Only a short train ride from the capital of Portugal, the seaside town of Cascais has long welcomed a heady mix of royalty, celebrity and surf dudes.
Cascais neatly balances rich history with a relaxed vibe
Christopher Columbus, so they say, pulled a fast one. According to the people of Cascais, he didn't discover America at all. The credit should go instead to one Afonso Sanches, a local fisherman by trade, who set sail from these shores on a voyage of discovery 10 years before Columbus even cast off.
Cascais stretches out with leisurely finesse along the shoreline of western Portugal's spectacular coast. Because it's only 30 kilometres from Lisbon, many national celebrities have homes or pieds-à-terre in this once-sleepy fishing town. Members of the Portuguese royal family, who sojourned here during its heyday more than a century ago, originally transformed this fabulously placed, authentically picturesque Atlantic village into a desirable destination.
That Cascais has managed to maintain its calm and uncorrupted demeanour is something of a mystery, but it has done so with impeccable style. From John Malkovich and Peter O'Toole to Victoria Beckham and Bryan Adams, Cascais draws those in pursuit of chic calm. Because it's set in the protected region of the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, a staggering 145km in area, the town is safeguarded from the cement invasion visible on the Algarve. The opening of a new museum dedicated to the Lisbon-born artist Paula Rego has only added to its appeal. True to its name, her Casa das Histórias is a veritable house of stories. The Portuguese artist is widely celebrated for her sometimes macabre, strangely moving works, many of which can be seen here for the first time. It's a place to glide, meditate and marvel.
Cascais itself combines a historic town centre and a magnificent strip of coast along the Atlantic, Guincho. Its marina, once a busy fishing port and the town's source of livelihood, is today home to a menagerie of luxurious yachts and racing boats. Masts file elegantly together in the harbour by the 16th-century citadel, originally built to protect the town and later to become the summer residence of King Luís II. You'll probably also find several sailing boats being prepped out of water for the noteworthy competitions that Cascais hosts, including the Audi Med Cup and the Volvo Ocean Race. If you don't have your own boat, you can pay a visit to the local club and enjoy a jaunt out to sea. At the citadel's feet is evidence of a continuing fishing community, with labyrinths of nets and lobster pots piled prettily together.
The palm-brushed area of Guincho leads away from the main town and is renowned for fabulous hotels and decadent restaurants. Rarely have I been so delighted to arrive somewhere as I was at the Senhora da Guia. I don't know about you, but being addressed with servility leaves me uncomfortable and embarrassed. So it's nice to be greeted by the smile and handshake of the manager, Francisco Franco Afonso, so mellow he could be at home. But do not be deceived. While the Senhora da Guia is relaxed, the hotel function is far from lost. In this exquisitely pretty boutique establishment, each staff member knows your name. And that you're vegan, have a peanut allergy, come from Ireland but live in Doha.
The Senhora da Guia's rooms (each is unique) are shared out over three converted Portuguese-style villas. They're characteristically elegant buildings, with green ivy clambering up the saffron walls towards quintessentially Portuguese tile roofs. The whole place manages to find a balance between comfort and luxury. The living room is unrepressively splendid - deep, comfy sofas and armchairs and a proper fireplace. It gives out onto the terrace, where meals can be taken overlooking the gardens and sea. "This is home away from home," Francisco says. He's not wrong.
Drive along the Estrada do Guincho, where the corniche is a stunning series of beaches. Surfers ride the swells and, when it's a bit blowy, wind- and kitesurfers take to these waters long celebrated by aqua sports enthusiasts. Swimmers also enjoy the cool waves, although the currents here are infamous, as the shipwrecks in the local maritime museum testify.
While the main Guincho strip attracts a fair few sunworshippers in the summer months, there are also a handful of hidden bays where you'll be able to sunbathe in seclusion. An insider's tip is the Abano beach tucked down a track a couple of kilometres down the Estrada do Guincho. Flaxen sands, sapphire waters, sculpted rocks and, best of all, not a soul in sight.
Extravagant ocean views are the Hotel Fortaleza do Guincho's speciality, a former fortress whose 17th-century walls straddle the Atlantic cliffs. Queen Rania of Jordan, among others, was reeled in by the glorious views. Europe's most westerly point, Cabo da Roca, with its fabled lighthouse, is visible from the hotel's bedrooms. There is a distinctly medieval theme here and, what's more, a Michelin-star restaurant with Antoine Westermann as consultant chef.
