I’d never been to Portugal out of season. As I made my way to the gate at Gatwick I became aware that, bar the cabin crew, I was aware I was possibly the youngest person on the flight. As we made our descent into Faro, I had a lovely chat with the lady sitting next to me who pointed out the salt beds, orange trees and glistening solar panels which dotted the landscape. Pretty as it might seem, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was joining a Saga holiday. This is not to denigrate that venerable institution but, as a mum on a rare break from her young daughters, I sought adventure, stimulation, a grasp of the high life. It came soon enough as I took my transfer to the first hotel of my stay, Vila Vita Parc.
Located in the Porches parish, about 10km from the city of Lagoa, Vila Vita is a sprawling estate of beautiful white painted buildings and elegant lawns. Perfectly maintained paths, lamp lit by night, and great numbers of palm trees, are the result of having a 30-strong fleet of gardening staff. The extensive grounds, some 50 hectares, necessitate the golf buggies which you can call upon to transport you around the site. There are a variety of rooms, suites and villas to choose from, all decorated and bedecked to the high standard you’d expect from a five star hotel, listed in the Leading Hotels of the World directory. My room in the Residence building had a view out to the beach, just a short walk away, and it was a pleasure to settle in with a tasting session of white port in the hotel’s wine cellar.
Our adventures began in earnest the next morning, with the coastline at Ponta Da Piedade, oft considered the Algarve’s best natural feature. Had the weather been better we would have taken a boat trip amongst the arches, coves and grottos but I was happy to content myself with photos and admiring the beautiful views from the cliff tops instead rather than risk a choppy boat situation.
Next we headed north to Lagos for a guided tour by – of all things – Segway. It took all of about five minutes to become confident (though not necessarily competent) on the wheely device and we then sped about the town taking in such highlights as the Moorish city walls surrounding the town centre, the stunning, gold bedecked Santo António church and museum, the town square with its beautiful historic buildings and the pretty harbour front. Needless to say, heads were turned by 15 of us chasing around on the Segways but the fun far outweighed the gawping. I could get used to being so lazy, though maybe not on busy London streets.
Our next port of call was the Museu de Portimao, an old cannery transformed in 2008 into a museum documenting the area’s history of sardine fishing and canning. There is an excellent video documentary (complete with English subtitles) to give context to the exhibits and you are taken through the process from fishing to canning, an industry which used to be so vital to the area. Even today, there is an annual Sardine Festival in Portimao held in August. The museum is very popular, oft considered one of the best public museums in Europe and with increasing visitor numbers year on year.
The hectic morning had given way to a decent appetite, which was to be more than sated by an epic dining experience at Bela Vista hotel and spa, a beautiful boutique property, transformed from a stunning mansion house dating back to 1918, sitting just above Praia da Roche. The tasting menu and accompanying wines took several hours to get through, though believe me, this was no hardship. Dish after delicious dish was brought out to top the last, with a crispy belly, egg, mushroom, spinach and San Jorge cheese dish being a personal favourite. As spectacular as the meal was, I couldn’t take my eyes off the interior design. Sneaking off for a short tour to work off the meal, I found something in every room I couldn’t help but take a photo of. British reserve and tourist inhibitions went out the window – well, that Segway tour put paid to that – and out came my camera. Besides, I needed some ideas for my home interiors.
Not to be outdone on the hospitality stakes, barely three hours after that ten course feast we were sitting down to eat again, this time at Vila Vita Parc’s own double Michelin-starred eatery, the aptly named Ocean Restaurant. A whole spectrum of delicious seafood was presented in varying innovative styles thanks to Austrian Executive Chef Hans Neuner. I surprised myself by trying, and very much enjoying, sea snails for the first time.
The culture box ticked, the next day we were in for some adventure courtesy of Extremo Ambiente and a four-wheel drive off-road jeep tour through forested hills and pretty villages, as well as affording us beautiful views across the valley. It gave us a chance to see the other industry the region is famous for: cork. Trees, stripped of sections of bark, are marked with a number to show which year they cut, so that they can then be left for another 9 years before being harvested again. Fittingly, we dropped in on the Algarve’s famous Novacortiça cork factory where we were shown how corks are made with a tour through the machinery. Needless to say there’s far more to it than shaping a simple stopper in your wine bottle. And I came away staggered to learn that this small region in southern produces more than half the cork in the world at over 100,000 tonnes.
It was time for us to head to the second hotel of our visit, the Epic Sana at Praia de Falésia. Whilst Vila Vita Parc embodies a classical style, Epic Sana offers guests a more contemporary aesthetic, with brightly coloured soft furnishings and wallpapers. In my guest room, the walls of the lime green tiled bathroom slid back to open the room up, giving me the enviable opportunity of watching TV from the comfort of the bath. Outside, beyond the pristine swimming pools surrounded by sun loungers, there’s a ‘love tree’ with hearts hanging from the branches with the names of couples written on them. It’s a really lovely sight, especially at dusk when it’s lit with fairy lights. Nearby, a path takes you directly down to the beach. The grounds are stunning. This is definitely a venue on my “must revisit” list.
The next day was amazing from the get-go. After breakfast we were picked up by helicopter (naturally) and flown along the stunning scenic coastline, taking in the lighthouse at the Ponta da Piedade, before landing at the magnificent Algarve International Circuit race track in Portimåo, for the Autodromo racing school. The adrenalin levels were high even from the safety briefing, followed by the preparatory exercises we were coached through.
After lunch we donned hairnets and helmets and were taken for an extremely fast and thrilling lap around the circuit with a professional driver, before our new found “skills” were put to the test. I absolutely loved every second, being a bit heavy on the accelerator personally, and I can’t pretend not to have been thrilled to have driven the second fastest lap, losing out only to our infinitely patient and helpful guide from the Algarve Tourist Board, Hugo. A perfectly bearable defeat.
It was hard to tear myself away, but apparently we had one more surprise left in store and were taken, this time by car, to Zoomarine, a (yes, you guessed it) marine park with dolphin shows, an aquarium and an artificial beach with water slides. After watching an impressive dolphin show, we were treated to the Dolphin Emotions package; a chance to interact and swim with these wonderful creatures after an educational component.
Compulsory wetsuits aside, this was a really privileged experience. The bottlenose dolphins are as intelligent as you’ve heard and under the guidance of our instructors, we were able to stroke them and were then either propelled by our feet courtesy of their noses, or able to hold their fins as they swam. Afterwards we were given a tour by Diogo Rojåo, head of communications who explained that Zoomarine’s basic principles are education, science, conservation and entertainment. The park includes an animal rescue centre, artificial beach, rides and water slides. For the first time in four days I really missed my children not being with me (sorry kids) as I knew they would have adored Zoomarine. Another one for the wishlist!
That evening we dined (have I mentioned that I was very well fed on this trip?) at Veneza in Garrafeira where a fine Fado performance captivated us before we launched into another delicious meal. All the calories were, I can confirm, totally worth it.
By the time I caught my return flight I felt further than ever from my initial notion of Portugal being solely a Saga holiday destination, since we seemed to have cleverly covered activities for all the demographics. While less a respite for a working mum, our schedule incorporated the best the region had to offer and made me very keen to return with the whole family.
Well, a change is as good as a rest, as they say.
Kerry flew to Faro from Gatwick with Monarch. For details of flights and prices, and to book, visit www.monarch.co.uk.
For more information about the Algarve, including what to see and do, visit the Algarve Tourism Bureau’s official website. And, of course, for details about Segway Tours in the Algarve, visit www.arlgarvebysegway.com.