Alternative Algarve

Europe’s royalty favoured it, so did spies in the second World War

Europe's royalty favoured it, so did spies in the second World War. The resort of Estoril, just 30km from Lisbon, combines a beach holiday with a city break writes CIAN NIHILL

PERHAPS LESS widely known about than the Algarve, Estoril has been the destination of choice for European aristocracy ever since it became the Portuguese royal family’s summer residence in 1870. To this day it has retained an exclusive seaside holiday aura you won’t want to leave behind.

Whether taking a stroll along one of the many stunning coastline walkways or relaxing in a cafe on a quaint side street, it is almost impossible to imagine that Lisbon is less than 20km away and with it, all the hustle and bustle of a major European city.

With an infectiously relaxed atmosphere, a location so close to the Portuguese capital and an intriguing history all of its own, Estoril may be one of the best options when booking a break by the beach on the Iberian peninsula.

The striking first impression on arrival is of the raw beauty of the region. Bordered on one side by the Atlantic Ocean, a picturesque backdrop is provided by the Sintra Mountains to the north which also serve to shelter the area from extreme weather conditions.

If you arrive without spending that little bit extra on a room with a sea view, you will curse your frugality as it truly is spectacular, even at night when the coastal promenade is lit up.

The region, although small in size, was the last image of home the famous Portuguese navigators of the 15th and 16th centuries saw when leaving for various destinations around the world. To the west of Lisbon, Estoril stretches for 20km or so to Guincho beach which borders the Sintra region to the north. In its recent history, Estoril was the chosen place of exile for many of Europe’s aristocracy during the upheavals of the 20th century.

Then, due to its neutrality in the second World War, it became a major centre of espionage and inspired Ian Fleming's first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. The storyline was heavily influenced by the presence of the Estoril Casino, which is still Europe's largest.

The region’s main town is Cascais, a former fishing village which can feel a little bit too touristy at times due to its oversupply of shops selling souvenirs and beach gear, but it still remains truly beautiful.

Its small winding cobbled streets run uphill away from the beaches below and provide some shopping opportunities. With Lisbon on its doorstep,however, Cascais understandably does not offer too much retail-wise but does throw up some interesting finds, particularly wine shops, tucked away in various locations for those that take their time to peruse.

In reality, it is the atmosphere and architecture that provide the enjoyment rather than the products on the shelves. It is easy to find yourself just wandering aimlessly around Cascais – but enjoying the experience all the same.

Furthermore, the town has a plentiful supply of excellent cafes and restaurants, inside any of which it is easy to forget time altogether and spend the evening.

This carefree attitude symbolises the attraction of the entire region. It is not a place where you will want to have a packed agenda of things to do. Rather it is a place where it would be better to roughly plan something for the morning and evening and other than that put away your watch for the duration of your stay.

Instead, simply enjoy the beauty of the area for what it is and lose yourself in the labyrinth of streets streaming down to endless sandy beaches. Historical Cascais is particularly eye-catching with its many forts and residential buildings that once belonged to the aristocracy of old.

That shouldn’t leave the impression that there aren’t things to do in Estoril. It hosts many international water sport events and, along with providing a stretching coastline that has excellent natural conditions for surfers, the Marina of Cascais will delight those interested in sailing. There are countless top-rated golf courses, most a short distance from the town centre, and enough museums, monuments and old churches to keep your camera working hard.

The Estoril Casino is a multi-entertainment centre and can provide a change of scenery from the traditional region surrounding it. If you still need something a little bit extra, the train runs along the coast and will transfer you to the centre of Lisbon in 30 minutes. From there it is easy to link with the trams or metro that will take you all over the capital city where you have access to ample shopping and further tourist attractions.

AFTER WALKING around the laid-back Estoril during the day, the vibrancy of the nightlife in Cascais will come as a pleasant surprise. It seems impossible to go anywhere in Europe without a selection of Irish pubs and here is no different. But for those looking for a change, there is no shortage of choice for a place to enjoy a drink well into the evening. This includes several late night pub-nightclubs that stay open well past Irish closing times.

A natural inclination on arrival will be to want to explore the rugged mountains and coastline that expand from the centre of Cascais and a trip by bus or car along one of the winding routes does not disappoint.

Due to its history as the prime holiday location for the aristocracy of Portugal, the area is home to some fabulous old residences dotted intermittently around the streets and most notably overlooking the ocean.

Thankfully, any building that has taken place along the side of the mountains down to the beaches does not take away from the natural beauty of the region. It still emits a sense of being untouched due to the amazingly green landscape, which we were reliably informed is a result of the unique micro-climate created by the structure of the mountain. Whatever it is, it left much for the eye to enjoy.

