Thursday 21 June 2018

A city break with kids? Here's how Brendan O'Connor did it...

Holidays in Portugal

Brendan O'Connor and Lisbon (Photo: Deposit).
Brendan O'Connor and Lisbon (Photo: Deposit).
Lisbon. Photo: Deposit
Brendan O'Connor in Lisbon
Double room in Cascais
The Pool Hangout at Martinhal Cascais, Portugal
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

It was a daring move. A city-break, with kids. So I was expecting fights, trauma, tantrums, tears, refusal to walk any further and so on. And that's just the adults.

But we were staying with Martinhal, the small Portuguese group whose mission it is to help you to enjoy a holiday with your kids without compromising on things. And they say they have come up with a family-friendly way of doing a city break.

A previous trip to their Sagres outpost at the far end of the Algarve remains one of the most idyllic, chic yet relaxed holidays we've had with the kids. But this was a challenge on another level. Maybe they thought their Lisbon outpost, Martinhal Chiado Family Suites, could make a city break with children work.

But they haven't met my children. This would be their ultimate test.

The hotel itself is gorgeous, one of the reconditioned period buildings you see all over Lisbon, tastefully done but with period details intact. It is set out in small apartments, again appealingly decorated and artfully arranged to feel spacious but chic. Our studio had loads of room, a full kitchen and living area. And bunk beds. There was a bit of fighting over the bunk beds, obviously, but we agreed to let the kids have them in the end.

Just down the cobbled hill from the hotel is one of those reasons why you imagine the Web Summit is in Lisbon. Time Out magazine, for some reason, has taken over a big old wholesale market, and now it's full of food stalls and mini restaurants, some of them offshoots of the starred restaurants from the Lisbon dining scene. Nothing costs more than a tenner, and you can get all kinds of little bites and nibbles.

The Pool Hangout at Martinhal Cascais, Portugal
The Pool Hangout at Martinhal Cascais, Portugal

It was amazing. Like Taste of Dublin squared - seafood, burgers, Portuguese cuisine, small plates, cured meats, a sardine boutique that looks like a Willy Wonka sweet shop.

We ate way too much, perused the little artisan shops and then got the kids out of there. Then the four of us wandered for a while, because Lisbon is a perfect place for wandering, full of texture and colour. And the beauty of it was that once one kid refused to do any more city break, her mother was happy to bring her back for a chill in our bijou city apartment, while the elder one and I broadened our horizons by buying up a storm in H&M and Tiger.

But the best bit was to come. Believe it or not, the kids were going to the kids club in the hotel for the evening, and we were allowed out, in a foreign city, at night, on our own. So we left them on the climbing wall, happy as Larry, and went to see how much food and drink we could squeeze into a few hours. We sat in sun-dappled side streets, where they served caipirinhas on the steep steps that lead from one street up to the next. We had a beer down by the water and watched the joggers, the chic Lisboeta commuters and the other tourists, all the time tacitly agreeing to imagine a time when our kids did not exist and we were young.

And then, unable to commit to just one restaurant, we wandered back to the Time Out Market to try everything we hadn't tried earlier.

Lisbon. Photo: Deposit
Lisbon. Photo: Deposit

The next morning we relaxed over coffee while the kids played around the decommissioned Smart car in the breakfast room, it was time to head off on the second leg of our journey.

Cascais is one of several cool coastal towns just half an hour outside Lisbon and while it has gone a bit more upmarket since we visited in our pre-children life, it still retains that kind of shabby-chic vibe you get on this coast. Martinhal Cascais is a few miles out of town, nestled amid pine trees, and it's amazing.

People who've been to Martinhal in Sagres speak in hushed tones about it, about the fact that somehow, you can actually relax, and have your children with you. And they've pulled it off again in Cascais. My major memory of the place will be what might seem like an insignificant detail: the Pool Hangout was incredible.

Essentially it's a large grassy area, almost in the shape of a gently sloped amphitheatre. You locate yourself on beds and beanbags, and then the kids all gravitate towards the middle, where two safe roundy pools are situated. There is a trampoline set into the grass, a shaded play area with art supplies and a ping-pong table, swingball, even a fountain set into the ground, that spurts water 30ft into the air on command.

It's all surrounded by trees, so it basically feels natural and organic and peaceful despite all the children and the high jinks. It's like you are enjoying a really relaxed country house weekender where you don't need to get too involved with anyone else, but the kids bond and have a ball, while the parents keep half an eye on them, secure in the knowledge that the whole area is enclosed. I'll say it again: it actually felt at times as if we had no kids. It was amazing.

Back up the other end of the property was a huge, grassy playground based by a building that housed the kids' club and a restaurant upstairs. Of an evening, while we finished our food, the kids could dash off to play bouncing on the trampolines, whizzing on the zipline, climbing the huge tunnel slide. It was securely gated, but its vastness gave a sense of freedom - for adults and children. They loved it.

You could easily not leave at all, but we did. We hired bikes a couple of days, and cycled into Cascais. The younger was in a trolley behind me while the elder triumphantly completed the 5km journey herself, hills and all. This was all doable because once you get down to the main road, there is an extremely safe cycle track that runs along the Atlantic coast. It's so safe that everyone gets to enjoy the view of the waves and the big sky as you cycle along.

Cascais is a perfect town to have nearby, where we swam at two family-friendly beaches. One was more of a local beach with kids and sandcastles, while the other was a bit more buzzy. The town itself has plenty of casual eating and drinking and plenty of what are known in our family as "the crazy shops", where we pore over cheap tat while the kids decide how to spend the money their granny gave them.

In fact, the crazy shops were a bit more upscale in Cascais, but that was to be expected, as that's what you're getting here, a slightly cooler, slightly more organic kind of tourism. The local texture has been preserved, and a laid-back surfy influence blends nicely with that of the wealthy Lisboetas who keep their weekend houses out here. I never used to envy Portuguese people. But my eyes have been opened.

Double room in Cascais
Double room in Cascais

One of my happy places I'd go to in my head used to be the beach at Martinhal Sagres. Now the Pool Hangout in Cascais has joined it. We came back from our short holiday relaxed and on good terms with each other, which is a result. And when it was time to go home, I realised that even the airport, which I hadn't really noticed on the way in, is really modern and tasteful as well. Damn those Portuguese.

Get there

Martinhal Cascais has sailing breaks from September 10-October 31, 2017. A sailing “try out” costs from €110 per session (min five people) or five-day sailing course from €197.50 per person (min four people).

Deluxe Room rates from €121 per adult sharing. Rates for interconnecting rooms and villas are also available. Lisbon city breaks to Martinhal Chiado in September/October 2017 from €250 per night in a studio apartment. November 2017 from €200 per night.

Complimentary kids club until 10pm, breakfast and access to play area. Rates for larger apartments also available.See for more info.

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