Cascais is highly regarded as the Portuguese Riviera just forty minutes away from Lisbon. Rich in history, the architecture reflects the pride of place it took for so many centuries. It is where the Portuguese nobility kept their summer residences and where many celebrities summer now. Cascais maintains its luxury reputation today with many fine five star hotels and restaurants.
Flights from London to Lisbon are a breeze at two hours and forty-five minutes, whilst the airport is less than an hour from Cascais. So no jet lag or undue tiredness make this a perfect destination even for a short weekend, though there is enough in Cascais to keep you busy for months.
I stayed at the five star Grande Real Villa Itália Hotel & Spa, one of the former houses of the last King of Italy, Humberto II, also one of The Leading Hotels of the World. Cristiano Ronaldo is currently building a modern £7 million mansion, designed by Architect Vitor Vitorino, just next door.
The hotel entrance is imposing and dramatic, but cosy enough to be warm and welcoming. The decor is a fusion of post-Napoleonic and Art Deco with marble floors, granite pillars and fine furniture scattered everywhere to form intimate little enclaves.
My seascape room with a sea view was tastefully arranged in a subdued light blue and grey with the widest double bed I have ever seen and an extremely comfortable mattress. Even the largest couple would sleep soundly. The hotel prioritises good sleep, which is essentially the basis for any stay. A bottle of water stood at each side of the bed and the rooms were beautifully made up each evening. The spacious bathroom in grey granite had a sizeable bath with piping hot water and a large shower, plus twin sinks. The room curtains and blinds opened and closed at the touch of a switch revealing the lovely balcony overlooking the pool and the deep green sea less than 50 metres away.
The bar, dining and exterior balcony are set above the breakfast lounge and both overlook the splendid pool surrounded by pool loungers with the Atlantic waves crashing on the rocks across the road. The service is attentive without being intrusive and the overall ambience is opulent relaxed luxury.
Walk out of the hotel onto the coast road and you are a minute’s walk from Cascais Marina and the fabulous cobbled streets of the town centre with its cafes, shops, bars and many of the best attractions, such as the old fort, lighthouse, museums and fabulous sandy beaches.
As you wander into town you first come across the lighthouse or “Farol Museu de Santa Marta” set near the “Forte de Santa Marta, both well worth visiting. The lighthouse glass lenses are stunning sculptures in their own right and wonderful examples of Victorian steampunk design.
Cross over the gorgeous bridge that spans Santa Marta Beach and you are surrounded by some of the finest old buildings in Cascais. To the left is the Museu Condes de Castro Guimaraes, a palatial fine art museum and to the right the Miradouro Casa de Santa Maria. Charlotte, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, King Umberto II of Italy, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were all guests at some point. These architectural marvels house some of the finest examples of 17th-century Azulejo or tin-glazed blue ceramic tiles, original 19th Century paintings and Portuguese furniture.
Then you are in the Marina which has just been completely rebuilt with its new shops, cafes, bars, restaurants and Porsche studio. This is the spot to rent yachts, classic cars and even hydrofoil boards for an adventure tour of the dramatic coastline.
Stroll through the Marechal Carmona Park, a lovely place to relax with friends and admire the Peacocks and colourful birds wandering around the attractive ponds dotted with numerous spaces for children to play.
Seek out the Rua Amarela or yellow street, a cobbled pedestrian-only area that offers numerous restaurants with outdoor seating, good food and a great atmosphere. The place to sit with a cocktail and watch the world go by.
If you head north towards Sintra the landscapes and beaches become even more impressive. The coast is unspoiled and the road along the coast up into the mountains is staggeringly beautiful.
There is a famous hiking route that starts at Cabo de São Vincente and meanders all the way to St Petersburg in Russia, a distance of 4,800 km. Fantastic for cycling as long as you have the legs to power through the winds and up the hills.
Praia do Guincho beach is probably the best for windsurfing and surfing, with long rolling waves that peel continuously from left to right. They stage many of the biggest international surf competitions here.
Boca Do Inferno's "mouth of hell" is also worth a visit to admire the tremendous waves crashing against the rocks and pluming up into the sky. Make sure it's a windy day otherwise it may come across as a damp squib.
Cabo da Roca is set high up on the cape, the most western point of the Sintra mountain range, with superb views of the coast. Perhaps the windiest location I have ever visited, I was practically blown into the sky as I exited the car.
The Villa Itália Hotel is the ideal bolthole for shopping trips to Lisbon, or indeed for sampling Lisbon's nightlife, museums, art galleries, markets and fairs before retreating to the tranquillity and beaches of Cascais.
There are many fabulous restaurants along the coast from Cascais to Sintra and the quality for the price is fantastic. One that particularly stood out was the Furnas Do Guincho, an artfully decorated seafood restaurant that offers traditional Portuguese cuisine with a modern twist. Red triangular parasails hover above the terrace that juts out over the cliff. Watch the waves lash the granite rocks as you dine. One of the finest fish restaurants in all of Portugal with flawless service and a great welcome. Start with a dozen oysters, then treat yourself to the traditional weakling with lobster.
They filmed "On Her Majesty's Secret Service' in Cascais and Estoril in 1969 with George Lazenby. Ian Fleming stayed in Estoril during the second world war and was inspired by all the international spies that used to congregate in this neutral enclave. Ian Fleming met Duško Popov here, the Serbian double agent who was one of the primary inspirations for James Bond. I highly recommend reading up on Duško Popov and his close friend Johnny Jebsen in Popov’s book "Spy-Counterspy", detailing their heroic and dangerous exploits as double agents for MI6 in the war. Supp a 007 Martini at the Palace Hotel and truly get into the swing of things.
The highlight of the trip for me was a tour of Casal Sta. Maria vineyard, a stunning hilltop manor house overlooking the mountains that slope down to the sea in Sintra. Joao the vineyard manager is charming, welcoming and extremely knowledgable. The wines and story behind this family vineyard are exceptional. The Estate was purchased in the sixties by a Swiss banker and his wife Rosario where they bred Arab horses, the first in Portugal to do so. They were extremely successful in competing worldwide for many years.
Unfortunately, a blight meant that horses could not compete or even travel for five years, so after an operation at the age of 96 Baron Bodo von Bruemmer decided it was time for a new venture, producing wine. Now you don't have to be an oenologue to know that vines take at least three years to deliver harvestable grapes. Launching a new vineyard at the age of 96 was an optimistic endeavour, to say the least. However, the Baron stayed the course, living to the ripe old age of 105, a week shy of his 106th birthday, creating many fine wines.
The estate is now run by his grandchildren who have made this vineyard one of the finest in all of Portugal. I spent a divine afternoon supping the various vintages and exploring the impressive cellars and grounds. There is the most magnificent Dragon Tree from Micronesia in the garden as well as 3000 roses planted by the Baron for his wife Rosario. It is the most western vineyard in Europe and they have a motto that encapsulates the Baron's extraordinary approach to life "It's never too late".
My favoruite wine was the Mar de Rosas, an award-winning rosé that smells flowery and aromatic yet is perfectly balanced on the tongue with a lovely unctuous feel, light but rich in flavour, delivering many notes over time. The 3000 Rosas is lighter but layered, peaches and cream, a perfect summer wine. The Casal Pinot Noir is exceptional, a dark red light wine with a rich and earthy aroma, light spicy taste, beautifully balanced mouthfeel and a deep complex flavour of berries, sea air and pine.
The Casal Sta. Maria vineyard epitomises the Cascais region, care free style, dedication to quality, laid back lifestyle, stupendous architecture, rich history and effortless luxury.