After a few jam packed days in Lisbon, we were beach bound and looking forward to a bit of relaxation and the chance to travel and explore at a slower pace. The morning began with a repacking frenzy (I had packed lightly for all, why was this so tortuous!?), as I had been too tired after an amazing and late dinner date at Alma, (a less fussy take on Michelin dining and highly recommended), to tackle it the night before. Jon and I sent Karen and the girls off to breakfast while we went to pick up the rental car, the process of which is always the absolute worst. This experience was no exception. Despite the fact that we had booked the car months in advance and had everything in order, we still drove out of there two hours later pretty frustrated and eager to get on the road.
We were driving south to Sagres, in the Algarve and had planned to spend the day in Comporta on the way. The rental car debacle had us off to a late start, and so we wouldn’t have as much time to explore the area as I had hoped but were still excited by the prospect of a nice beach afternoon and late lunch on the water. We had randomly befriended a Portuguese man at JFK in the airport lounge, and he had shared his favorite beaches and lunch spots in Comporta which helped us narrow down where to go.
Driving in Portugal is pretty easy we discovered, much to Jon’s delight. We have had a few interesting European driving experiences including, but not limited to: multiple tickets in Florence due to not understanding road signs, being led awry in Tuscany by Google maps and ending up at a remote and crumbling Italian vineyard owned by a charming red -headed British family with a multitude of children instead of our hotel, and getting super lost in the Lasithi Plateau in Crete and literally ending up in the middle of a farm field. All in the name of adventure I would say, although Jon might say otherwise!
The journey from Lisbon to Comporta was a pleasant one, and the shorter route we took involved a ferry which was nice, to get a little break from the car and be on the water. The Alentejo area is very lovely, with snaking estuaries filled with birds, verdant rice paddies, and forests of uniquely shaped cork trees. Driving around was very scenic and enjoyable, and we were lucky to have had such a beautiful day.
I was excited about visiting Comporta and when planning this trip had wanted to stay there for a couple of days before heading south, but weekly minimums everywhere we wanted to stay put a damper on that plan. Still, I did find two fabulous hotels, Sublime Comporta and the sand-floored minimalist design dream Casa na Areia, and would love to go back and visit the area in the future and stay at either or! It has a very laid-back vibe conducive to lazy beach days and long lunches with a lot of wine. A last minute opening at Sublime Comporta had us considering some plan changes, but in the end we decided not to double book and to save it for next time.
We decided to spend the afternoon at Praia de Comporta and have lunch at Ilha do Arroz, right on the beach. Pêgu is another beach that was recommended to us and is also supposed to have a really great restaurant, Restaurante Sal, however they were closed Mondays so that was a no go.
Praia de Comporta is lovely and large expanse of white sand, which seemed hectic and crowded when we first pulled in however we quickly realized that if you paid 3 euro there were a ton of open parking spots. The beach wasn’t super crowded despite it being a beautiful August day, and we were able to rent chairs and got one of those little straw tiki type umbrellas that I love. The water was clear blue and cool but not unbearably so coming from New York, I’d say in that area it was about on par with our August temps give or take a couple of degrees.
We relaxed on the beach for a while and then walked up to Ilha do Arroz and had a fabulous late lunch of THE BEST rice dish, octopus, arroz balls, and Sangria. A very tired and cranky Isla finally napping through almost the entire lunch was an added bonus. I love this girl’s spirit and she is hilarious, but definitely trickier at two than the other girls had been and I really have to do some deep breathing sometimes. All in all, it was truly a magical afternoon, we were so happy watching the girls splash around in the sea and the views of the late afternoon sun glittering on the water from lunch were so dreamy. There is nothing like a golden hour, after all. We went down to the beach for one more swim and then packed it up and drove south, on one of the most beautiful roads through a forest filled with Cork trees, their unique shape reminiscent of a fairy tale forest. Although our visit was brief the region definitely left an impression and we look forward to going back and lingering at a slower pace.
A 2.5 hour highway drive followed, which began with Isla having a seriously major two year old break down and screaming for about 30 unbearable minutes, all the while none of my usual tricks worked (Lollipops!?) She stopped just as suddenly as she started and we spent the rest of the ride on eggshells to avoided unleashing the mini beast again. We finally pulled into Sagres around 8, and our hotel shortly after. Everyone was beyond exhausted from the long day and excited to get settled and relax for the evening, which we soon did.
Deciding where to stay in the Algarve was definitely one of my most in depth travel research projects to date. First up was choosing the area; as there are so many nice spots and amazing beaches, from Lagos to Faro and everything in between. In the end we decided what was most important to us: a shorter drive down from Lisbon, beautiful beaches, less crowds, and surfing; all of which led us Sagres, the western most part of the Algarve. Dubbed “The End of the World” (just like Montauk), Sagres has some jaw-dropping beaches itself and many other picturesque Praias within a short drive. The town is nice if somewhat sprawling, with a bohemian laid back surf-town vibe and some really great casual restaurants thrown in for good measure.
