Holidays with children used to mean packing mountains of kit and lugging it to either a villa somewhere or Center Parcs; trading the fact that you still had to shop, cook and clean for the peace of mind of knowing your kids could run wild without risking annoying other guests. Not any more as the last decade has seen an explosion of high-end family hotels and resorts, all claiming to combine 5 star luxury for grown-ups with great children's facilities.
To be honest, I've always been a bit of a sceptic about these type of hotels. I mean how relaxing a holiday can you really have in a place where over half the guests are under 5? The Martinhal Beach Resort and Hotel - billed as "Europe's finest luxury family resort", winner of numerous travel awards and included in Conde Nast Traveller's list of the world's best family hotels - invited us to visit so we decided to find out.
The first thing you notice about the Martinhal is its beauty. Set on the westerly tip of the Algarve and surrounded by the Costa Vicentia National Park, the scenery is breathtaking and the architecture and landscaping of the resort blends right in. The buildings are low rise and clad in wood. Unlike many large resorts which are so manicured you could be anywhere, the landscaping mirrors that of the area. Looking down from reception on our arrival we gazed across a hillside of wild grasses and flowers, across the main pool, beach and out into the azure blue ocean.
From reception we were taken by golf cart to our room (which was possibly the best part of the whole holiday for our 6 year old son).
The resort offers lots of accommodation choices from rooms in the hotel itself to 5 bedroom villas with private pools. Of these, the Martinhal village houses make up the bulk of the family accommodation. These two or three bedroom houses are spread throughout the resort and named after their locations - ours was a 2 bedroom Ocean House just behind the hotel with views out to the Atlantic.
Like the resort itself, the rooms have been designed to mirror the landscape with a palette of greens, browns and reds and specially designed furniture. They are topsy-turvy to make the most of the views from the first floor balconies, with bedrooms and bathrooms downstairs and open plan sitting, dining and kitchen area up top.
I was pleased to find my bathroom had been stocked with luxury spa products and ecstatic when I discovered that the children's bathroom not only has these but a step, toddler loo seat and potty too. Similarly, the kitchen comes complete with Nespresso machine and capsules but also plastic plates, kids' cutlery and a blender for making baby purees. There's a stairgate to stop toddlers tumbling and furniture is robust looking and child friendly - no glass tables or shelves here. For those with babies, the resort's 'Baby Concierge' can provide everything from travel cots, baby baths, sterilisers and bottle warmers to pushchairs and even toys so you don't have to lug them all with you.
Facilities and Activities
The Martinhal has four swimming pools scattered throughout the resort. All are heated to just the right temperature which is a huge bonus as this part of Portugal can be pretty breezy. Each has its own draw: the gym pool is an indoor/outdoor pool with slides, floats and an adjoining playground, the pool at the sports centre is quieter making it ideal for swimming laps, the Oasis pool is free form with a sloped entry making it ideal for toddlers, while the beach pool has ocean views and a cocktail bar. The big advantage of this is that no one pool ever gets too busy. We were there during the October half-term and the resort was at full capacity but you would never have known.
Other facilities include: a sports club with artificial grass tennis courts, padel courts and a sports field for football and other team sports; a beautiful spa in its own secluded grounds; a games room with table football, pool, table tennis and video games for older children; a water sports centre offering windsurfing, paddle-boarding, kayaking and more; a fully equipped gym which also offers pilates and yoga classes, and a bike station where you can hire not just bikes but also micro scooters for the kids.
There is plenty to do and the resort's childcare options means you aren't restricted to child-friendly activities.
The Martinhal run a variety of children's clubs groups ranging from a creche for babies over 6 months all the way up to an Adventure Club offering surfing and other adrenalin packed activities for teenagers.
Aged 5 and 6, my children fell under the remit of the Fox Club. They have form with kids clubs. An expensive ski trip was scuppered when our then 3 year old daughter screamed so much during her mornings at the kids club that the staff suggested we withdraw her. So it was with some trepidation that we headed over to the kids club on our second day.
All of the kids clubs are based in the Village Square area of the resort. There is a bright nursery for babies and toddlers from 6 to 23 months, a larger room for the 2 to 4s which has its own outdoor area full of slides, playhouses, trikes and other toys and another room which forms the base for the 5-8 year olds.
