Faro, on the Portuguese Algarve, is just a short flight away, making it the perfect spot for 'beachending' - spending a weekend by the beach
Faro, capital of Portugal's Algarve, is a mere two and a half hours away. So we flew out for a long weekend of what became known as "beachending" when low-cost airline routes opened up European sunspots.
The intense May heat was cheering as we touched down in Faro. Barely 15 minutes later we drew up at Monte do Casal. Set in beautiful steeped landscaped gardens, the hotel reminded me of the legendary Marbella Club, with its colorful, cultivated sub-tropical gardens with bright splashes of deep pink bougainvillea, palm and almond trees. Set in a protected preservation area, this is the only private botanical garden in the Algarve.
Englishman Bill Hawkins (who trained in Claridges and the Savoy) came here from Bermuda 20 years ago in search of a coastal hotel. Put off by the high prices, he went inland, settling on a run-down 18th-century farmhouse. In those early days the generator would dictate what time guests retired to bed while a friend in England took telephone bookings (made from adverts placed in The Times and Daily Telegraph) and Bill would nip down to the nearby village of Estoi to collect messages.
Now, it is a well-run, relaxed, four-star country house hotel. The secret seems to involve much multi-tasking on the part of the staff, with the maître d' undiva-ish enough to take a late-night order for hot milk for our four-year old daughter, Maya.
The 18 rooms and suites are fairly simple but comfortable, with lots of smart yellow, blue and green striped fabrics, dark wood furniture and Molton Brown minis. Being picky, I would mark them down on two things: little plastic pots of UHT in the room (a jug of milk in the mini-bar fridge would be so much better) and shower curtains in the bathrooms. If there were 10 hotel commandments not to break, these would surely be the top two. In addition, there is a luxurious six-room villa with a waterfall suite, with an infinity pool and barbecue area set in its own gardens high above the hotel.
Newcastle United footballer Nicky Butt had left the day before after marrying here, bringing former Manchester United teammates Andrew Cole and Ryan Giggs. We admired his un-bling choice of venue (their comments in the book, "The Butts from Liverpool — thanks for a fantastic stay", echoed those of most other visitors) but the average guest is a well-off retired English couple (the Daily Mail comes promptly each afternoon).
Breakfasts were delightful, set out on the patio table in our large L-shaped garden. Coffee, the best, smoothest muesli ever tasted, served in tiny white ramekins, baskets of croissants, pains au chocolat, rolls, ham and cheese and varied fresh fruit — some days mango, others melon — and sweet freshly-squeezed orange juice. We sat in the sun feeling P-Diddyish in our white waffle robes and sunglasses.
There is a new Elemis spa, and a poolside massage was the perfect way to ease my knotted shoulders. It was an effort to leave the laidback charm of the hotel for a day trip in to Faro. The town isn't known for its beaches or charm — people tend to fly in then head straight out to one of the Algarve's many resorts. However, it's well worth a visit in its own right.
In fact, we liked it so much we returned the next day. The centre of Faro has the usual main square, pretty marina and café-packed old town within medieval walls. The beach, Praia de Faro, with miles of sweeping sand, is on the Ilha de Faro, 10km away. Buses run every half-hour from near the marina (opposite Hotel Eva, should you go).
After a slow walk, melting in the heat, we were rewarded by the large sweep of sand with clear blue but painfully cold ocean. We followed our noses to the smell of grilling sardines outside a beach café and for €25 ate salted sardines, new potatoes, bread, salad and ice creams, all washed down with local Sagres beer. We moved to the beach to let our food digest and lolled around people-watching, while Maya made sand angels and ran screaming in and out of the cold Atlantic water.
We returned to the town in search of dinner - and, after the usual holiday amble around various restaurant menus, settled on the Pastelar Versailles for gilt-head sea bream, potatoes and salad and grilled chicken and chips.
The next day followed pretty much the same blissful routine except we returned to the hotel for dinner, where we indulged (perhaps overindulged is more correct) in the five-course menu dégustation set on the veranda overlooking the romantically-lit botanical garden with lakes laden with koi carp and waterfalls. There is a lake you can swim in but the murky green is slightly off putting. The amuse-bouche of seafood Béarnaise wrapped in smoked salmon was pretty but salty, followed by chicken and tomato mousse, which was surprisingly lovely (if a bit salty), and then a smooth red pepper and cauliflower soup. Turbot fillet with prawns on spinach gave way to an orange and Grand Marnier sorbet. We managed fillet tournedos with rosti then had to admit defeat.
It was hard to return to real life after such a glorious trip, but with such a short (and low-cost) flight we are bound to return very soon.
Flights from Gatwick with Thomsonfly cost from £79 return. Sofitel Gatwick has Park & Fly packages from £159 per double per night (room only) with parking for up to nine days.