This was my first visit to the Algarve and my initial impression lingered for the whole of my stay: that the Algarve is abroad for people who’d rather not be abroad.
They go because they want the sun — not because they’re interested in exploring another country’s culture.
And that’s absolutely fine in the Algarve: there’s sun, sea, sand and golf (of which more later) but you can eat familiar food and have your Daily Mail delivered to your room in the morning. It’s even in the same time zone as the UK.
The Algarve is on the south coast of Portugal — as if it matters. Like the Costa Del Sol and the Cote D’Azur, it’s a holiday destination that transcends country and it has far more in common with the Costa and the Cote than it has with anywhere else in Portugal — especially in the interior.
It even has a different economy from the rest of Portugal (the poorest country in Western Europe) which is why the restaurants are so surprisingly expensive — even after taking into account the perniciously inexplicable exchange rate.
Still, the Algarve delivers on its promise of sunny holidays uncomplicated and untainted by anything foreign. After a couple of days, you even dispense with your one word of Portuguese (Obrigado) and say “thank you” instead. You say “hello” to your fellow guest assuming that they’re British — and usually you’re right. Roll on global warming and we can dispense with the place altogether.
But not yet, and if you want guaranteed sunshine from March to October, there are worse places to go.
We stayed at two five-star properties: the Vila Vita Parc and the Quinta do Lago Hotel. The Vila Vita was reminiscent of the Forte Village in Sardinia. Hectares of beautifully tended grounds with lots of swimming-pools and restaurants dotted around. There’s beach access via a steep coastal path and for the three days we were there, we were more than happy to remain on site and use the facilities which included tennis, a pitch-and-putt course and a well-equipped spa. The management even put on a free cocktail party but the only other British people there were a couple of frightful snobs (“we don’t like the socialists” I overheard one of them saying to a German: well, nor do I but I’d be mortified to find myself saying it — and especially to a German).
The Vila Vita is aesthetically pleasing: traditional blue and white tiles soften the dark wooden decor and the whole place feels like a pretty village set in undulating tropical gardens peppered with lakes, streams, hillocks and shady dells.
Up by the swimming pools are bars where you can order snacks and drinks at not unreasonable prices (bearing in mind that’s it’s a five-star hotel) and if the weather fails, there’s a large indoor pool as well as a well-stocked library.
As recent empty nesters, we were a little alarmed to see so many families with young children but the resort is big enough to accommodate all types and there are plenty of nooks and crannies that are off-limits to kids. We were assured by all the parents we spoke to — most of them repeat guests — that the children’s facilities are absolutely top-notch.
We were given a standard bedroom which was large, airy and beautifully decorated in blues and yellows.
Our only complaint about the bedroom and, indeed, the whole hotel was the bed itself. I like a hard mattress but this was uncomfortably hard and it led to three disturbed nights.
By contrast, the bed in our equally well-appointed room at the Quinta do Lago hotel, was the third most comfortable I’ve slept in (I keep score; the two superior to it are at The Four Seasons Hong Kong and Lucknam Park near Bath).
The hotel itself suffered by comparison with the Vila Vita. Whereas the VV was developed out of an existing property and extended sympathetically, the Quinta do Lago was built some 20 years ago as a five-star hotel.
True, it has all the plushness and facilities you’d expect from that many stars but it feels a little sterile and corporate: as if it could be taken over by Marriott or Crowne Plaza with little need for rebranding.
Perhaps I’m being unfair as the hotel isn’t really intended for me. Its pitch — punnily enough — is that it’s one of the greatest golf hotels in the world. And it probably is — which is why it’s not for me.
Whatever else it lacks — history, culture, vibrancy — the Algarve has plenty of golf courses and Quinta do Lago is slap bang in the middle of a dozen of the finest.
Groups of British couples descend on the resort so that the men can play golf all day while their wives sunbathe by the pool or have a facial at the spa.
In the evening, there’s the après-golf in which the players relive their triumphs and tragedies while the rest of us close our ears and wish we had a mashie niblick around our persons.
I play enough golf to understand the appeal of a golfing holiday, but not enough to justify paying green fees of anything up to £150 a round (and that’s after the hotel’s carefully negotiated discounts).
Not having a car mattered a lot more at Quinta than it did at the Vila Vita. Although the resort is massive, the hotel and its grounds are relatively small. There was only one outdoor pool and, while we were there, only one restaurant open and, even then, not till 7.30.
The food, however, was fabulous — I particularly enjoyed a traditional Portuguese fish stew — but very expensive at over £100 for two without wine.
The good thing about our immobility was that it obliged us to walk and we very much enjoyed exploring the Ria Formosa National Park which borders the hotel’s boundaries.
There were unusual plants and a wide variety of birds with different shaped beaks, like the Kentish plover feasting on what seemed like unlimited fish at low tide. After watching their feasting, we walked through scrubland to look at the saltmarshes and muddy flats crawling with crabs at low tide.
There’s a huge wooden bridge across the wetlands that gives access to a beautiful, unspoiled sandy beach. Like all Portuguese beaches, it’s not private but the hotel has an arrangement with a beach restaurant whereby sunbeds, parasols and towels are provided free of charge. In high season they also offer free mineral water and fruit.
Similarly, in the bedroom, every day, we were given a free bottle of mineral water and a teatime treat — like dried figs stuffed with almonds. Nice touches in a hotel that otherwise seems to charge guests at every available opportunity.
Quinta do Lago is a fine hotel in a beautiful setting but it doesn’t feel Portuguese. It could be anywhere and so could you. But when the sun is shining and you discover that it’s bucketing down at home, even the most tame “abroad” is a pretty good place to be.
Hotel Quinta Do Lago, bookable through Leading Hotels of the World (00800 2888 8882; www.lhw.com). Stays at Hotel Quinta do Lago, Algarve from €230 (£229) per room per night based on two sharing a golf-side room with sea-view, with breakfast. Vila Vita Parc, bookable through Leading Hotels of the World, as before. Stays from €190 (£189) per room per night based on two sharing a garden view room, with buffet breakfast