As for the hotel selection, we were going to be there for a full week so I wanted to find the perfect spot where we would be able to relax for this portion of the trip, which was sandwiched between packed city touring plans; and this meant catering to the kiddies. I found several beautiful hotels in the area which would have been perfect for a couples’ trip but didn’t have as much to offer the girls. When I came across Martinhal Sagres, and reasearched and read reviews I knew it was the right spot for this particular trip. Martinhal is a somewhat larger resort than we usually go for, but with 6 of us traveling and such full service catering to families it was worth the exception I thought.
Martinhal has three bedroom villas large enough to accommodate large families in one place, a beautiful beach, a few restaurants all catering to families (with extensive healthy kids menus), playgrounds, a kid center, and more.
The design of the hotel itself is pretty minimal and modern, and although certain of the more family oriented aspects were a little twee for me, all of the kiddie amenities made it possible to relax without having the kids need something more from us every second which can sometimes feel like the case both at hoe and on a trip. There’s something to be said for your kids self- entertaining for long stretches of time on a vacation! One thing I felt was missing from the hotel were golf carts for the villas/houses. While we had a lovely sea view of a secret little cove from our house, the actual walk down to the main beach, restaurants, and kids area took 10-15 mins when lugging kids and stuff. It would have been much easier to throw everything in a cart and zip around, although I might not have gotten quite as much exercise had that been the case!
The first full day in Sagres we decided to enjoy the Praia de Martinhal beach and hotel pool. The beach is really pretty, with crystal clear water which was significantly warmer than Comporta, and a perfect comfortable temp for swimming on a hot day. There was a mini wave, and Jon and I had such fun swimming really out far with the girls, and then after spending the afternoon cocktail in hand by the pool while they played and swam. I read all afternoon, which was a dream come true, and there was a perfect little baby pool for Luella and Isla to lounge in when they needed a break from swimming. That afternoon the kids also discovered the “town square” consisting of playground, bouncey castle, multiple harness trampoline situations, restaurants, and a fully packed market. The trampoline quickly became an obsession we had to visit every late afternoon after returning from whatever we had done that day. Even Isla loved it, and although she was technically too young they let her jump daily as well. That night we ate at the hotel’s seafood resturant As Duna, a pretty spot with a nice water view; and also a a playground, sand area, and trampoline for kids, set just below the restaurant in the hill where the girls happily played while we had a leisurely dinner. This dinner will always be remembered as one of the most relaxing I’ve had with all three girls to date!
The next day we decided check out one of the surf beaches, and headed early to Praia de Tonel, which was so beautiful and expansive at low tide, a wide swath of perfect sand surrounded by towering cliffs and rock formations jutting out of the beach. At ten a.m. we were almost the only people there, and it felt like we were on another planet. The waves were good but not huge, perfect for Sienna so we rented a couple of boards and she and Jon went out for a while while I took pictures and played with Lu and Isla in the tide pools. When Jon was ready for a break I went out with Sienna for a bit which was fun for sure, but also slightly discouraging for me because she’s a better surfer than I am!!
After a while the waves started picking up and got pretty large, too big for us ladies so we spent the afternoon exploring the huge beach and and watching the ton of surfers who had accumulated in the water. The tide came up almost imperceptibly and the beach literally shrank down to a sliver of what it had been that morning. We has some toasties from the beach shack and then headed back to the hotel for late afternoon pool time and a little siesta. I am in love with the photos from this day, all of the girls were so content and happy and the beach was the most beautiful backdrop I could have asked for.
That night Lu was so exhausted she never woke up from her aforementioned siesta, so Karen stayed back with her while Jon, Isla, Sienna, and I went to Mar a Vista, a casual family seafood restaurant near the water in Sagres which was really simple and amazing. Continuing my love affair with Portuguese rice dishes I had an octupus rice, while Sienna carried on her love of small clams and pasta, and Jon had his usual market fish type dish. They sat us in a table right up against a huge tank of spiny lobsters, crabs, and fish, and Isla was the most well behaved she had ever been at any restaurant meal to date. This restaurant is so good we went again later in the week, although unfortunately didn’t get the lobster table.
The next day we decided to drive west and slightly north into the more sparsely inhabited areas in search of a good surfing beach, which led us to Carrapateira and the fantasically colored Praia do Amado about 25 minutes later. This beach was another enormous strand of san but almost like two beaches in one with a huge light sand beach to one side, and emerald seaweed covered pink rocks and rust colored crumbling cliffs to the other. We set up a spot and quickly realized that the water would be crowded, as there were several surf schools operating from this beach and dozens of people in matching wetsuits were already stretching in lines on the sand. There are a couple of basic restaurants and bars at this beach, and surfboard and wetsuit rentals as well.
Jon, Sienna, and I spent a lot of time in the water despite the fact that the waves went from great to mushy pretty rapidly but still everyone had a few great rides (some of us with better form than others 🙂 I actually spent the longest in the water determined to get a little better ( a mission not really accomplished.) Meanwhile, Karen, Lu, and Islie did a lot of walking and exploring, checking out the tide pools and collecting shells and rocks. I would love on a future visit to head further north into the National Park areas, which I read are full of miles of completely empty beaches much of the time. Many of these beaches have no facilities, etc so you would definitely need to prepare provisions for a full day in the middle of nowhere! Sounds blissful, I know.