Where to Play and Stay in Portugal: Cascais and Sintra

Welcome to Portugal’s Riviera, the former playground of nobility that’s still the most expensive postal code in the country. Luckily, Cascais remains an affordable luxury getaway for Canadian families, especially in the spring and fall when the weather is perfect, and there are fewer visitors.

Pick a castle, any castle, from Sintra's UNESCO World Heritage sites - photo Debra Smith

Pick a castle, any castle, from Sintra’s UNESCO World Heritage sites – photo Debra Smith

See

The beautiful beaches of Cascais on the Atlantic coast are just a half-hour from Lisbon and forty-five minutes from the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Sintra.

Would you like to explore the lifestyles of the formerly rich and famous? The charming hilltop village of Sintra has six historic castles from which to choose. The area has always been a place of spirituality, mystery and wonder, attracting notable Europeans like Lord Byron who declared that Sintra “contains beauties of every description, natural and artificial; palaces and gardens rising in the midst of rocks, cataracts, and precipices…(and) a distant view of the sea”. They’re still there, waiting for you.

 

There are castles on almost every hilltop around Sintra - photo Debra Smith

There are castles on almost every hilltop around Sintra – photo Debra Smith

 

If you’re staying in Cascais, be sure to visit the biggest casino in Europe, Casino Estoril in the Hotel Palacio Estoril. You may recognise it from the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Do

“I once led a tour for a blind man”, says Paula Viegas of Tuga Trips. “He wanted me to describe everything in detail, especially colours since he could still remember them. Afterwards, he said it was the best tour he’d ever been on.” After touring the Quinta da Regaleira castle in Sintra with her, it’s clear that she has a gift for illuminating details.

Quinta da Regaleira Castle in Sintra - photo Debra Smith

Quinta da Regaleira Castle in Sintra – photo Debra Smith

Perched high in the green hills of the Sintra-Cascais National Park, and surrounded by fragrant pine forests and colourful landscaped gardens, this fanciful palace was completed in 1912 by Antonio Carvahlo Montiero.  Nicknamed “Moneybags” Montiero, he had a theatrical set designer build a fairytale castle, which celebrated his love for his wife and also reflected his involvement with the fraternity of Freemasons. Initiation rituals were rumoured to take place in secret areas on the grounds. Kids will love the lookout towers, hidden passages and tunnels dug into the mountainside.

 

A secret gallery at Quinta da Regaleira palace - photo by Debra Smith

A secret gallery at Quinta da Regaleira palace – photo by Debra Smith

 

Close by is the Pena Palace, Sintra’s most visited site. Formerly a monastery honouring the Virgin Mary, who was said to have appeared there in the Middle Ages, it was almost destroyed by the 1755 earthquake. In the mid-1800’s, King Ferdinand II rebuilt everything but the original chapel, in a burst of creative decorating known as Romantic Gothic style.  High red and yellow walls, accented with gold encrusted baroque and renaissance style statues and carvings, multihued tilework and extensive gardens and fountains were built to impress, and they succeed. Allow several hours to explore the entire palace and grounds.

The distinctive white kitchen chimneys of the Pena Palace seen from Sintra - photo Debra Smith

The distinctive white kitchen chimneys of the Pena Palace seen from Sintra – photo Debra Smith

There’s plenty of convenient public transportation to and from Sintra, but almost no parking on the narrow roads so leave the rental car behind if you can and take the local #434 tourist shuttle to the sites. Although day tours to Sintra from Lisbon are easy to find, it’s almost impossible to do justice to more than two castles in one day.

Dine

Lunch like European royalty at the Cafe Paris in the historic main square of Sintra. They’ve been welcoming heads of state since 1945, and the service is impeccable. Enjoy a glass of chilled green Portuguese wine surrounded by 18th-century French style gilded mirrors and frescoed ceilings or take one of the fifteen terrace seats and watch the world go by.  The menu is Portuguese and international, with outstanding seafood, a notable warm brie salad, and the house speciality, Café Paris

Steak.

Watch the world go by in Sintra's town square - photo Debra Smith

Watch the world go by in Sintra’s town square – photo Debra Smith

 

Stay

Would you like to stay in the lap of modern luxury? The Martinhal Cascais Family Hotel is just five minutes away from the Cascais train station, but a world away from the hustle and bustle of Lisbon. Set on a gently rolling hillside, this secluded property, is a study in minimalist elegance that will please any adult, and has a treasure-trove of playgrounds and activities that will delight kids of all ages. There are two world-class golf courses adjacent to the hotel as well as tennis courts, bikes to rent and the golden beaches of Cascais just a quick shuttle ride away. Martinhal can arrange for surfing lessons, paddle boarding, windsurfing, diving and boat trips once you get there.

Family friendly luxury at Martinhal Cascais - photo by Debra Smith

Family friendly luxury at Martinhal Cascais – photo by Debra Smith

From Deluxe rooms to 1100 Sq Ft family villas, every detail has been attended to so that parents can “enjoy a cappuccino with the foam still on it”. Every accessory that you might need can be arranged in advance with the Family Concierge so that high chairs, strollers, bottle sterilisers and warmers will be waiting for you along with your robe and slippers.

Fairy houses, part of the magic for children at Martinhal - photo Debra Smith

Fairy houses, part of the magic for children at Martinhal – photo Debra Smith

All rooms have either a spacious patio, terrace or balcony and there are two sizeable heated family pools.  Kids will find their own pools next to the huge two-story Kids Club, as well as trampolines, a zip line, climbing equipment, swings and slides. In addition to games, toys and activities, children can search for tiny “fairy houses” hidden in the trees with Martinhal’s professional caregivers. Create family memories on a bike ride, at the daily 4 p.m. football game, or at the beautiful Sparkling Hill Spa, with its indoor/outdoor pool.  Whatever your choice, Martinhal will treat you like royalty.

The writer was a guest of Martinhal Cascais Family Hotel while in Cascais.

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