Tuesday 26 March 2019

Portugal: It's all about the water on a family surfing detox in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz proves an exciting destination for a family surf holiday, says Susan Jane White

Paddling for it - posed by a surfer - Susan Jane White is on her way to being this good
Paddling for it - posed by a surfer - Susan Jane White is on her way to being this good
Susan Jane and Benjamin get ready for surfing
Bungalow 9
Six-year-old Marty

Susan Jane White

I like to think Mother Nature and I are besties.

What with using bamboo toothbrushes, drinking exclusively organic wine, and washing my bathroom tiles with lemon juice, respect runs deep in our loving relationship.

But Mother N can have some pretty inconvenient ideas about loyalty.

Sunday Independent readers familiar with my travels will already know that it pelts rain wherever I journey, like silver needles pouring from the heavens.

We routinely greet jaw-dropping, Instagrammable storms that would make windy dull days seem sprightly in comparison.

For now, let's assume that it's some impressive form of sorcery with a software bug. Or that Neptune, the Roman god of sea and fresh water, fancies the arse off me. I've always wanted my very own stalker. The fact that it's a god, pleases me greatly. Part of me wants to say that mortals and gods are not supposed to mix, but history throws up some interesting tales.

And so we arrive at Santa Cruz, mid-storm. The local farmers are grateful and befuddled, with equal measure. It hasn't rained in six months. I'm almost tempted to send out a press release to claim responsibility.

Santa Cruz is a holiday town up the coast from Lisbon, singing in the summer months and purring in the winter.

We chose it (I say we, like my husband has some agency in the matter) because Bali is too far away, and Donegal is freaking cold.

I'm magnetised to the notion of a better self; a sort of sylphy celestial self in a parallel world that I hop in and out of like a bunny in a burrow. And here, at Noah's Surf House, I can jump in the rabbit hole and surround myself with walking repositories of human enlightenment; yoga teachers, organic gardeners, skate boarding nymphs and very hot surf instructors (look, I spent 30 dull minutes trying to come up with a more reasonable description of surf instructors, but all were misleading. Let's call them out on their hotness, OK?).

I think we all fancy ourselves a little more mindful, a lot more centred, and thrillingly flexible. If a budget holiday could offer you all of the above, would you take it? (Enlightenment is trickier, but there's an app for that).

Arriving at Noah's Surf House, you open the taxi doors to the roar of the Atlantic Ocean and a spray of salty sweet air. Reception staff are your personal hosts - the beautiful sort of human beings you want your daughter to be, and your sons to marry.

They take their job of looking after you very seriously and with loving dedication, as if minding a celebrity newborn.

Staff uniform is just as you would imagine - casual linens, Birkenstocks, denims and dungarees. The vibe is palpably cool, calm, and collected - precisely everything I am not. I'm handed a large water bottle to fill with fresh water from the lobby when required (no single-use plastic on site). Refills are free, encouraging guests to ditch expensive water-buying habits.

Already, I feel more virtuous than a canonised nun.

Looking around, we notice that Noah Surf House attracts all sorts, from spirited youths to suave Swedish families.

You are just as likely to sit next to a Danish engineer slurping her smoothie bowl as you are beside a French backpacker knee deep in Nietzsche.

People who come here love learning, love nature, and actually love chia. The concept behind Noah's was to build an all-inclusive surf school with accommodation for every budget (see Getting There for prices).

All guests have access to the same facilities. There's even a communal kitchen right inside the main foyer, where you can choose the budget option of cooking your own fare, or sitting down and enjoying Noah's kitchen menu.

There's no elitism, normally present in the hotel industry. We're all on the same boat (or ark?).

I'd much rather my boys holiday with interesting people of all budgets and cultures than spend their vacation in a prissy bourgeois hotel.

Each of the 21 rooms are flooded with natural light and sea breeze, with floor-to-ceiling windows. Most have a sea view, or alternatively they look on to grassy landscaped rooftops. The bunk rooms look over Noah's vegetable garden.

Rooms are kitted out with Bluetooth sound systems, a stove for wintry months, organic bath products and a melody of upcycled or cleverly repurposed furnishings.

Our room had a cool kitchenette for post-surf snack attacks. We never used it because the hotel snacks were such brilliant value (€3.50 for a sourdough ham and cheese toastie large enough to feed three. Fresh fruit ice lollies, €1.80).

