The Unspoiled Algarve
The UK’s Indian summer is over… but the sun is still shining in the Algarve and low-cost airlines fly out every day. Forget the high-rise reputation too. Head just a little way from the main resorts and there’s 150km of coast, including 74 Blue Flag beaches, protected nature reserves, jeep tours, watersports and the only two restaurants in Portugal to be awarded two Michelin stars.
To gauge how family-friendly a five-star resort really is, I recommend your one-year-old having a full-blown teething-induced meltdown at lunch. Or having endured it myself, I wouldn’t actually recommend it but it’s an unbeatable test.
In this perfect world, no-one even blinks while a member of staff helps pacify your daughter, whisks her over to the restaurant’s play area and restores smiles with a variety of toys as you return shakily to your mojito.
The name of this dream destination, incidentally, is Martinhal Beach Resort and Hotel, in Sagres, Portugal’s far south-west corner. Set around a ‘town square’, with a surf-style beach bar, shops and kids’ clubs for six months plus, the resort also has its own stretch of beach, several pools and a spa.
Decorated using traditional Portuguese materials, the villas are cleverly designed to make the most of their surroundings – the Ocean and Bay versions are built upside down, for example, so the living area gets the best views.
It’s all about the beaches here – there’s plenty with bars, umbrellas and watersports (from kite-surfing to funboats, pedalos topped with plastic slides) but I stumbled across a few hidden coves, like Praia do Lourenco near Gale, which I shared with just one fisherman. Underwater, they’re sinking four ships to create the world’s largest artificial reef off Portimao.
Or head inland to Silves, a sleepy town that was once the area’s capital. It’s home to a Moorish castle dating back to the 8th century (with a café serving cocktails inside the fortress) and similarly ancient cathedral.
With so much coast to plunder, there’s a huge choice of seafood. But it doesn’t get much fresher than As Dunas – one of Martinhal’s restaurants – where lobsters and crabs gaze rather balefully out from a tank (unsurprising, given their final destination). The inventive kids’ and babies’ menus got the seal of approval from our friends’ discerning two-year-old daughter, so they must have been good.
If you don’t fancy fish, the Algarve is also the home of piri piri chicken, reputedly invented at Ramires restaurant in the village of Guia, near Albufeira, not in fact by Nandos. True or not, they do it well enough to entice the locals along with tourists.
But if you only book a babysitter for one night, make it Ocean at Vila Vita Parc in Porches, which picked up two well-deserved Michelin stars in 2011. Easily the best meal of my life – even the butter was so good I’m still raving about it, while the beautifully presented tasting menu equals gourmet heaven.
Getting there: At least 10 airlines fly direct to Faro from the UK, although some routes are summer only. Local hire car company AutoRent has rates from around £65 per week, plus £2.50 per day for child seats.
Sagres is 90 minutes from Faro Airport by toll road, around two hours using other routes. Your hire company needs to activate a dashboard transponder for the toll, as there are no roadside booths.
Where to stay: Martinhal Beach Resort & Hotel in Quinta do Martinhal, Sagres. A week costs from around £950 (€1,120) for the Active Winter package, half board for a family of four in a partial sea view room in the winter season.