Offering a combination of action-packed days of surfing, biking, hiking and diving and chilled-out evenings in beachside restaurants and luxury self-catering houses, Roisin Finlay finds a child-friendly holiday at Martinhal Sagres in the far reaches of Portugal’s Algarve for families that like to stay and play together.
I can see Sammy’s head bouncing in and out of view – appearing and disappearing against a backdrop of marram grass-covered sand dunes, a blue sky, and an even bluer sea. He has a big smile on his face.
We are sitting in the beachside As Dunas restaurant having lunch and he is happy out boinging on the trampoline by the beach, having spent half his lunch ogling the amazing fish and lobster tank, scoffed his food like the average 10-year-old and headed back, dragging his brother Tom (14) with him.
We still have sand on our feet and salt on our faces after our family surf lesson on the wilds of nearby Zavial beach with its rollers of white foam and rugged red cliffs guarding the pristine golden stretch of sand.
We are happy out too because we’re enjoying a delicious lunch of fried calamari in olive oil, garlic and piri-piri and grilled Costa Vicentina crayfish, and have a chance to chat and mellow out. We still have sand on our feet and salt on our faces after our family surf lesson on the wilds of nearby Zavial beach with its rollers of white foam and rugged red cliffs guarding the pristine golden stretch of sand.
Its popularity with local and visiting surfers is announced at the cluttered little car park where a motley collection of laid-back surfers sporting flip flops, toned bronzed bodies and bleached beach-washed hair rub shoulders with surf school wannabies like us, clumsily hauling our foam boards off Future Surfing’s jeep and down onto the vast uncrowded swathes of golden sand.
The lesson with David is a great success, with everyone getting to their feet, even if just for a few seconds. More importantly, even in March, the water is warm enough to enjoy for several hours in the water wearing a summer wetsuit without feeling chilly. David’s surfer-dude vibe goes down a treat with Sam and Tom and he makes a great fuss of them. He also keeps a careful and big brotherly eye on Sam who is understandably a bit nervous in the big waves. “David was really cool. I wish we knew him,” is Sam’s approving sum-up of the morning’s adventure before he legs it for more activity, leaving us to lazily enjoy coffee and dessert.
Sun kissed relaxation at Martinhal Sagres
I feel sun kissed and relaxed on this holiday to five-star family resort of Martinhal, just a two-minute drive from the small fishing village-turned surf Mecca of Sagres in the western Algarve. This is one of the most underdeveloped parts of this southern region of Portugal. Set within the Costa Vicentina Natural Park, on the wild, most southwesterly tip of Portugal it’s where Henry the Navigator reputedly founded his famous naval school. It feels a world apart from the bustle of destinations like Faro and Quinta do Lago with their golf courses and big estates of posh villas.
Even the weather here is more chilled than up the coast. Thanks to its location in the far southwest, a near constant breeze blows. In summer it’s a blessing, with temperatures seldom going above 28°C. In spring, deep blue skies are a welcome change from Ireland’s grey skies but you’d be wise to bring a jumper for beach sits and swims.
Their mission was to create a resort where the grown-ups didn’t have to sacrifice style, good food and comfort.
Martinhal resort was opened in 2010 by Roman and Chitra Stern, a Swiss-Singaporean couple who before the arrival of their four kids, had travelled a lot and loved smart hotels. So their mission was to create a resort where the grown-ups didn’t have to sacrifice style, good food and comfort – but by the same token, kids and their adults weren’t forced to deal with a stuffy environment where they weren’t allowed to run around with sandy feet and have fun.
And there is fun a plenty to be had for all ages – with little or no organisational hassle. For our surf lesson, for example, we book through reception and are picked up and dropped off there. And when we decide to go biking, we discover that there is a bike station on site run by Algarve-Cycling-Holidays. The gang here hires out quality mountain and road bikes, as well as child seats and kids’ trailers, with or without guides so it’s dead handy for any mums or dads who want to head off for a good spin.
And in the shoulder and off seasons, with an eye on a return visit, we make a mental note that the resort runs specialist bike weeks, sometimes with professional riders from Lotto-Soudal and BMC teams. These weeks would be a fantastic way of discovering the huge array of cycling options in the region like the ‘Ecovia do Litoral’, a series of cycle touring paths throughout the country which can bring you all the way from Cape St Vincent (in Sagres) to the Spanish border at Vila Real St Antonio. There are also specialist yoga, surf, hiking, mother and child fitness weeks, outside of summer season.
We stop here and there on coastal cliffs that that drop dramatically to beaches battered by the Atlantic. In places, it is surprisingly reminiscent of the coast of the West of Ireland.
On this occasion, we opt to head off for several hours on mountain bikes with our friendly guide Koen. He’s just ditched his corporate job in Belgium and moved here as he loves to cycle and surf. Riding on dirt roads and some narrow bumpy tracks, he takes us the four of us off across the empty grassy expanses of the national park which is a riot of colourful spring wildflowers. We stop here and there on coastal cliffs that that drop dramatically to beaches battered by the Atlantic. In places, it is surprisingly reminiscent of the coast of the West of Ireland.
