We leave a Britain battered by gales and floods; we arrive in Portugal, where the air is balmy and the sun is just slipping down behind the mountains.
Glasgow airport two days before Christmas is an odd place. Staff loiter beside reindeer dioramas, twirling lanyards around their fingers, escalators churn empty steps around and around, our footfalls echo as we cross the near-deserted concourse. I’ve never found mid-winter travel a particularly enticing prospect, possibly because I’m scarred by being trapped one too many times in transport stuffed to the ceilings with inebriated Christmas revellers. But the chance of a week in Portugal comes up and I take it, more in the spirit of curiosity than adventure. What would Christmas in an Algarve resort be like?
At Glasgow there are only two check-in desks open: one for Krakow, trailing a line of voluble Poles in fur coats, and another for easyJet, populated mainly by retired travellers off to see relatives. We are, astonishingly, the only family-with-young-children, which gives me slight pause. Are we doing the wrong thing? Are we mad to schlep across Europe at the time of year when most parents are wrapping presents and laying in supplies of chocolate coins?
Any misgivings are dispelled immediately on touchdown. We leave a Britain battered by gales and floods; we arrive in Portugal, where the air is balmy, the sun is just slipping down behind the mountains and a nice man is waiting to whisk us away in his capacious people carrier.
Our destination is Martinhal (the final syllable to be lent on with a Southern-European flourish), “Europe’s finest luxury family resort” the brochure claims. The children nap, light drains from the sky and we head west along a spanking new road through dividing necklaces of lights. Mountains, orange trees and olive groves flash past in the dusk; we bypass the big Algarve towns of Albufeira and Portimão where, a lifetime ago, I spent a holiday on the beach.
Martinhal is far removed from the rest of the Algarve, both geographically and ideologically. Although only an hour or so’s drive from Faro airport, it is light years away from the usual touristic sprawl. You keep on along the coast through a stretch of national park, almost until the land gives out, and you find yourself at Europe’s most southwesterly point. It’s not quite Cape Finisterre but it might as well be. Martinhal sits on the easterly bluff of a bay, facing the restless, pounding waves of the Atlantic. A stretch of soft, ochre sand curves away from it; on all remaining sides is environmentally protected land, with low-growing pine trees and wild lavender.
The hotel is the brainchild of Roman and Chitra Stern, who met at business school in London (him, Swiss-German; her, Singaporean-Indian). Undeterred by strictures applying to an empty patch of land inside a national park, not to mention a vast global recession, they set up shop in Portugal and worked on their vision: a five-star resort catering for families, with the central tenets of relaxation for the parents and fun for the kids. Did I mention that, in addition to starting a business and building an entire village, they also found the time to have four children?
It’s instantly apparent that Martinhal has been designed by parents. On arrival, some behind-the-scenes fairy has been at work, assessing the ages of our children: we have been provided with cot, highchair, potty and baby gate. The rarity of service like this is apparent in my reaction, which is akin to someone who has stumbled across an unexpected cache of gold. That I don’t have to spend the week worrying that the baby will tumble down the stairs is the best Christmas present I could have asked for.
Here are some adjectives about where I spend Christmas: big, new, swish, tasteful. And here are some numbers: four swimming pools (all heated), three restaurants, two kids’ clubs, capacity for 800 guests in 37 hotel rooms and 132 self-catering houses, 55 of which have sea views, 10 of which have their own private pools (heated, naturally).
The scale of Martinhal is beyond ambitious, the ambience beyond stylish, the service beyond attentive. It’s the kind of place where, micro-seconds before you realise you need something, someone in a white shirt will have materialised at your side proffering the requisite item on a silver platter; be it a spare spoon, a drink of water, a cloth with which to wipe your baby’s face, a set of crayons and paper for your restless four-year-old. This happens so often that I begin to wonder if a module on mind-reading is part of their staff training.
The breakfast buffet is a wondrous array of croissants, smoothies, pasties and watermelon. My older child gets to work on demolishing the pastries while the younger ones, once their dining-table patience has expired, escape to the corner play area, which is staffed by an angelically patient woman who will do colouring-in with them while you get to finish your Gwyneth Paltrow energy drink.
Buffet time is also prime people-watching time. Clientele here are mostly British and German, with a smattering of French. There are the first-time parents of babies, looking stunned and sleepless, there are the three-generational holidaymakers who occupy noisy and messy extended tables. There are the parents with teenagers, the former looking sleek and fresh-from-the-spa, the latter bent wordlessly over their smartphones. There is an intriguing gang of Russians, presided over by an affable giant of a patriarch, with two matching sons who, when they are not engaged on some extreme sport, are to be seen refuelling at the buffet.
Christmas day dawns and reception is filled with fairy lights. Santa makes an appearance at breakfast, singing Jingle Bells and looking suspiciously female under the false beard. He/she ascends to a golden throne in the play area and hands out beautifully wrapped gifts to the children, only some of whom are struck dumb with terror.
There is a surreality to spending Christmas day on the beach. The micro-climate of this promontory is astonishingly mild: a bright sun warms our skin to the right degree for a quick dip in the foaming surf. The sea is clear, sharply chill, with a strong undertow. The children splash in the shallows, the first-time parents fiddle with sunblock and UV suits, the Russian beefcakes zip themselves into wetsuits and paddle out on their surfboards. A Dutch family go for a jog from one end of the beach to the other.
I’ve always been sceptical about chasing around the planet in search of winter sun. The distances involved always seemed so arduous as to drain the enterprise of any possible pleasure. I hadn’t known it was possible to find somewhere in Europe where you can comfortably stand about in a T-shirt in December or swim outdoors or require a sunhat or run barefoot on the sand.
Quite apart from the lovely staff and the Christmas presents and the blissful massage at the spa, one of the best things for me is that the whole place feels invigoratingly healthy. It’s the nexus of sun and sea, giving us all a dose of vitamin D and saline air in the middle of winter. Within days, all our persistent coughs and runny noses have vanished. My daughter, who suffers from chronic eczema, arrives with skin that is raw, split and bleeding; by day three, the inflammation is gone and her skin is magically smooth and comfortable.
Did I miss Christmas at home? Actually no — rather the opposite. I wouldn’t want to go away every year, but it was lovely to have a year off from big family extravaganzas.
On Boxing day it rains, which causes the staff much consternation, as if they have never seen such a thing. Maybe they haven’t. We spend the morning in the games room, playing air hockey and table football, the baby flinging herself around in the ball pit. By afternoon, the clouds have parted and the sun broken through and we are back on the beach. My son, running in from the sea, hair wetted into spikes, says: “If we were at home, we’d be bored and wishing this day away. But here everything’s good.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Need to know
A seven-night Christmas package with half-board at Martinhaal (00 351 282 240 200, martinhal.com), costs from €113.50 (£91) per night per adult in a hotel room sleeping two adults, one child under 12 years and one baby. It includes Christmas eve dinner and Christmas brunch.
The two-night New Year package costs from €149 per night per adult in a hotel room sleeping two adults, one child under 12 and one baby. It includes a Gala Dinner on New Year’s eve and New Year’s day brunch.
There’s a complimentary Kids Club until March 26.
Pick your Christmas escape
White stuff in Cornwall
If you’re looking for the white stuff at Christmas, try exchanging snow for the crashing of waves at the Watergate Bay hotel north of Newquay — its Extreme Academy has complimentary surf lessons on Christmas Eve. Back at the hotel, there are warming cliff-top hot tubs, Christmas carols and dinner at either the hotel’s Zacry’s restaurant or Fifteen Cornwall, as well as entertainment at the Living Space bar on Boxing Day. Children aged from 3-13 can hang out in the evenings at the Kids’ Zone, while mum and dad enjoy some “we time”.
Details Four nights in a family suite start from £675pp (01637 860543, watergatebay.co.uk)
Traditional fun in Herts
Luton Hoo in Hertfordshire may be a converted stately home set in more than 1,000 acres of Capability Brown-designed gardens, but it lets down its traditional hair at Christmas to welcome families. Children can chill out at a special cinema with popcorn and ice cream, or get creative and make Christmas cards. Stays come with colouring books and a special teddy bear, while transfers around the estate are in a vintage London taxi. Other activities include a traditional Christmas lunch in the grand Wernher Restaurant with its glittering chandeliers, plus a family quiz and a snooker tournament.
