It’s breakfast time at the Vila Gale Hotel in Estoril and I’m having a moment. It began with a simple chance meeting in the lobby. An athletic young blonde at least sixty percent legs and clutching a large bag of tennis racquets asked me the time.
With a casual glance at my watch, my very best smile and a desperate attempt to look entirely professional, I answered, at which she smiled back (I’m pretty sure) thanked me, and was gone. Still thinking about whether my smile was sincere enough, I wandered into the breakfast room and froze. Actually, I think I stood motionless with my mouth slightly agape for at least a minute. I’m in a room full of sixty percent legs and athletic young blondes clutching tennis bags.
As It turned out, this was sadly not a dream come true, but merely a consequence of the prestigious Estoril Open at the Jamor Tennis complex just down the road. Most of the female players were staying here and breakfast time that whole week became an event not to be missed believe me.
Whilst I can’t guarantee a timely event like this happening to you, there are still plenty of other reasons for choosing to visit Royal Estoril and Cascais. Only a little way down the coast from Lisbon, Estoril is often overlooked because of its nearness to Portugal’s capital.
Still mainly residential, but what it lacks in visitors, it more than makes up for in substance, as its classic elegance is the perfect foil to the majestic backdrop of the UNESCO-protected Sintra – Cascais national park that surrounds it on three sides. A place of natural beauty, the park’s spectacularly rugged scenery is home to a vast array of wild life and a magnet for bird watchers. In fact the whole Estoril coast line area here, offers a seemingly endless amount of dramatic and ever changing scenery, culminating in the extraordinary town of Sintra, the end of summer getaway of the old royals over 100 years ago and now an official World Heritage site.
It’s one of the most unusual and magical places to experience in Europe. The centre pieces are undoubtedly The Pena Palace and Park, which many say was the inspiration for Cinderella’s castle in Disney’s Magic Kingdom; the mystical and symbolic Quinta da Regaleira Palace with its tunnels, magical grottos, fountains and gothic architecture and right at Sintra’s highest point, the Moorish Castle offering outstanding views right across the mountains and down to the Atlantic.
Back in town, Estoril’s glorious Tamariz Beach is an absolute delight. You can stop a while in one of its many beach-front cafes and just absorb the clean swathes of golden sand with the wide stretch of the Atlantic just behind sweeping right around the bay to Cascais. Perfect. Sitting there, sipping on a Galao, Portugal’s version of a café latte, you can just limit yourself to thinking nothing but good thoughts. Tamariz is however, just one example of the many fine beaches along this stretch of coastline. The local rail link Linha de Cascais, and the Marginal the coast road linking Cascais, Estoril and Oeiras to Lisbon, gives you easy access to Estoril’s many other Praia’s such as Carcavelos and Guincho, where the rolling waves are perfect for surfers, and Cascais’ lovely secluded Praia Poca or Bafureira but also try the Paredão the long beachfront walkway where you just stroll along as far as the mood takes you.
Estoril was the absolute in place to be in the early 1900’s when it was labelled the Portuguese Riviera and the playground of the royal family. The well heeled flocked here in their droves to be seen promenading with royalty and the grand mansions along the front are the remnants of its illustrious past. There are the great beaches of course, but you’ll also find stunning golf courses, all the night life you could possibly want in Cascais just a 5 minute cab ride away and, you’ll be within walking distance of possibly the biggest casino in the whole of Europe. The lush gardens alone stretch down to the sea, practically splitting the town in two.
With Cascais, being so close you can dine there most nights, but there are a few excellent restaurants within walking distance in Estoril to sample too. In particular you should try Costa do Estoril just next to the casino where you can get a wide choice of local fish dishes and a vegetarian speciality called ‘Mothers Soup’ a very tasty bean and vegetable broth that will be hard to hold back from the indulgence of getting a second helping.
For a top end experience you should go to the Four Seasons Grill at The Palacio Hotel a classic example of good old fashioned five star elegance. Of course fresh fish and Portugal go together like honey and bees and this region in particular, is famous for Cascais Sole, Sea Bass, Sea Bream and well over 100 different varieties of bacalhau – dried cod fish. You’ll also find excellent examples of travesseiros – a sweet dish made with puff pastry and Queijadas de Sintra an absolute must-try snack made with a thin pastry case and filled with a mixture of sugar, egg, cinnamon, and fresh cheese. In fact Portuguese egg based confectionary is probably unique the world over and its finest hour is the delightful Pasteis de Nata the little egg custard tarts that were born just up the road in Lisbon.
Exploring neighbourly Cascais is a voyage of discovery. On the one hand there is the original historic area that has a distinct nautical air about it with its cobbled mazy streets leading down to the cozy harbour where the day’s fresh catch is still sold by local fishermen in the nearby harbour square. Don’t miss the Seixas Palace there, a magnificent 19th century palace overlooking the sea, or the Municipal Museum, so close to the sea that waves often reach the steps at high tide; and go have a light lunch at the restaurant/cafe in the charming Santa Marta Lighthouse Museum and check out the Atlantic views. On the other hand there is the trendy, vibrant side of Cascais with night life for every taste, from traditional fado (a mix of African slave rhythms and the music of Portuguese sailors) to late night clubbing, a modern marina and serious shopping opportunities from small designer boutiques to a large shopping centre with over 70 high street names just on the outskirts of town.
The Portuguese royal family clearly knew a thing or two when they chose Estoril to be their summer retreat all those years ago. The temperate micro climate formed by the surrounding mountains, and the gardens and palaces give you a clue to its rich and glorious heritage. And if you’ve already enjoyed a visit Lisbon but like the idea of going back to the area, try Estoril, you might not get treated like a royal anymore but you will appreciate its regal qualities.
Palacio Estoril Hotel & Golf
With its grand gardens, elegant 30’s architecture, royal clientele and stunning sea views, The 5 star Palacio rightly holds court in the heart of town. Featured in the Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and in keeping with the Bond theme, adjacent to Estoril’s famous casino, espionage and intrigue has been a part of the hotel’s history since it opened. Legend has it that it was the meeting point for spies and informants during the war and beyond. All 161 rooms come with the luxury touches that befit its elite status and with the recent opening of the wellness and thermal spa, your relaxation time is complete. As the hotel also owns the beautiful Estoril Golf Club you’ll be able to enjoy exclusive tee times and greatly reduced green fees.
Santa Marta Lighthouse Museum
Costa do Estoril Restaurant
Flights to Lisbon