I’m on my way to the hottest European destination of 2017 and possibly of this generation. Everywhere you look someone is posting something about this country. If you’ve come across any of these posts or pictures of this brilliant and diverse country, you’ll agree with my next sentiment. There was no way I was going to let a year slip by without returning to Portugal. My first trip was a quick four day visit to the city of Lisbon and a few of those nights were spent in what I like to refer to as a dream; the town of Sintra. This town sits in the foothills of the Sintra Mountains and can best be described as a dream because it is exactly that. It’s made up of palaces and castles and summer homes of royal families that are quintessentially the backdrop of every fairytale.
As dreamy as that part of the country is, this time around, I was heading south to the Algarve. I had yet to explore or experience this part of Portugal and had heard only good things about it. People told me it was full of tourists and nothing more than a collection of beach towns. I think those folks only scratched the surface and saw what they wanted to see. This region is rich in history, gastronomy, warmth and captivating views. To call it a collection of beach towns would be considered nothing short of shortsighted. I even feel a little silly getting so excited about sharing it because it’s not new. It’s not at all a find that has been brought current to compete with other fun and sun destinations, and that’s exactly why I fell in love with it. It is authentic in its presentation of itself. The Algarve shares with you exactly what it is without need to boast or pretend it is something that it is not. Whitewashed fishing villages give way to unyielding cliffs that soften into ancient towns where vintage is the order of the day and has been for centuries. This southernmost region of Portugal whose central coast lies between the towns of Faro and Lagos but stretches from west of Tavira to the easternmost point in Sagres, with beat-skipping moments for your heart at almost every turn.
Starting off in the most obvious of places, the undeniably impressive coastline, I began to take in the grandeur of yet another of Portugal’s treasures and it was at that moment I realized that I was barely able to comprehend the humility of the Portuguese. With sea-views this captivating, the calling of the sea so inescapable, it is no wonder Portuguese explorers of the Elizabethan Era went off to discover so much of the new world. The riches they had at home though. Those, beyond what treasures they returned with, were what had me in a state of near bewilderment as to how the remained so humble. This is a great country! Couple that fact with its people being warm, welcoming and hospitable to travelers from all corners of the world and you’ve found an almost magical formula. I know it is getting its fair share of attention these days, but don’t be alarmed when I tell you, it’s been quite the hub of activity here on the Iberian Peninsula for centuries.
Today it seems more than venturing out and exploring new worlds, the world is coming to Portugal. The usual souvenirs are to be found everywhere, from cork to cocks perched on top of corks, to cans of sardines, yes sardines are oft times sold in gift shops here, they are that prevalent a part of the Portuguese society. Knowing this, I actually popped in for a visit to a museum dedicated to the hard work of preparing and canning sardines—The Museu de Portimão. This place is more interesting than you might expect. Be prepared to learn everything about how the process worked and you’ll gain a new understanding and appreciation for the next can of sardines you open.
Opening myself a little more to this area, I spent an afternoon in Lagos on Segway. I never knew how much fun people were having touring ties and towns on these things. I saw the entire town without breaking a sweat and far more quickly than I could have on foot. The “cobblestoned” streets, paved with Portuguese pavement and not cobble, was even more captivating from just a couple of feet above as I glided over the decorative stones on my machine for the day. I should have felt guilt not walking, after indulging in the cities famous marzipan cakes in the shape of a fish no less. Not only did I not feel guilty, but was driven immediately to Bela Vista hotel & Spa, a Relais & Chateaux property, where I gleefully had a four-hour lunch that consisted of nine courses. The food and service were both stellar and I can see why they are aiming for a Michelin Star this year. Lunch at the hotel’s restaurant, Vista was more than any culinary explorer could hope for and one I was most certainly not expecting. Life is good in the Algarve. After such a nice long lunch, with each course paired with wines, I did manage to squeeze in a little walking. I got to explore this intimate hotel. My favorite part is the original mansion from 1918, where I was spoiled for choice but the Junior Suite captured my imagination. This is a uniquely positioned and designed hotel, no two ways about that fact. Perched on the edge of a cliff with stately architecture and refined interiors, I could wander these grounds all afternoon and never get bored. I like looking out to sea from the lap of luxury and making up tales with friends. We pretend as though we are living in the previous century, but with all the current five-star services and amenities Bela Vista offers. Imagining scenarios about the sea is always fun, but now we have pools and our choice of either indoor and outdoor. Although its history surrounds you and being caught up in daydreams is easy, the luxurious reality here seems is well worth your attention.
