Around 8 years ago, a kind-hearted and visionary man by the name of Francisco De Mello Breyner purchased a vast plot of rural land in the heart of the relatively unknown Alentejo region of Portugal, around 2 hours’ drive south of Lisbon, and just few minutes from a stunning coastline and beaches. His ambition was to create, from scratch, an ecologically sustainable holiday resort, built from only natural and sustainable materials, which could be enjoyed all year round.
The result was Zmar Eco Experience which opened its doors to guests in 2008, and is a unique holiday and lifestyle experience which blends eco-tourism with a friendly club ambience, along with comfort and service. Not to mention a liberal use of the letter ‘Z’.
Upon arrival through the entry barrier, the first view is of literally hundreds of wooden cabins dotting the landscape, almost like beehives, with a few larger buildings in the distance and what looks like a very large Yurt.
These unassuming cabins turn out to be a mix of top of the range Zvillas (the largest sleeping up to 6), the smaller Zchalets (for up to 4) and the cute Zmobiles for 2 people. The exterior of each cabin is modest and simple, in keeping with the natural environment. The interiors are a very pleasant surprise, well-equipped for self-catering with modern appliances, and surprisingly spacious. Not luxurious, but extremely comfortable with the wooden decor giving a warm and homely feel; the kind of place where you instantly relax and feel at home. There’s a terrace to take the sun, and the Zvillas come with a cleaning service and bicycle hire.
And there’s also the possibility not just to rent an ecoZvilla, Zchalet or Zmobile, but alternatively to buy a plot of land and install your own. This has led to some unusual and innovative dwellings, including a shipping container, tastefully converted with its own garden and external wood panelling!
No matter where you stay at Zmar, the many amenities of the resort are an easy walk away, where guests can enjoy the experience which can best be described as a cross between eco-tourism and a holiday club.
And not forgetting the letter Z, liberally added to the titles of each part of the resort, and thus leading to the Zshop, the Zinema, Zbikes, Znooker and naturally the Zpa. It’s almost a disappointment to find activities such as archery, tennis and the gym which are devoid of any alphabetic addition.
The outdoor 100m swimming pool is quite simply the largest and most impressive construction that can be imagined. Almost an oblong lake, it stretches as far as the eye can see and a couple of lengths produce a feeling of such virtue that a delicious Portuguese custard tart is almost obligatory.
The Zpa is equally impressive, with a hydrotherapy indoor pool, waves pool, gym, sauna and a range of massage and other treatments, housed in large chalet style buildings.
Meals can be taken in the resort restaurant (to be frank, more of a canteen style dining room), and for the younger generation, evening entertainment takes place in the large Yurt (so that was its purpose) offering cabaret, singing and dancing. There’s also a kids’ club, a good idea for the grandchildren.
The Zmar is staffed by a young team of energetic staff, resplendent in their fluorescent green t-shirts and offering a range of activities for those who are interested. Alternatively, you can just choose to do your own thing, relax by the pool, walk, cycle or explore further afield by car.
For example, just a short drive leads to the town of Vila Nova de Milfontes where the beaches have to be seen to be believed, equalling anything in the Caribbean. Lunch at the La Choupana restaurant is like something from the movies, sitting out on the deck watching the waves lap onto a deserted beach and enjoying freshly caught sardines. A true slice of Portuguese heaven and at a price which takes you back at least a decade.
Back at the Zmar, and the atmosphere is that of a laid-back holiday camp where guests of all ages and nationalities co-exist happily. Open all year round, it’s a popular choice for long stay holidays for more senior travellers, and would be well-suited to those who enjoy being in touch with the natural environment, living simply and inexpensively in an unspoilt rural setting.