The rest of us had visions about Albufeira that were too alike Benidorm to want to go there – a bit too crowded and a bit too boring. Even the very reliable sunshine wasn’t enticing enough.
All that has changed now. The Algarve has been reinventing itself in the last few years as a spa and health paradise, and the combination of these healthy pursuits under the wonderful sunshine in April, while London is still shivering, makes it very inviting indeed.
And the choice is now huge. Do you want to go horse riding in the wild, or big game fishing? Is tennis your game, or are you a keen golfer? Or do you want to get trim lean and fit very quickly? Maybe you just need to chill and unwind.
If rest and rejuvenation is your aim, then invest in week’s juice fast in Gale, the most miraculous place I’ve seen in this line of business. 'Vitalise' at Villa Mimosa is very determined to do just that.
A 15-room domed Moorish house, it sits pretty in the middle of the countryside, but is just a 20-minute walk away from the sea. The welcome quiet that prevails here entices people to return for their annual fix, it seems; half of the 16 strong with whom I participated were regulars. Maybe it's the great care Karen and her team take in looking after every aspect of your stay, but for me, the greatest miracle was that I wasn’t hungry at all. This fast is totally doable without pain!
Villa Mimosa is not your ordinary fluffy towel / dolphin music / meditation (or boring) place. Karen and Kes, the young owners who took the business over three years ago from his parents, who ran it for 18 years, have thought very carefully about every moment of your stay. They optimise your time individually, so your goals – as well as your abilities – are taken seriously. There are activities galore, but they aren't forced on you. If you feel like a 90-minute hike through wildflower meadows or along breathtaking cliffs before your first juice, go. If not, do the stretch class. Or, just stay in bed.
Of course, you can have massage, and here you get highly qualified Dutch women who also know about Yoga or Body, not girls who have trained in cosmetics like in too many spa hotels.
But what makes Villa Mimosa a really special place is that it is small enough to allow for a sense of community. When you sit around the table sipping your glass of juice, it feels very much like being in a team in pursuit of a common aim. And oddly that goal is not so much weight loss, though of course that too is very welcome. But most people were more keen on the energy they feel returning after a short week. When the body is detoxing, sound sleep returns, rest ensues, and we feel re-energised. Or vitalised.
What a place of miracles- people rooting for each other rather than competing and enjoying the juice and soup. Sadly I had to leave after a week- but was feeling as if I could pull out trees a la Obelix- and 2kg lighter- quite a result.
A five minute taxi ride away is a simply gorgeous boutique hotel, reputed to be the finest in Portugal, and aptly named Villa Joya. Its restaurant has been the proud possessor of two Michelin stars for the past 18 years now, and is 22nd on the World’s Best Restaurants list.
This airy, yet cosy and eccentric mansion, with a smart spa with transplanted Indian Ayurveda specialists, has been transformed into a hide-away for people who love good food and are willing to splash the cash for Michelin standards. Lunch on the large terrace overlooking a perfect sea view is a joy you won’t forget to soon. The food, as you’d expect, is amazing. Explosions of taste in cute little balls for appetizers, containing the most unlikely ingredients, and delicate fish dishes that are so perfect you just stop talking. They are quite casual about attire, so you can relax and just enjoy the good fortune of being here.
If this all seems very couple orientated, you're right, it is. But there is also beautiful place nearby for families. Only 30 minutes from Villa Mimosa (and 40 minutes) from Faro Airport is Pine Cliffs Resort, a Sheraton Luxury Collection resort. Not overladen with superfluous frippery, but seriously comfortable, it offers one of the real luxuries we crave on holiday: space. Eighty-nine acres of it – wonderfully lush parkland, a golf course running along the Atlantic, a 7,000 square-metre children's play area, and a junior club (ages 8-12). Pine Cliffs has thought of everything. even a Champagne bar in the cliffs, so you can follow the sunset at the best angle. They also provide lifts to the beach, as almost everywhere in the Algarve you still need to walk quite a few steps to reach the water. However, there is a nice beach restaurant to reward you, should you decide to walk.
Of course, there is also a spa with many treatments on offer, but where Pine Cliffs really excels is at outdoor sport. They have the new Annabel Croft Tennis Academy, with clay and grass courts, offering a weekly tournament. The resort aims to improve your game, and the same goes for golf and yoga, so professional coaching is laid on, and you can learn at your own pace. There are plenty of chances to swim, too, with a huge indoor swimming pool and a variety of outdoor ones (although sadly, not heated ones).
After all that exertion, you can enjoy tucking into huge prawns, super-fresh fish or delicious Italian dishes at one of their five restaurants. There really is no need to leave Pine Cliffs, making it perfect for the tired traveller in need of cosseting a great comfort. This is the perfect place for families who love sport and like to enjoy delicious food in comfort and peace.
So really, the Algarve is now a mayor playground for health-oriented people – ideal in early spring and autumn for those who don’t like crowds, and for families who enjoy doing things together in style. And I’d wager these positive changes will make you feel so good – you’ll want them to last and will alter your everyday style – just a bit.