"We attract gourmet travellers," says Petra Sauer, the general manager. "Our signature dishes include sea bass and, of course, fois gras."
Dining in splendour is a Cascais forte. The Porto Santa Maria restaurant - you'll find it in the 2009 Michelin guide - is perched over the dunes overlooking Crismina beach with the billowing ocean beneath. It has welcomed many a celebrity, including Bill Clinton, to guzzle on house specialities including blue mussels, goose barnacles, oysters, turbot, sea bass and lobster, topped off with a decadent serving of bavarois or the vanilla soufflé - best take a soothing stroll on the sands below afterwards.
Better still, take to one of Cascais's golf courses - there are seven to choose from. The Oitavos Dunes 18-hole course glistens amid umbrella pines and sandy hillocks. Designed by Arthur Hills and ranked within Golf Magazine's Top 100 courses in the world, the course has hosted professional tournaments aplenty since its 2001 opening. It was here that the Spanish golf star Pablo Martin enjoyed his first win as an amateur at a major event in 2007.
The Oitavos hotel, which opened last year, is an extraordinary place, kind of space-age in a prolific way, and as mammoth and modernist as it is luminescent and airy. The exterior is almost entirely glass while the interior sings out themes of light and space. Open plan is key here, and the corridors measure a staggering six metres across. The colours are muted greys and serene blues, and the rooms and suites are capacious with smooth, minimalist lines. There's also a generously sized desk if you need to get some work done.
"The main focus is nature and the ocean," Madalena Sacchetti, a PR manager at the hotel, says. "And it's relaxed. You can feel comfortable here but in five-star luxury." The Oitavos is cleverly constructed in the shape of a "Y", so every room enjoys views of the sea and miles of natural landscape. Snap up a sought-after corner room: the L-shaped balcony proffers fabulous vistas of the extensive golf course and the beguiling Atlantic laid against the horizon.
The elegant spa is what pampering wishlists are made for. Both indoor and outdoor pools have heated seawater, the sauna and Turkish baths are divine, and the massages are paradisiacal - I floated away after mine as though I'd spent a week on a yoga retreat.
"We always use verbena, which calms and relaxes," says Rita Rosado, the spa manager, smiling placidly. "The themes here are colour, natural light and the ocean."
Another golf option is proffered by the Quinta da Marinha resort. Designed by the famed Robert Trent Jones Sr, the 18-hole course stretches for nearly six kilometres with only the ocean and untainted countryside for company. A stable of horses awaits those with equestrian inclinations, while vast grounds lend to peaceful walking. Add deluxe accommodation, an assortment of pools and spa treatments, and a clubhouse with a newly opened restaurant located just next to the Dom Carlos hunting lodge and there's little to complain about.
For a little more life, go into town and enjoy the ambience of the pavement cafes and restaurants of Cascais and the resort of Estoril (the border between the two was imperceptible to me). Capricciosa, a restaurant overlooking one of the mini bays dotting the town's shores, serves up divine Italian food. The famed Santini Gelati shop is heaven for those in search of opulent ice cream, while the Pastelaria Garret is the place for sumptuous pastries. The historic, plush Hotel Palácio is a fabulous Art Deco building providing regal service. On Her Majesty's Secret Service was shot here, and many a monarch has occupied the suites. It's right next to the newly opened thermal spa, Termas Estoril, a treasure trove of hydrology treatments, administered by a clinical team. Here you can get anything from clay cataplasm therapy to nasal irrigation to hydromassages.
Back to the Columbus conundrum. Heed local legend and the 1492 plot thickens. When Sanches returned with his crew, half-dead yet glowing with pride, Columbus read the nautical log and set off on his own voyage of (re)discovery, grabbing all the glory. Today, it's hard to imagine such skulduggery amid all this very European refinement.
If you go
Return flights with Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com) from Abu Dhabi to Lisbon via Frankfurt cost from Dh3,970, including taxes.
Double rooms cost from €149 (Dh780) at Senhora da Guia hotel (www.senhoradaguia.com; 00 351 21 486 9239); €277 (Dh1,455) at the Oitavos Hotel (www.theoitavos.com; 00 351 21 486 0020); €160 (Dh840) at Fortaleza do Guincho (www.guinchotel.pt; 00 351 21 487 04 91); and €255 (Dh1,331) at Quinta da Marinha (www.quintamarinha.com; 00 351 214 860 100). All prices are per night and include taxes.