Time flew quicker than we thought with our busy schedules and my partner, and I realized we hadn’t taken a vacation together in over a year. We wanted to remedy the situation, and both had an opening in late October to take five days off. It’s an ideal time to travel in Europe, but if you want to find beach weather, it’s tricky. We wanted to relax and hangout at a beach or pool with warm enough weather for bathing suits, flip flops, chaise lounges, and water that wasn’t too cold. After obsessively researching beach resorts in Greece, Spain, and Italy, the Algarve region in Portugal had the highest average daily temperatures (high 60s to low 70s Fahrenheit), plus more sunny days and less wind that period of the year than the other destinations.
Boasting a rugged coastline with dramatic cliffs, breathtaking beaches inside hidden coves, caves with sparkling azure water of the Atlantic Ocean, and an ideal climate of over 300 sunny days a year (more than California), one could easily understand our attraction to the area.
Like many appealing resort areas, it’s become a victim of its own success, paving the way to overdevelopment with thoughtlessly designed bland condos and inexpensive all-inclusive resorts attracting mass tourism. However, among the cookie cutter hotels and resorts and restaurants there are some hidden gems, and we scored big time by finding three of them.
From Paris it was an easy two and a half-hour flight, and we landed at Faro Airport, the main airport serving the Algarve. The rental car companies are on-site at the airport, conveniently located a few hundred feet away from the main terminal. Our first stop was the town of Portimao, about an hour drive from the airport, a straight shot on the A-22 AutoRoute, till you reach the town.
We began our getaway with four nights at the Relais & Chateau Bela Vista Hotel (www.hotelbelavista.net). Bela Vista means beautiful view in Portuguese, and how it got its name is obvious: the hotel is perched high on a bluff rising above the Praia de Rocha, an expansive beach bordered by a marina, dramatic high dunes, and the deep-blue Atlantic Ocean.
Although the hotel has the feel of a converted Victorian home from the early 1900s, the Bela Vista was actually built as a hotel in 1934 with 15 rooms. The former three-star hotel was bought by the Phoenix Hotel Management Group in 2011 and completely renovated, becoming a five-star property with 38 rooms, three junior suites, and one suite.
We loved the cheerful décor by Graca Viterbo, who has designed many luxury hotels throughout Portugal and Europe. She has done a fabulous job with the lobby, public rooms, bar, and restaurant by mixing classic Portuguese features such as the Azulejo tiles lining the walls and the carved dark-wood stairway, along with contemporary accents of black-and-white wide striped dining chairs and cherry-red dining club chairs with swooping arms. A fun touch was the decoupage grand piano in the lobby. The bar and lounge area was super-chic and cozy at the same time with sparkly tile work, fireplace, and carved-wood ceilings.
Viterbo’s lively but tasteful style continued to our Elegance Room decorated with dashes of cobalt blue and marigold yellow with a subtle border of mosaic tiles bordering our white-tufted head- board. The comfortable room over-looked the sea and beach and had a spacious bathroom.
One very important feature I look for in luxury hotels, beside the standard amenities such as high thread count sheets, upscale brand toiletries, bathrobes, free Wi-Fi, LCD TV, and in-room safe, is plug access. I give extra points to Bela Vista for having two outlets on each side of the bed, so my partner and I could easily plug in our electronics.
The pleasant and attentive young wait staff at breakfast were a delight, and the concierge and front-desk team went out of their way to make our stay enjoyable.
The day we arrived there was the threat of rain, so after we checked-in, we immediately walked down a long winding staircase to the beach. I missed going to the beach during the summer, so the grainy sand felt wonderful, and the ocean was surprisingly not too cold. It felt so go to unwind, and we could both feel the tension draining from our shoulders and necks, as we were mesmerized by the constant sound of the tide edging along the grandiose boulders.