We loved the warm, earth-toned interior of our family surf pod and the crisp white linens at night. The boys got to climb a rope ladder up to their bunks 29 times a day, and lounge on the natural beanbags like a wet lettuce.

Noah's Surf House is 21st Century eco conscious in the most tasteful sort of way - they do all the hard work, so we don't have to. Instead of sterile air-conditioning, the owners hired savvy architects to maximise the natural circulation of fresh sea air. All that airy circulation makes you feel like you're shooting the front cover of a Vogue magazine - saltwater curls gently blowing in the breeze, dewy freckled skin, and white linens billowing behind you. It's my favourite self.

But back to their sexy sustainability code; there are five discreet bins for recycling in each room (plastics, paper, tins, compost, general), fresh rainwater and grey water is collected and recycled, and solar panels supply their electricity. It's everything I want for my own home, but have comically failed to execute.

I can salve my conscience by coming here every year instead.

Noah's buffet breakfast uses fresh eggs from happy hens roaming outside (the boys collected their own), smoothie bowls with spinach and lemon balm picked minutes before it lands in the blender, buckwheat granola with local natural yoghurt, seasonal fruits, warm pasteis de nata, kickass coffee, and a whole load of homemade breads, including hot sourdough and licky sticky morning cakes.

I joined my boys at the breakfast table every morning, halo humming after a peaceful hour of yoga. Nothing ever feels packed or oversubscribed, even at full capacity. There are 8am Liquid Balance yoga sessions too, by their outdoor pool on semi-stationary paddleboards while the sun comes up and yawns over the bay.

My eight-year-old and I decked ourselves out in radically matching wetsuits and hit the beach with Miguel and Diogo. Yesterday's storm made for wonderful waves - it was like swimming in a giant cappuccino.

The water is at its best in spring and autumn; the sun, at its kindest. Benjamin and I are chronic beginners, so we relish one-to-one tuition like a puppy needing to pee. Miguel is astonishingly good with children and my heart melts watching him care for my son. Just as well, because I'm having an episode. While I like to tell people I surf, the truth is I've been only four times and actually talk about it all of the time. There's not a barista in Dublin who has been spared.

My surfing is closer to hugging. Sometimes, when my son is watching, I like to drop some ninja techniques to heave me up a little on the board. The black wetsuit helps. I tell him I'm an agent undercover, and cannot stand up for fear of being spotted. He gets it. And I go back to hugging.

Children have an uncanny knack of nailing a sport faster than expected. Benjamin was surfing upright, navigating the foamy waves and jumping like Jane Fonda across his board by the end of the morning. I can't say it's in his DNA, but that hasn't stopped me from telling the town's people otherwise.

Husband and Little One are waiting in Noah's fancy beach restaurant, built on stilts in the sand. They've been skateboarding on the hotel premises all morning, gurgling with giddiness. We meet with dopey, beatific smiles. Barbecued octopus and garden greens are delivered to our table. The boys have breaded cuttlefish and olives. There is local wine. And freshly pressed citrus for the boys.

We spend €36 before retiring to the massive family hammock above the skatepark, nodding off to the throb of happiness.

After four days of blisstitude, husband and childer are slack-jawed and cross-eyed.

Having returned to Irish shores, we are ready to start husbanding bees and growing lavender. My boys are upcycling the neighbour's car, I'm fermenting our surplus veggies for community kimchi, and our bowel movements are practically Instagrammable.

What more could you ask for?

Yes, this holiday has lasted a lot longer than four nights. It might be the best money you'll spend in 2019, and comes considerably less than a year of marriage counselling and a spinning membership.

Namaste.

Take Two: Top attractions

Organic gardens

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Six-year-old Marty
 

Noah’s Surf House grows its own fresh organic produce that features on their daily menu. Our sons, Marty (six, above) and Benjamin (eight), loved helping with the hens, collecting their own eggs for breakfast and picking greens for the chef.

Bungalow No 9

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Bungalow 9
 

Our Minecraft-style family bungalow at Noah's Surf House overlooking the waves was epic. We stayed in groovy family pods amidst the organic gardens. Expect lots of privacy and sea views. noahsurfhouseportugal.com

This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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