The Algarve region of Portugal attracts British and European holidaymakers by the plane-load, but although it’s a popular destination for tourists, the majority make their way to the lively resorts of Albufeira and Praia da Rocha and avoid the quieter areas of coastline. On our last trip we ventured in the opposite direction, heading just east of Faro to the lesser known fishing town of Olhao, curious to see what it had to offer instead. The area has that distinctive run-down European feel that you often get in underdeveloped towns; a mass of construction work in the background, dried ground where the sun has burnt away the remains of the grass, and old men with pipes and creased, tanned faces, whiling away the hours on dockside benches.
Our hotel for the short break was the Real Marina which sits on the water’s edge, overlooking the masses of yachts bobbing away quietly in the protected harbour in front of us. The hotel is very new. So new, in fact, that the trees planted out front are yet to grow. It’s actually two buildings; the main building forms the hotel, with the restaurants, bars, pool and spa facilities, and the building next door provides residence-style accommodation for travellers who prefer to go self-catering. The hotel appears a little out-of-the-way, but in fact it’s just a short walk into the centre of town where boutique shops abound, and a taxi ride to the hotel is thankfully quick.
It’s modernity does somewhat mask any traces of Portuguese life. The modern glass and marble decor is a far cry from the warm terracotta we’d normally expect from anywhere within a stone’s throw of the Mediterranean Sea. But what it lacks in traditional appeal, it more than makes up for in elegance and sophistication. We checked into a large corner suite that came with an enormous bed, two bathrooms, three showers and a sitting area with a sofa bed. It was tastefully decorated and well thought out. Outside, a long balcony wrapped itself around our room on the corner, and afforded us fantastic views across the marina towards the nature reserve beyond.
We tried the restaurant on the first evening, the Restaurante Do Real, and were so enamoured by the service and quality of the food, that we tried it every evening after that as well. Fresh seafood featured heavily, but that wasn’t surprising considering the market was just a five minute stroll away. The hotel pool is somewhat unusual – a balcony pool built over a car park – but while you’re lying back on a lounger and relaxing in the Portuguese sun, it’s easy to become oblivious to the comings and goings beneath you.
The Real Marina is indeed a superb hotel. If I’m being honest, we picked it entirely by accident, but for believers in serendipity, this certainly fits the criteria.
By: Fiona Galloway, Editor
Nestling on the sloping hillsides just north of Faro on the southern Portuguese coastline is a delightfully romantic hideaway that you’d have to look twice to notice. A stone’s throw from the Algarve’s popular tourist hotspots and bustling sandy beaches, the Monte Do Casal is a charming boutique hotel that offers a five star service with all the intimacy of a private European villa. Hidden behind a leafy driveway, and nuzzled into a fragrant olive grove, the traditional terracotta colors, warm woods and tiled interior give its winding passageways and random staircases a deserved Mediterranean feel.
Hotels that can truly be described as romantic are a fairly rare find. Offering spa facilities and a nice view, or tagging on the label ‘adult only’, is often the only standard that needs to be applied to a hotel description to attract an amorous couple or two, so it’s exciting to trip over an idyllic bolt-hole like the Monte Do Casal that really does earn the label.
The hotel is an intimate, converted villa dating back two hundred years, and with only 18 individually designed bedrooms, each with their own private terrace and stone-paved entranceway into the landscaped gardens, you could easily spend days here without bumping into other guests. It isn’t the sort of hotel to visit if you want 24hr room service or valet parking. There’s no waiter standing discreetly over your left shoulder as you lounge next to the pool, and reception closes at 6pm every evening. But frankly, being left alone is all part of its charm.
What you do get when you first step through the ivy clad entranceway to the Monte Do Casal, is a warm welcome and attentive service. It’s not often you visit a 5 star hotel that seats you in a plush, upholstered antique chair to book you in, presses a cold glass of Champagne into your hand and whisks your luggage discreetly up to your room before you even notice it’s gone. Evenings can be spent on your private terrace gazing into the perfectly clear starlit skies, and mornings here bring breakfast served on the same terrace with just a gentle knock at the door to announce it’s arrival.
Dining at the Monte Do Casal is another reason to visit, and in fact, it’s one of the reasons that its restaurant is often very busy at weekends. The world class menu offers a degustation tasting menu with tempting delights such as fresh fois gras, stuffed quail and mushroom risotto, and freshly picked mushroom specialities, with all the ingredients sourced from the local area. Fresh fish and seafood appears on the menu daily from the nearby market in Olhao, and the olives and oranges are picked on their own grounds. Even the house wine bears the Monte Do Casal label; the white has a beautiful citrus zing that perfectly complements the signature tempura prawn dish and leaves none of that lasting aftertaste.
Although this is a small hotel, it still offers the best of luxury services. The spa facilities are located in a small wooden outbuilding perched over the Koi carp-filled pond that is gently lit every evening. Staff can accommodate couples massages and other exotic treatments in the pagoda or in the comfort of guest suites if you prefer more privacy, and if you’re inclined to learn the art of massage yourself, they’ll even throw in a few lessons.
Monte Do Casal is a short taxi ride to Faro with its plethora of shops and dining experiences, and just further west lies Villamoura, the hedonistic marina town of the Algarve, often brimming with high-profile celebrities and rich sailing enthusiasts. The Ria Formosa National Park, an unusual collection of marshlands and islands that form a barrier to the sea beyond, is the ideal location to get lost in for a few hours, and boat trips or evening champagne cruises are a perfect addition to any romantic holiday. Adoring couples might consider a trip to the Ilha Deserta (Deserted Island) to indulge in a little quality time alone together before heading back to the Monte Do Casal hotel, one of the Algarve’s largely undiscovered gems.
The Monte Do Casal can be booked through the Small Luxury Hotels of the World website: http://www.slh.com/
Written by: Fiona Galloway, Editor
Our favourite spa retreats will be coming soon. In the meantime, why not visit our day spa section to read about the places we like the best.