Portugal: Keeping it in the family

Martinhal, Portugal
Martinhal, Portugal
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Mark Woods finds a resort that finally lives up to its family-friendly billing by giving mums and dads something to look forward to as well as the children.

All of us know of phrases that once heard immediately make us feel somehow funny, out of kilter, uneasy.

“Check up” is one. I’ve never known of any procedure described as such that hasn’t either extracted copious amounts of cash or pain or more often both.

“Refer to instructions” is another.

And there are a few others where holidaying is concerned that I’ve tried to avoid at all costs until very recently – “all inclusive” and “family friendly”.

The former conjures up a picture of tepid, congealing all you can eat buffets, watered down with suspiciously labelled and dubious tasting spirits. And don’t try to venture further than the side of the swimming pool. If you do, all you’ll find is barbed wire-encased 10x4 slabs of beach where the order of the day is to avoid eye contact with the locals.

As for the latter, well it’s a nightmarish vision of a garishly coloured, wipe clean world made entirely of shiny plastic where crayons act as currency.

There’s nothing wrong with the supremely practical approach that restaurant chains like Giraffe take; fine dining with a teething 18-month-old is a tough ask – it’s just that I’ve never fancied spending 10 days trapped inside one.

Until recently though the choice for the holidaying family with infants and juniors in tow has been pretty clear cut – self-cater in a cottage, caravan or tent, otherwise sign up to a resort where the kids are undoubtedly king and any relaxation and pleasure you may glean is purely accidental.

There’s a place perched on Europe’s most southerly extremity however that’s managed to create the holy grail – a holiday destination that simultaneously caters in every way imaginable for its younger visitors while being a thoroughly grown-up and luxurious.

Its name is Martinhal and being less than a mile from the Portugese town of Sagres, it sits within a protected natural park which has the considerable claim to fame of being what all of Europe once thought of as the last stop before you sailed off the edge.

This beautiful resort, through adherence to a clear vision, thoughtful execution and real attention to the small things, has created something truly unique.

The brainchild of Chitra Stern, a former super high flyer in the world of business with a rich family heritage drawing from Chinese, Indian, British and now Portuguese cultures, Martinhal is the place she wanted to be able to take her family for holidays – but couldn’t find the right place.

So she built it.

As a mother of four, Chitra’s insight and experience – as opposed to what marketing men suppose families actually want from a holiday – can be felt everywhere. The basics are all covered of course, but it’s the way they are done and the refusal to let practicality come at the expense of style, luxury and subtlety that make this a very special place indeed.

You’d expect a crèche of some sorts for instance, but not three separate facilities staffed with engaged and highly qualified carers and kitted it to such a high standard that many a primary school head teacher would look on green-gilled.

Then there are the three restaurants, ranging from seafood and Italian to fine dining. The excellent locally sourced food you’d hope for and the presence of the odd supplement is understandable if you fancy picking out your own enormous lobster or chowing down on a prime bit a cow’s backside, but generally for what you pay all in, you eat extremely well indeed.

But again it’s the thoughtful touches that set this place apart. The owners have steadfastly refused to swap crisp white linen table cloths or quality crockery and glassware for cheaper, childproof versions.

This may sound inconsequential but as anyone with small children knows a night out is a thing of rare beauty indeed and Martinhal goes out of its way to make sure you feel like you are on holiday too, not merely chaperoning the little people – and hang the laundry bill or the odd smashed plate.

Each main eatery also has an area for children to play in when they inevitably become restless – which is a great idea in its own right but because Martinhal bother to staff each one with a trained nursery nurse too your nightly meal suddenly becomes a joy for all concerned.

The geography and geology of the site itself has also been carefully chosen, it seems. With a cooling breeze on tap, the rugged coastal beauty of the area has been steadfastly respected and Martinhal has been designed to feel like much more like a village than a monstrous tourism carbuncle at odds with all around it.

With its own market square, newspaper and regular shuttle to nearby Sagres there’s a real sense that the locals have accepted this newcomer into their midst gladly rather than begrudgingly.

Its arrival on the scene certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed in the tourism industry either; just two years after opening it picked up two prestigious World Travel Awards. One for Europe’s Leading Villa Resort and also Portugal’s Leading Family Resort.

And you can see why as soon as you walk into your apartment.

From the canvas shopping bags for beach kit and the gently rounded rather than sharp edged furniture to the cute collection of invaluable snack carrying Tupperware in the kitchen, absolutely everything is thought of.

Even the beautifully soft foliage along the walkways seems to have been chosen with smart, unobtrusive care so as not to do damage to delicate little faces or hands.

This is indeed a holiday destination which is both all-inclusive and family friendly – and this time I mean both of those phrases in the most complimentary way imaginable.