On a 26-hour bus ride between Kathmandu and India I sat beside a girl from New Zealand who kept me awake with tales of her exhaustive travels around the world. Portugal was next on her itinerary, and I quickly nodded off as she droned on and on about surf schools and port tastings and her plan to live in a hippie commune in the western Algarve. That was 1996.
Portugal wasn’t on my radar then and it hasn’t been on my radar since until inexplicably Lisbon became one of the coolest places in the world about three or four years back, and I was forced to have a rethink. This status was confirmed by our taxi driver as we sped along the motorway into Lisbon recently when he announced proudly that even Madonna had moved there. We were a little late to the party but it’s true, Lisbon has become hot!
As my backpacking days are well and truly behind me, and now I travel with my wife and 10-year-old son, I was persuaded that we should stay in the Martinhal hotel in the central Chiado district.
Martinhal caters for children and parents like no other hotel I’ve ever visited. They’re on a mission to ace your time in the city which isn’t too big a challenge when you share a street with Taberna Rua Das Flores, one of Lisbon’s best restaurants.
After two days of traversing Lisbon’s seven hills by foot, tuk tuk and tram the hotel packed us into a blacked out people carrier to whisk us, Madonna-style, to the hotel’s sister property up the coast in nearby Cascais.
Approaching Cascais our driver pointed out the summer house of Africa’s wealthiest woman, an oil baroness from Angola, who has turned the tables on her former coloniser by buying up large chunks of Portugal’s banking and media industries.
Cascais has attracted the rich and famous for centuries having once been the summer residence of the royal court and becoming home to many of the exiled royal families of Europe during the second World War due to Portugal’s neutrality. James Bond was apparently modelled on Duško Popov, a suave, Serbian double agent who infiltrated this influential war-time world, one shaken not stirred martini at a time.
Brilliant cocktail bar
Martinhal Cascais might not have been Popov’s first port of call for a martini given that the hotel at first glance is dotted with trampolines, snaking outdoor pools and state-of-the art playgrounds, but if he had ventured a little further a brilliant cocktail bar would have been unearthed too.
Within seconds of arriving the activities concierge (yes, such a person exists!) talked my son Dash and I into a 5km bike ride to Praia do Guincho, a beautiful and particularly windswept local beach famed for surfing.
My wife Christine had a date with a book and a quiet hotel room which she soon regretted after spying us on Instagram tucking into bowls of crispy calamari at Bar do Guincho, our new favourite beach bar. A couple of €5 caipirinhas (virgin in Dash’s case) put paid to our plans to surf and after a long laze on a beanbag we reluctantly pedalled back to our hotel.
It turns out that the peri peri chicken served at Nando’s restaurants across the globe is based on a recipe involving piri piri peppers from South Africa, which were brought to Portugal on spice ships from Angola and Mozambique, two of its former colonies.
Restaurant Somos um Regalo in Cascais claims to serve up the best version of this recipe in Portugal, and after polishing off a giant serve of their extra hot chicken that night we were all ready to follow Madonna and emigrate, if not to Lisbon then to this perfect little beach town.
Our whistle-stop tour of the Portuguese riviera carried on the next day with a taxi ride north past Cabo da Roca, the most westerly point in Europe, and onwards through green hills lined with windmills both ancient and modern. Ericeira flashed by: a sea of skaters, surfers and fish restaurants. Twenty minutes later we reached Santa Cruz and rounded the final bend to catch our first glimpse of Noah’s Surf House shimmering in all its industrial newness.
Noah's four storeys of glass, oxidised steel and raw wood climb up the side of a hill over the beach creating multiple decks and indoor/outdoor spaces housing the hotel's restaurant, bar, yoga room and surf shop. A total of 14 cabins are strewn across the incline equipped with outdoor showers, polished concrete balconies and upcycled furnishings. Wallpaper magazine would approve, your granny might wonder when washed up fishing net became such a coveted design feature.
Upcycled, hard surfaced heaven is one thing but the staff at Noah’s Surf House all welcomed us into the fold with smiles and genuine warmth. Before we had a chance to unpack we were plied with glasses of wine and led upstairs for their regular Friday night sing song on the roof.
Maybe it was the flowing rosé, or the perfect sunset over the Atlantic but it suddenly felt that we had found the best hotel in the world. Noah has somehow managed to distil the communal charm of staying with friends and blending this with all the five-star trappings of a bespoke hotel.
Night fell and dinner beckoned at Noah’s other restaurant down the hill on the beach. A giant fish on ice was carved up before us to return minutes later expertly charred. Line caught that morning from a kayak, the waitress explained that fish tastes better when it doesn’t struggle in a net and sit for hours in the sun. She was right.
A 7am surf lesson the next morning soon blew out the cobwebs but Diogo’s pledge to do a somersault on the beach if we nailed all his coaching tips failed to materialise. Surfing is hard but several sessions with Noah’s patient inhouse team finally yielded results. Each lesson began with yoga on the beach and finished with a mobile hot shower in the carpark – surfing in Ireland was never like this!
Back at the hotel we learned how to perfect our turns in the specially constructed skate bowl designed to mimic the shape of a wave. All this work was offset with long soaks in the hot tub overlooking the ocean.
The only problem with Noah’s Surf House is that you never really want to leave but after a day of yoga lessons, infinity pooling and brownie baking with the chef we decided it was time to explore Santa Cruz.
The town has an air of a 1950s postcard, with local Portuguese holiday makers strolling along the promenade feasting on ice creams. The outdoor café at Meu Supermarket served up 50 cent Portuguese custard tarts washed down with 75 cent coffees. Free entertainment was provided by a group of boys at the next table singing folk songs and playing guitars. It was a holiday highlight.
We walked the beach for miles passing groups of gossiping ladies and sleeping couples huddled behind windbreakers. Lone male nudists straddled towels at the furthest extremity and a wooden staircase provided an escape route to a cliff path which led back to the town.
That night a full moon lit our walk back along the beach to Do Pisao, another sublime fish restaurant dropped right on the sand. The waitresses talked us into ordering a whole seabass which was brought to the table by the head chef explaining where it was caught and how it was prepared. A local family at the next table commended our ordering, and explained the Portuguese reverence for fish.
Despite the enormity of the country’s tourist industry every single last person we encountered in Portugal treated us with genuine warmth. We became firm friends with barmen, taxi drivers and surf coaches. and all of them patiently answered my never-ending questions about the economy and the country’s ties to Brazil and Africa.
It seems I should have stayed awake and listened to my bus companion all those years ago in India. New Zealanders have an unerring eye for a great travel destination, and I’m only sad that it has taken me so long to visit.
Martinhal Chiado: A design-led aparthotel located right in the centre of Lisbon equipped with everything imaginable to make a family holiday relaxing and stress-free, including onsite kids club. Airport transfers provided.
Martinhal Cascais: A luxury family resort spread across acres of manicured gardens with indoor and outdoor pools, a spa and countless onsite activities. Some 30 minutes from Lisbon and minutes from the beach.
www.martinhal.com/cascaisNoah Surf House: The ultimate beachside bolthole with Instagrammable design touches featuring a surf school, skate park, yoga studio and the most welcoming staff. The barman also makes a mean cocktail. Some 50 minutes from Lisbon in charming Santa Cruz.
Aer Lingus flies daily to Lisbon from Dublin. Flights from €39.99. Lisbon airport is a 20-minute taxi ride from the city centre.