My only disappointment is that Koen doesn’t know a huge amount about the local flora and fauna. Apparently, the park is home to many bird species, including rare fishing eagles and the white stork, which builds its nests in the seashore rocks.
But he is an excellent judge of the distance the two boys will be able to manage and delivers us back to Martinhal with just enough energy to test our skills on the onsite pumptrack – a looping trail system of banked bends and smooth dirt mounds which you try and complete without pedalling.
All pedalled out, we certainly appreciate the resort’s facilities and luxuries when we are back at base. The adults head for the relaxed Finisterra spa which is set in its own secluded grounds at the centre of the resort. It offers the usual array of treatments but we are happy to unwind with a sauna and a Jacuzzi. Proving that all things are child friendly in Martinhal (if you have deep enough pockets!), there are also treatments for every member of the family – from baby massages, children’s manicures, teenage facials, if you don’t mind, and relaxing foot massages for grandparents.
Happily our two lads prefer to hit the excellent playroom, which is free! It has pool, fussball, table tennis, Playstations and lots more besides. Outside the playroom are playground attractions like bungee trampolines. Overseen by seriously cool dreadlocked facilitator, a go costs €2 so they offer a nice more budget-conscious extra.
While our two don’t get involved in any of the kids’ clubs, there is a great selection on offer catering from six-monthers right up to 17-year-olds. Some activities are free and others like surf, windsurf, swimming, tennis, football and diving must be paid for.
A comfy bed for the night
As for the accommodation, the five-star resort is a small offering of true hotel rooms (37) alongside a larger village arrangement of 132 stylish, self-catering houses dotted through an exotic desert-like garden. Some have private pools while others have access to communal pools nearby. They range from two-bedroom Garden Houses to luxury villas with multiple bedrooms. All are a stroll down steps and through the gardens to a long sandy beach. There is also a small selection of larger villas.
What all of the village houses and hotel rooms have in common is designer furniture (by Michael Sodeau), crisp white linen, fluffy towels, daily chamber maid service, a spacious living area and dining room, and a kitchen equipped with everything you’ll need.
What all of the village houses and hotel rooms have in common is designer furniture (by Michael Sodeau), crisp white linen, fluffy towels, daily chamber maid service, a spacious living area and dining room, and a kitchen equipped with everything you’ll need for cooking in, as well as washing machine and tumble dryer should you feel the need to do laundry. And if you have a tot in tow, you can avail of the baby concierge service where baby equipment is ready for you like baby gates and barriers for beds. There is also a village shop for getting the basics. Unsurprisingly it’s a little bit pricey but eating at home is a really nice option for when kids (and adults) get tired of eating out.
Food, glorious food!
Before you get to that point though, you’ll also have access to no less than three resort restaurants – As Dunas, O Terraço, Os Gambozinos. All have excellent children’s menus, serving up good food and decent-sized teen portions instead of just chicken nuggets and chips. A laid-back atmosphere is guaranteed everywhere, with children and teens knocking around and smaller ones enjoying themselves in spacious, well-equipped kids’ corners filled with toys and supervised by a friendly member of staff.
The casual Os Gambozinos Italian was Tom and Sam’s favourite for dinners – particularly when they discovered that they could even order take away pizzas back to the house. Overlooking the sea and the dunes and serving great fresh seafood, O Terraço and As Dunas and were our preferred options. But perhaps the greatest all-round foodie hit was our daily indulgence in the huge buffet breakfast consumed looking out at blue skies and seas. Fresh fruit salads, poached eggs, delicious juices, and treats reserved only for holidays like chocolate cereals, donuts and croissants all went down the hatch as we debated what would be our activity of choice to burn it all off. Now that’s what I call a balanced diet and a perfect family holiday!
Martinhal: The Essential Information
Martinhal’s Sagres resort is located 1hr15mins from Faro airport. Aer Lingus flies from Dublin, Cork and Shannon to Faro and Ryanair fly there from Dublin, Knock, Cork, Kerry and Shannon.
Martinhal Sagres currently has a four-night ‘Extend your Summer’ offer. This includes B&B, one meal per day (three-course menu for lunch or dinner – drinks not included); use of all four pool areas and participation in certain free activities like family football, cinema organised by Leisure/Kids Club; complimentary Wifi throughout the resort. Staying in the hotel, it costs from €137 per adult per night (two adults + one under-12 and one under-2). In a two bedroom Village Garden Houses, it costs €190 per adult per night (two adults, two children 2-12 years and one under-two-year old in a cot.)
Martinhal has now also opened sister resorts in Cascais, near Lisbon and in Quinta do Lago (also on the Algarve). Both have lots of activities available, while the Quinta property is famous for its golf offering. A fourth Martinhal is due to open in Chiado in Lisbon City in September. All will have the same family-friendly ethos.