It’s breakfast time at the Vila Gale Hotel and I’m having a moment.
It began out of nothing, as these things often do, with a simple chance meeting in the lobby on my first morning. An athletic young blonde clutching a large bag of tennis racquets and wearing shorts that were a little on the small side asked me the time.
After a casual glance at my watch I gave her my very best smile and, desperately attempting to put on a casual air of relaxed professionalism, told her the time. She smiled back (I think), thanked me and was gone.
Still thinking about whether my smile was sincere enough, I wandered into the breakfast room and stopped. Actually, I think I stood motionless with my mouth slightly agape for a full minute because the room was filled with athletic young blondes all clutching large tennis bags. Sadly, this was not a fantasy come true, but merely a result of the Estoril Open being held at the Jamor Tennis complex nearby. Many of the female players were staying here including Shahar Peer, Israel’s top female tennis star, and breakfast time that whole week was not to be missed.
While I can’t vouch for such an experience occurring for you, there are plenty of other reasons for choosing to visit Estoril. Just down the coast from Lisbon, Estoril is often overlooked because of its nearness to Portugal’s capital. But what it lacks in visitors it more than makes up for in substance.
Basing yourself in Estoril, with its elegance, historic royal connections and lack of crowds is no bad thing. It was the hot place to be in the early 1900s when it was labelled “the Portuguese Riviera”.
The well-heeled flocked there to be seen promenading with royalty. You are close to some great beaches, at
least four stunning golf courses, some major sites of historic interest, all the night life you can possibly want in Cascais (just a five-minute cab ride away) and, you are within walking distance of possibly the biggest casino in Europe.
Its gardens alone stretch down to the sea, practically splitting the town in two. Dominating the centre of town, it is well worth a visit, but rather than blow all your cash on the tables, you might want to try the nightly show with dinner first, which comes in at a very reasonable price.
The town is set against the majestic backdrop of the UNESCO-protected Sintra-Cascais national park that almost surrounds it. The park’s spectacularly rugged scenery is home to a vast array of wild life and is a magnet for bird watchers. In fact, the whole Estoril coastline offers seemingly endless areas of dramatic scenery, culminating in the extraordinary town of Sintra, the end-of-summer getaway of the royals a century ago and now a World Heritage site.
Take time to explore Sintra’s three major sites, Quinta da Regaleira Palace with its tunnels, magical grottos, fountains and gothic architecture; the Moorish Castle offering outstanding views across the mountains and down to the Atlantic; and the Pena Palace and Park, which was the inspiration for the castle in Disney’s Magic Kingdom.
Back in town, Estoril’s Tamariz beach is a delight. You can stop a while in one of its many beach-front cafés, sipping a galao — a Portuguese latté — and admire the swathes of clean, golden sand backed by the Atlantic.
With Cascais so close you can dine there most nights, but there are a few excellent restaurants in Estoril to sample too.
In particular, Costa do Estoril next to the casino which has a wide choice of local fish dishes and a vegetarian speciality, a tasty bean and vegetable broth called “Mothers Soup”. For a more up-scale experience try the Four Seasons Grill at The Palacio Hotel a classic example of elegant, old-fashioned five star elegance.
Of course, fresh fish and Portugal go together like honey and bees, and this region in particular, is famous for Cascais sole, sea bass, sea bream and well over 100 different varieties of bacalhau which is dried cod. You’ll also find excellent examples of Portugal’s legendary egg-based confectionary, including the delightful Pasteis de Nata the little egg custard tarts that were born just up the road in Lisbon, and travesseiros, the thin puff-pastry cases filled with a mixture of sugar, egg, cinnamon and fresh Queijadas de Sintra cheese.
The historic area of Cascais has a distinct nautical air about it with its maze of cobbled streets leading down to the little harbour where the day’s fresh catch is still sold by local fishermen in the nearby square.
While in this part of town, don’t miss the magnificent 19th-century Seixas Palace overlooking the sea, or the Municipal Museum, so close to the water that waves often reach its steps.
For a light lunch, try the new restaurant/café in the charming Santa Marta lighthouse museum with its superb the Atlantic views.
On the modern side of Cascais, you will find a marina and serious shopping opportunities from small designer boutiques to a large shopping centre on the outskirts of town, as well as night life for every taste, from traditional fado to late-night clubbing, .
The Portuguese royal family clearly knew a thing or two when they chose Estoril as their summer retreat all those years ago. The temperate micro climate formed by the surrounding mountains, and the gardens and palaces are a clue to its glorious heritage.
And if you’ve already been to Lisbon but like the idea of going back to the area, try Estoril, you might not get treated like a royal any more but you will appreciate its regal qualities.
British Airways (www.britishairways.com), easyjet (www.easyjet.co.uk) and TAP (www.flytap.com) all fly to Lisbon from which it is an easy, . The Vila Gale Hotel (www.vilagale.pt; 00351 214 648 400) has double rooms from €90 (£79). Golf at Estoril Golf Club (www.palciosestorilhotel.com; 00351 214 6801); Penha Longa (www.penhalonga.com; 00351 219249011) and Belas Country Club (www.belasgolf.com ; 00351 21962 66 40). Further information from Estoril Tourist Information www.visiteestoril.com. Pick up the excellent guide to eating in the area at the tourist board’s a new office on the seafront.
The nearest synagogues are in Lisbon where there are two: