Portugal Pipe Dream

4-bed deluxe villa It was just like an episode from House Hunters International. The pretty Portuguese realtor picked my husband and I up in her car, gave us a sheaf of villa and condo details and started showing us around residential enclaves in Praia da Luz. Susana Duarte from Sunpoint had already sent us internet links and asked us by email about basic preferences: sea view (top priority), walking distance to beach and town amenities, minimum 2 bedrooms, pool, patio and quiet neighbourhood. It could be a condo or a villa, newer or older, but not too much of a fixer upper as we wanted it holiday- and rental-ready. 

We had just four days to find our idyllic domicile in the Western Algarve during a 10-day business/pleasure trip to Lisbon and Madrid. Portugal had been a pipe dream of ours since the 1980s when we went on annual golfing gallivants there with a group of friends from Brighton. Since then work has taken us away from England but we have kept closely connected with the same gang during annual UK visits. Many of these friends had explored the Algarve further in our absence, gravitating west to escape mass tourism, ultimately to Praia da Luz where several had already bought second homes.

Praia da Luz beach As recent emptynesters, we finally had some selfish money – ie funds no longer funneled into kids’ activities and education. And, in our mid-50s, we were pondering semi-retirement in a sunny, southern spot where tourism hadn’t negated the natural beauty. It was a long shot, trusting our friends’ choice of location, but as we approached Praia da Luz from Lisbon, the roadside scenery started to blossom from arid flats into verdant, rolling hills. And I got that intuitive butterfly fluttering that it was going to be gorgeous. Entering the town, we saw a hillside haven from above, terracotta-tile terraced and peppered with pastel buildings, descending down to a blond bay bordered by craggy cliffs – our ideal summer scenery!

On day one, we drove around the bougainvillea-bordered streets with Susana giving pointers about neighbourhoods, views and town features. Armed with camera and notebook, we approached each residence with a professional format, ticking off boxes, scribbling comments on views and decor and photographing interesting features. By the end of the first morning, however, we had become disillusioned with the properties we’d liked online and were re-defining what we were actually looking for. A timely lunch stop at a beach cafe reminded us of why we were there as we watching joggers and strollers on the crescent-shaped strand curving towards the towering cliffs. In the balmy October sun, a few toddlers tottered in the gentle surf and energetic holidaymakers played with paddleboards.

Our villa That afternoon we homed in on four properties: a two-bedroom condo (great views, roof terrace, shared pool, well within price range); a deluxe four-bedroom villa (private pool, fabulous views, 10 mins from beach, out of price range but negotiable); a three storey fixer-upper townhouse (cute courtyard, balcony, one road from beach and town centre but no pool); and a stylishly refurbished two-bedroom Portuguese-themed fisherman’s cottage with a lavishly landscaped, oasis-style back garden and pebble-dashed pool straight out of a five-star hotel spa. You can guess which one I liked the most!

So how to choose? Hubby and I were diametrically opposed in our choice of first, second, third and fourth options. Back at our friends’ villa, we mapped out a weekend of wandering around town, coast and inland, including sunset drinks at nearby Burgau, a jaunt to hippy-village Barao de Sao Joao and beach visits with plenty of culinary content. As well as showing our friends around our top four abodes, we planned to meet up with another Brighton transplant couple in order to get their input.

Fortaleza With a symphony of surf crashing on the rocks below, Fortaleza was my favourite restaurant. A 16th century fort, restored and repurposed as an elegant eatery and wedding venue, it has shaded outdoor patios and a baronial interior. It overlooks the ‘locals’ beach’, Praia Prahina, a slip of sand with smooth flat sunbathing rocks which is apparently a great getaway during heaving high season. It was Friday night, so we’d preceded dinner with sundown drinks at a trendy but cheap cliff bar overlooking the beach at Burgau, a quaint fishing village eight minutes drive from Praia da Luz and also, incidentally, a great bike riding destination. One of my emptynesting resolutions is to take up moderate mountain biking and it looks like the Western Algarve will be a great location for this – especially with lovely coastal and rural restaurants to motivate the muscles.

Taberna D'Maria Next day off to Barao de Sao Joao – a 10 minute drive inland – a must-see artsy town. It attracts creative residents who have painted the traditional townhouses and cottages in a paintbox of Crayola colours. There are funky art installations dotted around town, including statues with sharks heads, ideal for silly photos. In the centre of town, the colourful Taberna D’Maria has wooden tables and chairs arranged on cobbles, begging passersby to sit and be served munchies and music. The service here is so good that the waitress wouldn’t let us order too much food! Rather than waste money and food, she insisted on us sharing dishes, saying she would bring out more if it wasn’t enough! So different from the over-serving States where we now live. Luckily the libations weren’t limited and we were allowed to order as much Portuguese plonk as we desired.

Probably the most superior-starred restaurant in the area is O Camilo in Lagos – 10 mins drive from Praia da Luz. Perched atop a cliff with wide-angled views, it is predominantly fish-focused – the perfect place for a special occasion or a Saturday night during a hurried but hedonistic house hunting trip.

Barao de Sao Joao village Sunday was spent bathing, beach-bumming and strolling around the village in order to conjure up a lifestyle here. With its beautiful honeysuckle-hued church, panoramic promenade, cute shops and around a dozen different eateries, a leisurely life was easy enough to imagine – especially with two golf courses, sports club, larger towns and a National Park nearby.  Later, after a lazy lunch lingering into evening, we had eliminated the four-bedroom villa and were down to just three possibilities – although still not in the same order.

Monday morning, a visit to a Lagos lawyer (to set up power of attorney for the distance buying process) was followed by a whirlwind trip around three last-minute villas that Susana had artfully added to the agenda. And then we were back in our own rental car, speeding up to Lisbon to get back to work. The three-hour, mindless motorway mileage gave us time to review, rehash and reach a surprise solution. The very last villa we had seen – a four-bed, four-bath, with wrap-around terrace, views and pool – was the winner! We’d had no time to take photos or notes, but it had given us the least arguments, ticked off the most boxes, was the best bargain in terms of size and amenities versus price and it exuded a character, cuteness and comfort level that we could imagine contouring into our own style.

This spring we are re-painting and re-furnishing our little Portuguese pad – with flamboyant fisherman’s cottage influences, of course. And we’ve started renting it to other holidaymakers via Owners Direct 

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Louise Hudson

Travel & ski writer

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