Portugal: Our hip Algarve home from home
The key to a really successful trip away without children is to forget that you have any. Not that you don't check in or think about how they are from time to time, but that you remember who you were before they were in tow and behave accordingly.
It's no small ask, especially when trips away from your kids tend to be brief. The beauty of a flight from Dublin to Faro in Portugal is that you're there in a couple of hours, but it might as well be a world away. For one thing, from April, you're almost guaranteed sun in the Algarve, so from the second you land, your brain says you've entered an alternate world to the humdrum of home.
It's a short hop from Faro Airport to The Magnolia Hotel, which is part of Quinta do Lago, right on the edge of the golf and residential resort. It's a four-star hotel, small and chic, styled like a 1950s American motel. There's a neon sign as you enter, and the reception is kitted out in mint and flamingo pastels, its palm-tree-tiled bar stocked with interesting gins.
There is a sense that you have either stepped into Mad Men or a hipster heaven, but you feel right at home with either vibe. The clientele is couples, gangs of guys playing golf and a family or two, thanks to the family-friendly, super-cool two-bedroom cabins to the rear of the premises.
We arrived at night, and ate a late casual dinner in the hotel restaurant - good burgers and sweet-potato fries for that hipster touch. The breakfast hit a similar high-end but hip note.
We'd heard about Quinta do Lago for years, but it's hard really to get a handle on the place until you come here. Needless to mention, we met some people we knew - Magnolia general manager Mark McSorley is a Corkman - and it wasn't even high season.
The golf courses are a huge element of Quinta do Lago, but even for the non-golfer it has plenty to offer. It is also a mostly residential set-up. The houses are spectacular, with the newer ones seeming to get bigger, better and bolder in their architecture with every build. People like to point out homes of the rich and famous, and Holly Willoughby was mentioned more than once. And yet, it's a welcoming place for someone who wants only to dip in.
The Magnolia is on the edge of the resort proper, but it's only a short walk to the Cheeky Pup bar and the shopping mall, and there are abundant options for eating around the place. If you're into tasty clean-eating, they have amazing "bowls" in Pure, where you assemble a healthy feast from various bases, extras and dressings.
Then there's Casa do Lago, on the lake and managed by Duncan, an Irishman, for fish and stylish but non-stuffy food; or, along the lake, The Shake, where they have nachos and fish tacos and a Hamptons vibe.
We managed to swing Saturday night at Bovino, the high-end steakhouse, with its award-winning cocktail bar. These are hand-crafted cocktails and that doesn't just mean they make them fresh; the "bitter-peculiar" Privateer, had rum and a ginger ale reduction for which they had grown their own ginger.
Because it was Saturday night, we enjoyed our steaks with live piano music, which turned into an all-restaurant singalong, sway-along, with Sweet Caroline the crescendo. It was Irish-wedding rocking and there were Irish people involved.
The Magnolia Hotel has bikes - hip retro-looking, but light and nifty - that you can borrow, and the beach is only a few kilometres of a cycle through the resort, allowing you a slow speed at which to take it all in.
The resort connects to the beach by a 10-minute walk across a wooden bridge. At the end of the bridge, before the beach, there is Gigi's, a fish restaurant on stilts, which is a local institution, particularly for its end-of-summer party. There is fresh fish, opera on the stereo, and if you have to ask the prices, you can't afford the fish.
The beach below is long and sandy, with a small shop set up in summer, and loungers, umbrellas and towels. The water is crisp Atlantic - but warm by Irish standards. If you don't fancy the beach, you turn left at the car park at the resort end and walk or run or cycle out for miles. I could see how you could bed down very comfortably here for longer than the few days we had.
As it caters to football teams and professional sportspeople from all over the world, Quinta has impressive sports facilities, and they have launched Phase 1 of The Campus.
This centre of excellence offers training to pros and visitors, and when we were there most of the craic centred around padel, a racket game played outdoors that combines squash and tennis, which is the fastest-growing sport in the world.
One morning we got up early and headed down to the lake, where we took out paddle boards and punted up and down on the glass-like water for an hour.
Having only paddle-boarded in the sea before, where the waves demand a little extra concentration, the beauty of the lake was that the stillness allowed for great look-about at the shoreline homes.
We ate lunch in The Shack after our relative exertion. We watched people better and worse than us on paddle boards, noted briefly that the kids would love the nifty electric boats and then moved on to more important things, like pool vs beach. Pool won, the lemon-yellow and white of the towels and trimmings contrasting with the bright-blue sky and pool. It was like lounging in LA, yet with a European edge that saved it from cheesy.
We felt so near and yet so far from home. There was the comfort of being a mere few hours away, and yet our funky, retro base gave us a feeling of being oh so louche and laidback without the children.
The pastel-painted family cabins made us ponder about the children, but would we share it with them?
* The Magnolia Hotel, Quinta do Lago, Portugal, offers a standard room from €78 per night on a bed and breakfast basis. Tel: (+351) 289 005 300, or see themagnoliahotelqdl.com.
* For special offers, including the Couple’s Spa Package, see themagnoliahotelqdl.com/
* Aer Lingus, Ireland’s only four-star airline, flies to Faro from Dublin (from €44.99 one way, including taxes and charges), Cork and Shannon (€54.99), and Belfast (€59.99). See aerlingus.com
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