The Coast with the most
The seaside resort of Estoril in Portugal is an ideal place to escape the cold, writes Claire Grady
OKAY, so it was a popular cafe on Lisbon's most stylish street at a busy time of the day.
The pastel de nata, a custard pastry considered the city's signature treat, was delicious, as was the accompanying coffee. But the price, just under €8, was still shocking. That's €7.80 for coffee and cakes — for four.
Day three of a short break to Estoril in Portugal, and the prices continued to surprise. As did the weather.
On a Saturday in late November, we awake to sunshine and temperatures of close to 20°C.
Apart from the good value, agreeable weather, and relative proximity to us (a little over two-and-a-half hours’ flight), what else does this part of Portugal have to offer in the off-season?
Quite a bit. In a relaxed four days, it was possible to fit in two visits to the capital, an afternoon at a 19th century royal palace, a trip to the westernmost point of continental Europe, a flutter at a casino, a drive along the spectacular Atlantic coast, a little light shopping, a bird's-eye view of the area in a light plane and walks along the beach. There are also the golf courses.
But it wasn't for those that the coastal town of Estoril developed into a classy resort which lured European royalty to take the sea air there over the past 100 years.
The imposing villas have since been joined by luxury hotels, leafy parks, a beautifully maintained esplanade and a rail line that puts the capital within a pleasant half-hour journey. And a casino.
Estoril Casino, reputedly the inspiration for Ian Fleming's first James Bond book, Casino Royale, is one of the largest in Europe and a local landmark. Stories abound of fortunes won and lost at the tables — but this visitor's brief flutter isunlikely to add to local lore.
I was sensible and put a firm limit on the amount of cash I'd spend — and blew my impressive €20 budget in 10 minutes.
A morning stroll along the promenade proved the perfect way to contemplate my night of reckless gambling.
At 8.30am on a weekend morning, the sand was being ‘combed' for the day ahead, not a sight you're likely to see on an Irish beach.
Fifteen minutes east along the beach and the walker pitches up in Cascais. This picturesque town is a destination in itself with its old cobbled streets sitting cheek by jowl with a modern shopping centre and a sandy beach near the bustling centre.
A marina on the edge of town has attracted its own development of shops and restaurants and there are plenty of hotels to choose from along the coast.
While many of us like to holiday by the sea, it's well worth tearing oneself away from the coast for the odd excursion inland.
Less than an hour from Estoril and Cascais is the Unesco world heritage site Sintra, comprising a beautiful old Moorish town and the area and castles around it. Half a day is enough to take in the town itself and one of the three impressive palaces in the vicinity. The Palace of Pena sits in a forest high above the town and its beautifully furnished rooms give a taste of how the other half lived right into the early years of the 20th century.
If you can make time for just one other excursion, then it has to be Lisbon.
Any town that claims to have been first settled in 138BC must be worth a look. Forty minutes or so from Cascais or Estoril by train, the city offers a cheap and cheerful way to take in some of the most historic sites — a trip on the number 28 tram.
It rattles through the narrow streets past some of the more interesting buildings and most of the spectacular viewing spots.
Probably the most visited site in Lisbon is the imposing 16th century Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, which houses the tombs of some of the country's best-known navigators.
But among Irish visitors, the birthplace of St Anthony — the patron of lost things — is popular (it can be found in front of Lisbon Cathedral).
One way of taking in all the sights from Cascais to Lisbon and everywhere in between, of course, is from the air. Aviation company Gestair, based near Cascais, has strong links to Ireland thanks to a pilot training course it's developing with an Irish college. And while it doesn't offer strictly sight-seeing flights, it does offer introductory flying lessons during which it's well nigh impossible to avoid the spectacular coast. Whatever way you spend a trip there though, do make time for a pastel de nata.
Tasty — and very cheap.