We were very impressed with the Fox Club room. At its centre was a small soft playframe with slide whilst the walls were lined with toys and craft materials. The staff were friendly and put the children immediately at their ease. It was all enticing enough that our daughter headed in without a second glance back at us.
Slightly surprised by our success but wanting to make the most of it, we headed to the beach armed with books we'd been meaning to read since before I'd got pregnant. A quick stop at the bar on the way to collect some drinks (gin and tonic chosen from a menu of 10 or so different gins and a similar range of tonics) then we ensconced ourselves in one of the beautiful private beach huts and settled down to relax.
In fact, we relaxed so much that we were only awoken a few hours later by whoops of excitement coming from nearby. Upon investigation, this turned out to be our children who'd just completed a treasure hunt with the Fox Club and were busily unearthing a trunk of pirate 'gold' (more commonly known as sweets) on the beach right next to us.
Each kids club session is based around a main activity and that day's was pirates. They'd made pirate hats, had their faces painted and then followed clues around the resort until they'd found the treasure. They had a brilliant time and were insistent that they wanted to go back for more the next day. Amazing!
In the end, they did four sessions in the kids club over the course of the week. They made muffins, had water fights, designed t-shirts, made new friends and had a whale of a time. They'd have gone every day but we thought we'd probably better spend some time with them.
The Martinhal has three restaurants; one in the main hotel which focuses on Portuguese cuisine, a seafood focused restaurant next to the main pool and an informal Italian restaurant serving pizza and pasta.
Each restaurant has a 'Kids Corner' with small tables, colouring in and one of the resort's childcare staff to keep an eye on them. This was one of the best aspects of the holiday. No more trying to keep the kids occupied with breadsticks, eye-spy and i-Phones; instead we were free to enjoy leisurely meals together while they played happily under a well-trained watchful eye. The restaurant nearest the beach also overlooks a play area with climbing frame, sand pit and sunken trampoline which was close enough for more energetic children to be left to play in alone while you watched from your table. The pasta and pizza restaurant opens out into a 'village square' area with a pirate ship for kids to climb on and playhouses to hide in, which was well enough lit that we could happily let the children run riot out there in the evenings while we finished our supper in the restaurant.
So the restaurant set up is fantastic for families, what about the food itself?
On the whole it is very good. The seafood restaurant has a tank full of lobsters and crayfish which can be cooked to your specification whilst the elegant hotel restaurant has a sophisticated menu with dishes like octopus carpaccio, grilled sea bass, herb crusted rack of lamb and glazed duck breast.
Each restaurant also offers a children's menu with options such as home made fish fingers, burgers and pasta plus a babies menu with a choice of purees. Our children reported that their food was 'yummy' although our 6 year old did complain that the kids menu was pretty much the same in all three restaurants meaning he was 'bored' with it by the end of the week.
There was a similar problem for adults at lunchtime. Whilst the resort was full when we visited during October half-term not all of the restaurants were open at lunch. Our only choices were the limited bar menu in the Village Square bar, or the poolside seafood restaurant, and whilst its menu was extensive, there were fewer options for anyone wanting a light lunch (which given the range of food on offer at the hotel breakfast must have been quite a few of the guests). This is presumably only an issue during low season as apparently all of the restaurants open at lunchtime during the summer.
Everything about the Martinhal has been really well thought out to make life as easy as possible for families and it definitely works. We had the most relaxing holiday we've had since the children were born and came back feeling truly refreshed while they did more in their week there than they'd usually do in a month. They are already asking when we'll be going back and we definitely will be.
Travel - There are lots of direct flights to Faro from UK airports and the Martinhal is then a 90 minute car ride away. We hired a car for the drive as we'd planned to explore the area but ended up having such a great time that we never left the resort. Taxi transfers are also available.
Weather - The weather during our stay was beautiful. Although it was October, temperatures ranged between 22 and 29 degrees during our stay, the sun shone every day and the sea was warm enough for me to swim and the children to paddle. We were told we had been particularly lucky though - the weather is usually more changeable at that time of the year.
Prices - Prices for a family of 4 range from around €1,200 up to about €4,600 depending on when you visit and which type of accommodation you choose, but if your children aren't in school yet, the Martinhal offers some great deals during non-peak times. Visit www.martinhal.com or e-mail email@example.com for details of their upcoming deals for February half-term, Easter and early summer.
We paid for our own flights but stayed as guests of the Martinhal with complimentary activities provided for the purpose of this review. All opinions expressed are honest and accurate.