Our first look at Martinhal Beach Resort, dispelled any misconceptions we might have had that Portugal’s Algarve was a place of crowded beaches overhung with big-box hotels. Here at Europe’s most southwestern tip was a full-service beach resort designed to fit the landscape with two-story buildings set amid indigenous trees and grasses along the sloping shore. Below it was the crescent of golden sand nearly half a mile long.
The Atlantic Ocean rolls onto the beach in long lines of breakers, but Martinhal’s broad cove is protected even in the fury of a storm, by the long, tall headlands of Sagres and Cape St Vincent.
At the top of the closest one, which we could see from our room, perches the town of Sagres, where Prince Henry the Navigator gathered the top mapmakers, navigators and geographers of the Great Age of Discoveries. Here he planned and supported the explorations that would make Portugal one of the world’s great empires – and bring back the gold that still washes the interiors of the Algarve’s baroque churches.
During our five-night stay at Martinhal, we would visit the windswept promontory where Prince Henry welcomed sailors as they set out into unknown seas, and as they returned. The resort’s location makes it a perfect base for exploring both the southern and western coasts of the Algarve, but we would save that until after we’d sampled all the activities right here “at home.”
It was easy to settle in. Our Beach Room was in a series of small detached buildings only a few steps from the main hotel, where we checked in and which houses the glass-surrounded O Terraco restaurant. Inside our room was bright and spacious, and its solid wall of glass made the room seem to flow right into the landscaped grounds and beach below.
Local Portuguese materials were used for the custom-designed furniture, including native woods, stone and cork. Colors, too, seemed to fit the landscape, and a sea-blue throw accented the king-sized bed. All this design talk is fine, but how did it relate to our stay? The result was not only eye-pleasing but supremely comfortable.
The big closet contained a safe – the easiest one I have ever used – and plenty of hanging and drawer space, as well as soft robes. A bag with beach towels was waiting for us to carry to the beach. Along with the two armchairs chairs inside, we had two inviting lounge chairs on the balcony. They – and the sun – were hard to resist, and we often found ourselves drawn to the balcony to just enjoy our surroundings and the view.
A group of rocky islands broke the horizon, and later during a storm, we watched breakers pound into froth against them. But mostly the surf rolled onto the long beach gently enough to make the resort a favorite place for windsurfing, paddle boarding, kayaking and other water sports – which we enjoyed during our stay. One morning we took a kayak tour around the islands, discovering sea caves in their cliffs and watching fish in the crystal waters between them.
Everywhere in the resort – on the beach, at the swimming pools, in the restaurants, and especially in the “village square” we saw families having fun with their children – watching a juggler, building sand castles, bicycling, jumping in the waves – and the resort seemed especially welcoming and well-planned for families. But it was large enough and so well designed that couples who wanted privacy and quiet had plenty of places to find it. Even the beach had an air of cosseted seclusion: at one end little nooks for sun beds and lounge chairs were carved into the thick foliage surrounding it.
Especially serene was the Finisterra Spa, where a soft-spoken woman massaged away the damage the sun had done my face, with sea-based healing creams. Afterwards, as I lounged in my robe beside the Zen-like garden with my husband – who had just had the kinks from carrying a heavy camera bag massaged out of his neck – we both commented on how accessible this spa was, with a warm and welcoming atmosphere – the feeling was casual, but every detail was in place. We didn’t feel as though we needed a new wardrobe to enter.
While we were there we sampled all three restaurants. The first night we enjoyed the terrace of Os Gambozinos – although it was October, evenings were pleasant for al fresco dining – for Portuguese takes on Italian cuisine. At As Dunas we tried the local specialty, cataplana, a savory mix of local fish and shellfish. The chef had added each variety at just the right moment so it was cooked to perfection. At O Terraco we chose from a menu of stylish dishes that included carpaccio of octopus, ham of Iberian black pork, grilled lamb chops and wild boar. Staff in the restaurants, as throughout the entire resort, spoke English.
We’re not given to spending more than a couple of nights at a resort, nor are we exactly beach lovers, but we hated to leave Martinhal Beach Resort, and can easily envision returning for an even longer stay.