Fore site: Claudia Winkleman gets active in Portugal's Penha Longa resort
Saturday 04 July 2009
'I think we should go away and do something different and I think it should include some sort of sport," said my husband one morning. I know. I know. Different? Sport? Has he met me?
After I persuaded him that it was a little too soon to start teaching our two-year-old how to surf and that I would be absolutely no fun on a camping and kayaking week (these holidays exist, I'm not making it up), we settled on a golf resort near Sintra in Portugal.
It's only a short flight and the weather's really good there in early summer, when we travelled. Well, let me re-phrase that. It's usually really good. You've got to feel bad for a big pink hotel that is awash with outside space – endless terraces, an outdoor pool, horses to ride, tennis courts to play on, woods and fields to explore and a championship golf course – when it's also awash with rain.
We had packed only bottles of sunscreen and sundresses and sunglasses and sandals and just as we arrived Portugal decided to throw off its predictable good-weather image. It poured.
I'll be honest. I considered going back to the airport and trying to get us on the surfing holiday in Cornwall where it was freakishly sunny. But that would have been insane and really, our daughter is just too little to get on a board. So we unpacked and settled in.
The Penha Longa is vast. It's not just big. The lobby alone is the size of Luton. It's all set amid a properly beautiful landscape; there are mountains and trees and the views are breathtaking. It's also divided into sections. The main hotel with the guest rooms is pink, just off it there's a yellow spa (later in our stay, I cried when they told me my massage was over) and there's also an old monastery just next to the main house. There are courtyards with small fountains and gorgeous vegetable gardens. There are stables and a whole tennis club.
Basically, it's big. If you came here with people you didn't want to see all the time then the Penha Longa is the place for you. One of you could be looking at the fresh lemons being picked off the trees while someone was in the pool and someone else could be playing golf. You'd all be about a mile away from each other.
The rooms are great. Just as the hotel is big, so are the bedrooms. Most are designed so that whole walls are made of glass, which means you have great views all the time.
Anyway, back to the weather. "What are we going to do on a golf holiday in the rain?" I wailed and slumped on the bed. I looked at the children, all hopeful, carrying buckets and spades and asking if they could swim or just go outside. "We can't," I told them. "It's wetter than Bournemouth in February."
To be frank, they didn't know what I was talking about. But when I had to make sort of shawl cardigans out of cushion covers so they didn't get cold, they got the picture.
Happily for all concerned I didn't stay livid for long. Turns out the Penha Longa golf resort is set in a microclimate. The nice man who had picked us up from the airport called to tell us: "Do not panic, it will get sunnier. In the meantime can I interest you in the indoor heated pool and the kid's club and maybe an afternoon movie? Have you had a chance to look at the TV menu yet?"
People, things were looking up. The indoor pool is, yes, spacious and warm. It is surrounded by lovely, massive (you could say there's a theme) teak sun loungers that a family of four could tumble on to. We splashed around for hours before heading to the kid's club which was busy with stressed parents.
Someone very clever from the hotel and kids' club had got together and it was time to make cookies. This wasn't just a "here's some dough, turn it into a duck and then we're done" sort of thing. This was a tour of the kitchens (beyond fascinating) and a conversation with the pastry chef. (I say "conversation", but there was a lot of sign language involving rolling out the biscuit mix. It seems that "yum yum" is a universal expression.)
Then it was back to kids' club for decorating the treats. I soon realised that anything done at the Penha Longa is done thoroughly. There was pink icing and blue icing and orange icing and about a thousand different cookie-cutters and pots and pots of assorted sprinkles.
When the kids were done it was time for the movie and the TV menu moment. (Yes, I know we could have done Plasticine figures or read books but I'm a terrible mother, and you need to know about the menu.)
To begin we had strips of locally caught fish that had been breaded, plus buckets of carrots and chips (delicious). Then came the good stuff. We had a platter crammed with pistachios and dried papaya and seriously good local cheeses. And if that wasn't good enough we had what the TV menu calls a "popcorn party". Not a bag of Butterkist but freshly popped caramel popcorn, nutty popcorn, chocolate popcorn, spicy popcorn (my advice – don't give this to a two-year-old if you don't want her eyes to water). The finale comprised popcorn with truffle salt. By the end of the first day I was delighted it had rained.
I was rather looking forward to another 24 hours spent poking in the hotel's kitchen and ordering Portuguese spiced almonds. So the next day, of course, it decided to be less rainy. And that's where the sport came in. My son had a tennis lesson with Juan, whom he fell in love with. He was a brilliant teacher and since we've come back all my six-year-old can do is talk about tennis. And I had a golf lesson. It was (and I am embarrassed to say this) surprisingly good fun.
Robert Judd came on holiday to the Penha Longa six years ago and hasn't left since. He is now one of their golf coaches. At this point, I should explain that I am allergic to any form of exercise. Sweating makes me actually cry, so it was with trepidation that I got into his golf buggy. He gave me a tour of the course. I don't know much about golf but it's a beautiful course. Created by a designer called Robert Trent Jones Jr, it's where they hold the Portuguese Open. Happy groups of men and women in shorts ambled about shouting "fore", so it's evidently an extremely nice place to play. That is if you can see the ball. Very bad eyesight and golf is a slightly tricky mix. All I can tell you is that during a one-hour lesson I think I made contact with the golf ball only eight times.
It was less hectic than any other sport I've encountered and if I was going to embrace moving around rather than lying down on holiday, then my sport of choice would now be golf. Plus you get to ride a buggy (fun) and the clubhouse at Penha Longa has a brilliant restaurant.
The restaurant is called Arola and it's part LA cool and part continental Europe. I know that's a weird description but I promise that's what it's like. It's very modern in its design and is all white apart from the odd very beautiful hanging light that's either green or violet. Big sweeping sofas are dotted around and I imagine it's a great place for a late-night drink. The menu is full of Portuguese specialities and if you go you must have the patatas bravas. They are not, um, brave potatoes but they are small baked new potatoes topped in sour cream and spices.
It's also worth mentioning a couple of other places to eat. There's a Japanese restaurant, the Midori, that has a fantastic buffet – and the sashimi is still a little bit wriggly, which I think is a good thing. The breakfast buffet at AssaMassa has a fantastic array of good things. There's very crispy bacon and a nice man who will make any kind of egg dish you fancy, and there are kind waiters who will fetch you anything you want.
If you ever want to leave the resort I'd aim for a walk around the old town of Sintra, three miles to the north. Despite being only 20 miles west of Lisbon (to which it is connected by a sweet little train), it is one of those rare places where you feel that the 20th century, let alone the 21st, has yet to intervene. Grand palaces and churches are interspersed with a labyrinth of little restaurants and shops selling local ceramics. For the ideal lunch, though, you need to head further west to the port of Furnas, which has the best bacalhau (salt cod) I've ever tasted.
So, the Penha Longa: big and pink and good even in the rain. And the best news is that I didn't have to sit in a kayak.
The nearest airport is Lisbon, which is served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com ) from Bristol, Gatwick, Liverpool and Luton. TAP (0845 601 0932; flytap.com ) flies from Gatwick and Heathrow; British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) from Heathrow; and bmibaby (0871 224 0224; bmibaby.com ) from Birmingham. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-3117 0500; www.reducemyfootprint.travel ).
Penha Longa Hotel, Estrada da Lagoa Azul, Linhó, Sintra, Portugal (bookings: 0800 234 000; resort: 00 351 21 924 9011; ritzcarlton.com ). Rates start at €350, in a deluxe room with breakfast.
0845 355 1212; visitportugal.com
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