ON THE SHORT journey north to the town of Sintra, while the driver is best advised to keep both eyes firmly fixed on the narrow roads, the fortunate passenger is given a chance to take in some breathtaking views looking back down on Cascais.

The most scenic route involves a 30-minute drive directly to Cabo da Roca where you are sure to find an Irish tourist or two pointing out to anyone who will listen that while this may be the most westerly point in continental Europe, it is not nearly west enough for the proud people of Kerry.

Regardless, after having enjoyed the rolling hills on the way up, the power of the waves crashing against the cliffs is a sight to behold as the full force of the Atlantic makes its presence felt.

The roadside is well populated with restaurants that specialise in seafood but will nearly always offer a meat and vegetarian option also. After taking in the views while eating your meal, you are left with only a short trip east to the town of Sintra.

Here you can enjoy the narrow, sloping streets that make you feel as if you have stumbled into a Harry Potter novel and are shopping on Diagon Alley. The town itself is a Unesco World Heritage site and is tucked away behind a national park offering many unique experiences.

A must-see while there is the National Palace of Pena where the colourful exteriors can only be described as similar to a 19th-century Disneyland from which the views stretch all the way to Lisbon on a clear day.

Although plentiful in landmarks and tourist attractions, the true appeal of the region lies in the fact that it is a place where you can spend an entire day around the towns, doing absolutely nothing and still have it feel like time well spent.

Whether you enjoy lounging on beaches or taking in historic architecture, the beautiful thing is that Estoril is close enough to Lisbon to realistically offer a change of pace within half an hour should you desire.

The slogan of Estoril tourism is “a place where you can feel a thousand sensations” but in fact only one truly describes it, and that is relaxation.

Go there

Aer Lingus ( flies to Lisbon from Dublin and Cork

Where to stay

Vila Galé Cascais. 80 Rua Frei Nicolau de Oliveira, Parque da Gandarinha, Cascais, 00-351-214-826-000, Very close to the marina, excellent views, nice rooms and a very good restaurant.

Estoril Eden. 209 Avenida Saboia, Monte Estoril, 00-351-214-667-600, Fantastic coastal views with self-catering rooms. Close to the train station for day trips into Lisbon.

Hotel Baía. Avenida Marginal 2754-509 Cascais, 00-351-214-831-033, Probably the best location possible in the centre of Cascais.

Hotel Palacio. Rua Particular, 2769-504, Estoril, 00-351-214-648-000, In the centre of Estoril and close to the casino if that is what attracted you to the region.

The Oitavos. Rua de Oitavos, Quinta da Marinha, Cascais, 00-351-214-860-020, A minimalist design, it is a beautiful and modern spa hotel located on a golf course.

Where to eat

Azenhas do Mar. 5 Avenida Comissao de Melhoramentos, Azenhas do Mar, Sintra, 00-351-219-280-739, If you want to enjoy your seafood with spectacular views then this glass-walled restaurant on a clifftop is for you.

Costa do Estoril. Avenida Amaral, Estoril, 00-351-214-681-817. A relaxed family restaurant. Try the fish soup and you won’t be disappointed you came.

Hemingway Bar. Marina Cascais, 00-351-916-224-452, A great cocktail bar, the food at the Hemingway Bar is excellent and the views across the marina at night are superb.

Palmtree Pub and Restaurant. 46 Largo Luís de Camões, 00-351-214-830-807, Palmtree is located right in the centre of Cascais and is the perfect place to eat if you plan on staying out on the town later that night.

Santini Gelati. 28 Avenida. Valbom, Cascais. 00-351-214-833-709. Granted it is just an ice cream shop, but it earned a spot on the list from the proud recommendations of all the locals as the best ice cream in Portugal.

Where to go

National Palace of Pena. Sintra, 00-351-219-105-340, Its rooms are so well furnished with private possessions from the time of the royalty that it is as if they only left on the morning of your tour.

Moorish Castle. Sintra, 00-351-219-237-300, A mark of the Islamic presence in the region and built between the 8th and 9th centuries.

Cabo da Roca. Described as “where the land ends and the sea begins”, Cabo da Roca offers spectacular views out onto a powerful and endless Atlantic Ocean.

Paula Rego Story House. Avenida da Republica, 00-351-214-826-970. Specially designed to house the work of Portuguese artist Paula Rego.

Count Castro Guimaraes House. Avenida Rei Humberto II de Italia, Cascais, 00-351-214-815-304. An impressive museum in a beautiful location. Originally a palace commissioned in 1900 by George O’Neill, who claimed to be a descendant of the old kings of Ireland.