After our relaxing foray to the beach and watching the magnificent sunset, we had dinner at the Vista restaurant in the hotel. João Oliveira, the newly appointed 28-year-old chef, trained at some of the best restaurants in Portugal, including the near-by two-Michelin-star Villa Joya. He dazzled and delighted us with his eclectic and bold pairings of traditional Portuguese cuisine with some unexpected twists, and we expect the restaurant to gain its own two Michelin stars very soon.
The hotel has a 4,000-square-foot L’Occitaine spa, with two treatment rooms just for couples, a sauna, hamam, and bare-bones workout room.
Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate to our liking and one day was overcast and the other a washout. The true comfort of the hotel was tested on the rainy day, as it was pouring so hard we stayed in all day, lazing in the room watching videos on the extraordinarily comfortable mattress and reading in the perfect chair in the cozy lobby living room with a fireplace.
The sun gods smiled upon us the last two days at Bela Vista, and we were in pure heaven, with temperatures in the low 70s with a comfortable breeze. We lounged by the pool surrounded by palm trees, switching between the cushy chaises and the ridiculously plush sunbeds.
We made lemonade out of our badweather lemons and on the overcast day we experienced a high point of our trip, a superb lunch at the Vila Joya Hotel (www.vilajoya.com) in Albufeira. Austrian-born Chef Dieter Koschina has achieved two monumental culinary distinctions: two Michelin stars and the only restaurant in Portugal to be included on the The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list by San Pellegrino.
We sat on the delightful terrace overlooking the manicured lawns of the hotel and the sea, and indulged in a five-course-tasting menu with matching wines. The first course was an eye-popping array of the most delicate amuse bouches, presented on beautiful oddly shaped ceramic plates and bowls. The following courses including ingredients such as Atlantic lobster, Alba truffle, local oysters, and black chicken with local mushrooms. For dessert, saffron, orange, and pistachio sorbet, were not only culinary works of art, but also an amazing mélange of tastes we hadn’t experienced before.
The wines were from various regions of Portugal, and the highly informed somme- lier gave us a detailed description of each wine, the area it was from, the grapes used, and how it related to the dish he paired it with.
The young wait staff were amiable and eager to please every whim of the clientele without being overly fussy. Chef Dieter Koschina well deserves all the rave reviews and awards he has received for his brilliant culinary artistry.
Instead of driving over an hour back to the airport from the Bela Vista for our early morning flight on our last day, we reserved a room 20 minutes from the airport at the Pousada Palacio de Estoi (www.pestana.com/en/hotel/pousadaestoi), a renovated 18th-century palace. We didn’t arrive till late in the day, as we wanted to have as much beach and pool time as possible at Bela Vista. After getting lost for about 45 minutes (I forgot to get a GPS with the rental car), we finally found the small village where the hotel was located. Although the photos on the website were intriguing, nothing had prepared us for the beauty and grandeur of the hotel.
Walking through the high–ceilinged rococo public rooms (the salons, lounges, and bar) it was a great mix of restored gold-gilded furniture and walls adorned with creamy pink marble insets with frescos of cheerful angels along side sleek black-leather Roche Bobois–style couches.
It was sunset and the golden light hitting the pink stucco palace was astonishing. I scurried back to the room lickety-split so I could capture these final moments before it got dark. The sunset reflecting on the pool was sensational, overlooking the village and mountains below. Strolling through the formal French-style manicured gardens on three levels, the elaborate tile and ironwork and the white-marble goddess statues dazzled us.
We had dinner in the contemporary dining room of the Viscount restaurant along side the open kitchen with the original stove, chimney, and hanging copper pots from the 19th century. Feasting on a local dish cataplana (a stew with pork tenderloin, clams, and sweet potato), we savored our last meal of the Algarve.
Our oversized room with a sprawling view of the valley below was ultra-modern minimalist, and much more spacious than our tiny Paris apartment bedroom. Rested, suntanned, and recharged, the Algarve fit the bill for our much-needed vacation.