per day (equipment included, pre-booking required). Complimentary Wi-Fi throughout the resort.
* Fly to Portugal with Jet2 airlines from Belfast International Airport. The company will operate up to five weekly services next summer. Prices starting at stg£51. See www.jet2.com.
NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.