Seeking shade – and ping-pong – on the shore at Martinhal

Words: Charlotte Philby
Images: Barney Beech

“Good luck!” the taxi driver calls over his shoulder as he deposits us at Gatwick airport. He’s right of course – travelling with small children requires not just luck but the patience of a saint and ideally valium. Such an ordeal in fact that some of my parent friends have given up holidaying altogether, in favour a quieter, less anxiety-inducing life. But what our cabbie didn’t know as he abandoned my husband and I, along with our 16-month old and four-year-old, at Departures, was that we were not just going on a family holiday – we were flying to Martinhal…

Now for those of you who are yet to hear whispers of this seemingly-mythical 5-star utopia in a relatively remote enclave of Southern Portugal, these words will not mean much. But for those of you who have… Well, exactly. To bring everyone up to speed, imagine the scene: you land at Faro airport after a somewhat taxing two and a half hour flight in which your husband was aggressively chatted up by an older lady named Jennifer while your youngest perfected his kickboxing skills against your pregnant belly, to find your driver, George, waiting with a huge smile. In the back of the people carrier that will drive you to your final destination, he switches on the DVD player, so the kids can loll in their seats mesmerised by Rio 2 while you wonder where the hell you are going, pitch-black outside as it is. Would you like a bottle of water, he asks? Should he connect your phone to the in-car wi-fi?

The view across one of four pools at Martinhal Beach Resort

An hour and a half later you enter Martinhal Beach Resort & Hotel, a sprawling oasis on the cusp of Sagres, in the Algarve. Comprising a mix of hotel rooms, villas and smaller – but no less beautiful – self-catering two and three-bed houses (some overlooking the ocean, others the gardens), the site opened in 2010, designed to blend with the national park within which the resort is set. Owned by Chitra and Roman Stern – a couple with four children – this spot is now as much a draw for families worldwide in search of the perfect escape as it has been for surfers, who have long-been drawn here for the waves. Designed in collaboration with Conran & Partners under the directorship of Matthew Wood, alongside a Portugese firm, the architecture is predominantly realised in wood and stone, and the interiors using local materials.

Standing on the edge of the ocean and a vast golden beach which, at this time of year is almost empty, it is difficult to imagine a more relaxing setting. As a parent to young children though, this is usually the moment at which you would remember that the days of relaxation are now a fading memory. But this is Martinhal. So whereas a number of hotels these days offer kids clubs and/or “family-friendly” facilities, Martinhal is built with as much emphasis on children as on adults, so that neither ever feels they are having to compromise. With three restaurants on-site and many more bars and cafes besides, every single one has a play area where designated hotel staff are on-hand to entertain and supervise your children while you enjoy your meal, or coffee or stiff G&T. Among the endless facilities there is a soft-play room, which you don’t have to sign up to – you just turn up and let your kids rip – four swimming pools, a games room with Xboxes, film screenings, board games, and anything else you can imagine that a young person might want, as well as huge bean-bags, ping-pong tables and playgrounds dotted here, there and everywhere across the site; our favourite of which is the play area with the trampoline overlooking the beach in front of As Dunas restaurant, which serves fresh fish every day.

Chilling out after a hard day's work at the kids club

With the friendliest staff imaginable, each of the restaurants at Martinhal has a carefully-created children’s menu as well as baby menus with food categorised for various weaning stages. Everywhere you go in the resort, which it is worth mentioning is not a “resort” as we know it, but more like an impossibly beautiful village covered in flora and fauna – much of which is indigenous to the area rather than crowbarred in for effect – there are toys and games and things to keep your little ones distracted at every turn. But for the ultimate child-free experience, there is also a fully-equipped kids club which is open every day. We visited off-season, which is without doubt the best time to go. Not just because it is markedly cheaper for accommodation and flights, but you practically have the place to yourselves, though with just enough other children around to keep your little ones entertained.

Our stay was in early March and the sun shone the whole time – peaking at º20 – giving us plenty of excuse for swimming and blissful strolls into the local village for a delicious seafood lunch overlooking the water. Plus at this time of year, the kids club is free and you don’t need to book (part indoors, part outdoors, the Raposinhos Kids Club caters for children aged 2 to 4, and the Fox Club for those 5 to 8). Which are probably the best words any holidaying parent can hear – especially when followed by the words “the spa”. While our little ones played on a pirate ship, were read endless stories, built block towers and were given presents at the kids club, we headed to the Finisterra spa; my husband road-testing the hot-tub while I opted for the mum-to-be massage. Now, I don’t mind telling you, I hate pregnancy massage. So much so that as I lay down on the bed preparing to have my toes awkwardly tickled and my ears stroked, I wanted to run away. But in the name of journalism I stayed, and was rewarded by the most incredible working-over of the calves and hands and neck and all those other muscles which become so inexplicably weary during pregnancy. I emerged reborn.

Set within a national park, the buildings were designed in collaboration with Conran & Partners

If, unlike us, you feel the urge to stray further than the nearest village, which is only a tiny one-horse town, you can hire bikes for the day with seats or a trailer for the kids, and head off on a number of routes. The Water Sports Centre on the beach in front of Martinhal rents out equipment for windsurfing and other water sports. The hotel will also happily arrange horse-riding or jeep safaris or boat trips, and much more. Without straying from the site, you can also do daily yoga classes and play tennis and PADEL (which, as far as I can gather, is somewhere between tennis and squash). Hiking in the area is also meant to be beautiful, and because this is Martinhal they have baby carriers you can borrow, should you wish to stretch your legs and take in the views with baby in tow. It is also worth nothing that the village shop is stocked with everything from Ella’s pouches to nappies as well as a bakery and grocers, so you needn’t panic if – as we did – you arrive having forgotten 97 per cent of what you need, despite having three bags between you for a four-night stay.

Food-wise, also, Martinhal is a winner. This time of year the Italian restaurant Os Gambozinos, which is apparently a favourite, isn’t open, so evening meals are generally taken at the O Terraco where the food is seriously delicious. I’d recommend having at least one meal here (the scallops and prawns starter, and duck main with risotto were both amazing) and then if you’re staying in a house as we were, you can cook in on other nights if you want to save cash. We had three courses for the four of us which, with my husband generously drinking-for-two, came to around €100. The breakfast, which is an all you can eat buffet – with eggs or pancakes prepared free of charge on request – is delicious, and served in the dining room overlooking the sea. So you can come to quietly while the kids wreak havoc in the adjoining playroom. Who wouldn’t drink to that?

Until 22 May, a four-night package including buffet breakfast, one 3-course meal per day, and complimentary kids club and creche costs from €952 for the family (two adults, one child up to 12 years and one child up to two years); martinhal.com

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