After a while, I knew the time for me to explore and check-in to another hotel had come. It was time for me to head to Vila Vita Parc. The transportation took me from 1918 to present day in no time. This resort was sprawling and intriguing. It was home to Ocean, a 2 Michelin Star restaurant, only steps away from my suite. How appropriate is that for me? Although I had not intended to gastronomically gallivant my way through the Algarve, it seemed impossible to avoid excellent food and service. At Vila Vita, this proved to be exceptionally challenging. The 10 restaurants at the resort left little room for me to even think about leaving to grab something “different” to eat. They offer casual beachside dining, rustic Portuguese that leaves your mouth watering and even Japanese. The gastro experience here was far from an afterthought, it appears to be at the center of every guest’s stay. In addition to the meals, there’s a wine cave that I had the pleasure of dining in. Surrounded by over 11,000 bottles of wine, we had candles lit and a sommelier to provide us with expert knowledge of each wine we enjoyed. Our taste buds were quite at home here and barely wanted to wake up the next morning to head out for an extreme off-road Jeep safari adventure. Extremo Ambiente took us on the ride of a lifetime. We hit dirt roads and small villages, went through fields and climbed mountains. The journey was far more adrenaline-pumping than any old tour around town. I was happy I went but started to miss my suite back at Vila Vita, and a long warm bath before my next meal was in order. That Jeep safari left me a little dusty.
Over the next few days, I think the need for speed and adrenaline rushes somehow increased. Had Extremo Ambiente awakened something in me? I dare say they had. By the time we arrived at our next resort, Epic Sana Algarve, I’d concocted an itinerary for the next day that I hoped the concierge could pull off for me. I needed some action, so as soon as we were checked in, I sauntered over to the concierge and whispered my wishes in his ear and with a smile he said, “It will be my pleasure.” Those are really the only words I needed to hear. Knowing I had left my desires in very capable hands, we trotted off to discover the resort. From our suite’s balcony I could see the expansive lawns, the sea and a tree that stood out from all the rest. This tree appeared to have inorganic red and white things springing from its branches. Curiosity got the best of me and off we set to find said tree. When we found it, there they were, red and white wooden hearts with names and dates written on them. This was the Love Tree and we watched as a couple made themselves a part of it by getting their own heart and having it paced on a limb alongside all the other lover’s hearts. Everything here is somewhat epic, I must say. After seeing that we ended up at the trendy Bluum Bar. This was a great evening of laughs and sipping cocktails. Before returning to our room, we passed by the concierge who knew I wanted to keep tomorrow’s activities a secret, so he handed me a note that simply said all had been taken care of and to meet in the lobby at 10 am.
Tomorrow couldn’t come fast enough for me. Keeping secrets is not a strength, it’s more of a muscle I’ve neglected to exercise for some time. Somehow, I made it. Breakfast was a quick trip downstairs and then off we went. Even I couldn’t believe it when we reached the bootm of the hotel’s driveway just in time to see a helicopter arrive. It was ours. We hopped in and off we went to race cars on a professional track. Getting there was half the fun. As the helicopter buzzed the coast, we passed other hotels we visited and saw the expansive beaches and lighthouses below. This was more than an experience. This memory was going to last a lifetime. We landed on the track of Autódromo Internacional Algarve where adrenaline had already been pumping now to learn how to race actual racecars, no tracks, no gimmicks, just real racing techniques. What a day? Everything was perfectly executed and that is thanks in no small part to Epic Sana for arranging all the details. There’s no wonder as to why their name is Epic.
Coming down from that experience, after another lovely helicopter ride back to the hotel, was in order. We spent the next few days strolling through towns, shopping at markets, took a cooking class with Cataplana Algarve at Tertulia restaurant in the historic center of Faro. This trip had everything we could ask for. We love Portugal and adore the Portuguese hospitality and service. The authenticity and generosity of spirit makes Portugal a place I will always love and will never skip again. It is now a built-in part of every European trip we take. Thank you…obrigada.