Tuesday 16 July 2019

Surf or turf in Portugal - What more could you ask of a holiday?


Quinta da Regaleira, a Unesco World Heritage Site near Sintra
Quinta da Regaleira, a Unesco World Heritage Site near Sintra
Benjamin learning to surf
Martinhal’s fabulous pastels de nata
Susan Jane and Marty dip their toes in the Atlantic at Cascais

Susan Jane White

I surf like an abandoned fridge. This fact has never interfered with my love of the sport. The spray of salty air; the tingly sensation of sun-licked skin; the excruciating excitement. Surfing sends my brain's algorithm wild. It's love like no other.

The northern coast of Portugal boasts excellent surf schools, with special consideration for beginners and family lessons. The more serious surfers head south to monster swells. There are various choices, both north and south, depending on your budget and propensity to tan. Here's what we've been up to...

If it's bikini weather you want, head south. I've recently returned from a cheap, impromptu overnight with girlfriends. We landed at Faro by 9am one Saturday, hired a car in the arrivals hall then dawdled through national parks and secret beaches along the Algarve. The roads are well signposted so the task of finding somewhere to eat is a delightfully serendipitous affair. It all just seems to tumble into place.

We shared the cost of a very basic hostel. Off-peak season meant that the rooms were half empty and really cheap (if a little dreary). Had we more time and foresight, we would have booked the boho chic Casa Mae (www.casa-mae.com) in the walled town of Lagos. Casa Mae is a small, affordable boutique hotel with eight-foot windows, ornate balconies, potted olive trees and terracotta tiles. And while Lagos is admittedly a one-hour drive from Faro airport, you can pack some audio books for the journey to sweeten the pilgrimage.

This part of Portugal is one of the most Instagrammable, nestled within miles of sandy beaches and with a bracing Atlantic breeze to give your beachy curls a good workout. Of course there's also the tipi option and yoga combo with Surf Algarve (www.surfalgarve.com) who run retreats on the more secluded southern beaches such as Odeceixe. And for women travelling solo, check out Gutsy Girls (www.gutsygirls.co.uk) specialising in surf and paddleboarding holidays south of Portugal for the mnasome.

While Saturday was marked for exploring and eating, Sunday was for surfing. The last flight from Faro to Dublin is late Sunday night, facilitating a full day of gallivanting. We checked out of our budget hostel by 10am and threw our luggage into the boot of our rental car. On to the beach! Our surf camp cost us €45 for the day. Blissed off our face, we all agreed it was a decidedly delicious way to spend a weekend.

Martinhal’s fabulous pastels de nata
Martinhal’s fabulous pastels de nata

That was a great trip. However, unscheduled excursions s are to children what ceiling fans are to budgies. Planning to take my two younglings Marty (six) and Benjamin (eight) on a surfing adventure, I knew I needed a back-up plan in case the promise of waves caved in. We found it with Martinhal.

Travelling to Lisbon's coast last month, a plume of fog and drizzle greeted us. I behaved like a vampire in a tanning salon. My eldest swiftly noted "we're going to get wet anyway, mum". The child is a genius. He already caught the surf bug with Elvis and Taighe on Carrownisky Strand in the west of Ireland one soaking wet summer day (www.surfmayo.com). And now, every time it rains, he thinks it's perfect surfing conditions. I was not about to correct him.

We had plotted this surf holiday a number of months ago, and a little water from the sky was not about to hijack our happiness. This is the most salient point about our holiday experience. Had we gone for a fly 'n' flop holiday, there would have been little else to do or see through sheets of rain. In good weather, everywhere looks great. Mass tourist spots are miserable and deeply unlovely during bouts of bad weather. Let me help you save a lot of money, time and patience. Go north.

What the Algarve lacks, Lisbon makes up for with its cultural ammo - heritage tours, museums, historical palaces, vineyard walks, mountaineering, canoeing and even city excursions for kids around Lisbon centre. Martinhal Family Hotels have two Lisbon properties - one city centre in the old town, and one on the coast in Cascais, very close to the Unesco World Heritage hotspot village of Sintra.

We took the coastal punt, knowing we could jump on a train and ramble into Lisbon if the weather was too soft to surf. Or take a hotel shuttle to the foothills of Sintra with its brightly painted castles and pastel palaces.

We didn't need to organise any surfing details at Martinhal - in fact, we didn't need to organise anything. My brain took a holiday too. All adventures were booked at reception with the charming and entertaining staff. It was as if our weekend was taken over by Gilbert & Sullivan.

Benjamin learning to surf
Benjamin learning to surf

Holidaying with children is like having a convoy of ill-trained but affectionate puppies. Martinhal understand this - that's why they have a special children's concierge. (Not, I hasten to add, for kids to contact themselves). Want a daily activity schedule? Need a potty or loo step? A bottle warmer? Swag of swimming nappies? Sanity? Their kids' concierge canters to the rescue like salve to a rash. It is all part of the experience, at no extra cost.

Susan Jane and Marty dip their toes in the Atlantic at Cascais

We surfed - just as Benjamin wanted - on the rainy days. Children have an incomprehensible knack for nailing a sport faster than immediately. The instructor must have thought I was the final fart of a disinherited race, his face supplying the phrase his mouth could not. My body was in holiday mode, and I floated along the foamy waves on my stomach. My youngest preferred to build sandcastles and watch from the shoreline. I, naturally, hovered between both boys trying to win mum-of-the-year award. Again.

We're going back for the October mid-term, and can barely contain our giddy squeals. Summer holidays are often twice or three times the price of off-peak season. That's why we like to keep our adventures for school mid-terms and long weekends - our euro goes a lot further. Plus, we get to monopolise the hotel staff and surfing instructor. It's like lording over our own demesne. What more could you ask of a holiday?

Getting there

Ryanair has flights from Dublin to Faro. Luxe family options include Martinhal Sagres with half-board packages from €109 per adult per night. Budget options closer to Faro airport include Tipi Valley yoga and surf combo, €95 per night (www.surfshanti.com) while Casa Mae starts at €95 per person sharing (www.casa-mae.com)

Aer Lingus flies direct to Lisbon from Cork and Dublin. Martinhal Hotel in Cascais offers complementary airport transfer as well as organising all your surfing needs. Family rooms, from €240 per room per night, include breakfast buffet and complementary daytime childcare (www.martinhal.com)

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