Details Christmas house party stays for two nights are from £645pp (0808 250 9673, prideofbritainhotels.com)
Candlelit walk in the Cotswolds
There are some unusual Christmas activities on offer with a stay at the Old Swan & Minster Mill. There is a candlelit walk to attend midnight mass at the local parish church of St Kenelm followed by hot chocolate and mince pies on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day starts with surprise presents and on Boxing Day there is a treasure hunt or you can book a trip to the pantomime either at Oxford Playhouse or Chipping Norton Theatre.
Details Three nights’ full board is from £2,318.75 for a family of four staying in two rooms, with arrivals on Christmas Eve (01993 774441, oldswanandminstermill.com)
Santa in Scotland
Keep an eye on Santa’s present-delivering prowess at the Trump Turnberry resort on the Ayrshire coast. With views over the Irish Sea and the mountains of Arran and Kintyre, there’s a range of activities for children in the Wee Explorers’ playroom that has board games, a cinema room showing Christmas classics, and a Santa Tracker to keep an eye on where in the world he is on his busiest night of the year. Older children can head to a teen zone with games consoles and mocktails. On Christmas Day, parents can enjoy a champagne reception before the festive lunch and an evening buffet.
Details The two-night Christmas Experience package is from £1,420 for two adults with children costing £90 per child per night if staying in their parents’ room or £150 per child per night in their own room. Arrivals are on December 24 (0165 533 1000, turnberryresort.co.uk)
Whether your kids are budding sports stars or want to tread the boards as they get older, they’re sure to find something to delight at St Vincent’s luxury Buccament Bay Resort. Over Christmas, there’s football coaching from ex-Liverpool star Ronnie Whelan and masterclasses in West End stagecraft from Les Miserables star Phil Cavill, as well as rugby, tennis and cricket lessons. Other festive entertainment includes a visit from Santa, a Christmas Eve lunchtime beach barbecue and a celebration Christmas dinner with entertainment, as well as a Caribbean carol medley by resort staff.
Details Seven nights’ all-inclusive is from £1,996pp, staying in a deluxe one-bed villa, with return flights from Manchester on December 21 (0844 371 4000, caribbeanwarehouse.co.uk)
Sledding in Lapland
Lapland is a pretty magical place to spend Christmas, whether your children still believe in Santa or not. Luckily Activities Abroad has festive breaks in Swedish Lapland to appeal to all ages. Their Tärendö — Christmas Arctic Light Family Adventure is suitable for anybody aged 14 years and over and includes snow-mobile safaris, dog sledding and hunts for the aurora borealis, as well as a packed Christmas Day programme.
Details Five nights is from £1,895 per adult and £1,775 per child, including flights from London on December 21, most meals, activities, and warm clothing for the duration of your stay (01670 789 991; activitiesabroad.com)
Celebration in Orlando
The town where some Disney workers live in Orlando is called Celebration — so where better to spend Christmas than at Walt Disney World? Events at the parks include specially themed Christmas parades, snowfall on Main Street USA whatever the weather and complimentary cookies and hot chocolate.
Details Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859, virginholidays.co.uk) has seven nights room-only at Disney’s Pop Century Resort, from £1,372pp, including flights from Gatwick on December 23 and car hire
Sun in Cyprus
Tuck into a seven-course gourmet Christmas Eve menu at Alexander the Great hotel in Cyprus. Stays at the hotel, right on Paphos’s Blue Flag beach, might even allow a Christmas Day dip in the sea — seasonal temperatures can still touch 18-20C, despite it being December. Children can enjoy the kids’ club and special dinner parties, while there’s also an adults-only pool and an indoor spa.
Details Seven nights’ half-board for a family of four is from £2,788, including flights from Stansted on December 19 (020 8492 6868, olympicholidays.com)