Katy Harrington kicks back in one of Ireland's favourite sun holiday destinations.
I always thought beach holidays had to involve actual hardship.
From what I know, you get burnt in the strangest places on the first day. Your first holiday drink makes you feel woozy, although that might be the onset of sunstroke rather than the alcohol. You get lost on the vertical walk back to your ant-infested apartment before realising the air con is broken and then getting into a screaming match with your partner because they forgot to pack the adaptor plug for your hair-dryer.
If only I'd known all this time that there is another way to do beach living, complete with teak sun loungers, handsome men dressed in crisp white linen to bring you fresh fluffy towels and fruit platters, all within a minutes walk of your sea view hotel room. The latter is very much the vibe at the Purobeach Vilamoura beach club and the adjacent five-star Tivoli Marina Hotel.
Located in southern Portugal, part of the Loulé Province in the Algarve, Vilamoura is a purpose-built all-in-one holiday destination. The busy Marina de Vilamoura is where most of the action happens. You'll find a sprinkling of million-pound yachts along the water and a sprinkling of Irish bars, shops and restaurants (some authentic Portuguese, others not so much) along the pier.
We took a spin around the surrounding area and while you won't find much history or culture (besides the ruins of an ancient Roman fishing village about 15 minutes walk from the Tivoli hotel) you will see sprawling hotels, upmarket holiday homes and four golf courses. With all the sunshine, new builds and sprinklers watering immaculately cut grass it can begin to feel a bit like a scene from The Truman Show.
"We want to make Vilamoura the Monaco of Portugal," our driver tells us, which you can take two ways - depending on whether you think Monaco is a soulless wasteland for tax avoiders or the last word in luxury.
Vilamoura boasts two incredible sandy beaches - Praia da Marina and Praia de Falesia. Purobeach Vilamoura has a pretty enviable location on Praia da Marina. A short stroll from the aforementioned buzz of the marina, next to the enormous Tivoli Marina Hotel and set back from its best asset - the sparkling Atlantic Ocean.
Purobeach is part of Puro Group, set up in 2004 by a ruggedly handsome Swedish entrepreneur by the name of Mats Wahlström. Wahlström made his name when he opened his first "boutique and cosmopolitan hotel" in Palma de Mallorca.
A year later he added Purobeach Marbella, followed by Purobeach Vilamoura in 2010 and Purobeach Black Sea in 2012. In 2013, the expansion continued into the Middle East with new clubs in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates and later into Africa with two new openings in Egypt. To show how far the concept has developed since 2004, you can now buy Puro albums and there's even a Puro plane.
In Vilamoura, the upmarket beach club season begins in early June and ends with an Ibiza-style closing party in late August. The club has two distinct areas, The Beach Side and The Lakeside. The Beach Side features a 40-seater restaurant, lounge bar, 10 'nomad' beach tents (suitable for 3-4 people), 40 'hangover' beds and a massage area.
If you want absolute peace and quiet, it's not the place for you. "Down tempo" tunes play from early morning. By noon impossibly good looking couples start to populate the teak sun loungers while sunset signals party time, with louder music and golfers and stag nights arriving to splash out on pricey cocktails.
The Lakeside is an enormous marquee style structure, complete with indoor water fountains, dancefloor, bar, restaurant and enough space to seat 3,000 guests. It's sold as an "ideal wedding or party venue." The night we ate there (the menu is enormous) it was very early in the season and less than half full - most tables made up of couples and one large hen party (all the girls in black, except the bride who wore white and stomped back to her room early with her tiara in tears).
You can't stay at the Purobeach Vilamoura, but the five-star Hotel Tivoli Marina Vilamoura offers proper beachside luxury. The hotel has a huge outdoor pool, 7.5 acres of private surrounding gardens, and a spa. The rooms are spacious, with balconies overlooking the Marina or the sea, satellite TV, minibar and a shower that will shoot water at you from every direction.
In the expansive hotel there are several restaurants and bars - all offering decent food and drink at not too exorbitant prices. The super size buffet style breakfast is impressive, and the Canela bar is great for a pre-dinner drink with a view of the marina, but the best thing on the hotel grounds is Pepper's Steakhouse (and if a vegetarian is recommending a steakhouse, you know it must be good).
It's fine dining, but the focus in the kitchen is showing off the very best Portuguese produce from the freshest fish, and the finest cuts of meat (the people at the table next to me assured me they ate like kings) to delicious fresh vegetables in a simple, unfussy way. The wine list is a tome featuring hundreds of Portuguese wines and the service is second to none. Actually the staff everywhere in the hotel will bend over backwards to make you happy.
This isn't boutique; it's not off the beaten track. It is pricey and touristy but a super luxurious, hassle-free way to experience the beach. Vilamoura is on course to become the mini Monaco it wants to be.