Now Reading
A tiny paradise in Portugal purified my polluted existence

A tiny paradise in Portugal purified my polluted existence

Making waves at Quinta do Lago | Picture: Josh Milton

The pack of guys looked me up and down as I sat in the blank airport coffee shop.

One carried a can of Carlsberg like a newborn. Another arranged the pink tutu around his waist.

The arrivals lane in Faro, Portugal’s southern airport, was a march of tipsy men having quarter-life crises.

Bald-headed crowds clad in green soccer T-shirts pestered rent-a-car clerks and bought two-dimensional paninis from a food-stand. Desperate to soak up all the in-flight beer.

But in minutes, me, Alice—my friend from college—and my 4 cup of coffee are being taxied away from the beer boys and into a Lana Del Rey music video. 

XXL mansions, old rich men, and aggressively green golf courses; we’re at Quinta do Lago. A gated community in a nearby patch called the Algarve, just west of Faro. 

‘It’s been raining for the past four days,’ our driver told us, ‘but the week ahead? All sunshine.’

We praised the Yahoo Weather gods as a bold blue 6pm sky roared above. Coming from gray old London, I feel like I’m in a black-and-white film that just got colorized.

The cab pulled into the Magnolia Hotel, the pastel pink palace where Alice and I stayed for three nights.

The hippest retirement home ever built

The Magnolia is one of a batch of hotels in the Algarve area, joined by apricot-colored apartment complexes and a shopping center crammed with designer labels and upmarket mini-marts.

Any blank space in-between is dotted with dry shrubbery or construction sites for new, glassy multi-million housing estates. 

If this is a Lana Del Rey song, all is missing is my daddy | Picture: Josh Milton

You check-in at the Magnolia front desk, walk through the foyer, and there they greet you.

About a dozen cherry-toned, 50-something Brits lounged on lemon sorbet-colored deck chairs. Each one staring at my aggressively short short shorts as if they’re re-enacting the final scene from The Birds.

Sunburnt Brits aside, the color scheme of the Magnolia is accidentally Wes Anderson. Think pastel pinks, lavenders, succulents, cacti, and art canvases of tattooed torsos. It’s Taylor Swift’s Pinterest board for You Need To Calm Down come to life.

Overall, the Magnolia seemed like the hippest retirement home ever built. Just where are the under-50s at?

Padel with Paulo

Some were a short drive away at The Campus, a multi-sports complex in the heart of Quinta.

It’s there we met Paulo the following morning. Our curly-haired coach for padel—a breathless blend of squash and tennis—stood tall and tanned.

I was dreading it during the ride there.

Physical exercise on holiday? I wished I could go back in time and tell Olivia Newton-John that, no, we’re not getting physical today. But there I was, in Nike shorts and caked in SPF 50, whacking tennis balls. 

Yet, in a plot twist nobody saw coming, I broke a sweat and actually had a solid time. It made the relaxation facilities in The Campus—complete with pool and hot tub—so worth it afterwards. 

Spinning around

Don't worry, I'm not doing a re-make of A Star Is Born | Picture: Josh Milton
Don’t worry, I’m not doing a re-make of A Star Is Born | Picture: Josh Milton

On my third day there, Merriam-Webster’s word of the day was ‘resuscitate,’ which means ‘to revive from apparent death.’ 

The definition was fulfilled that morning.

Sonny, The Campus’ Rhythm Cycle instructor, knew all her fellow spinners. One had drank a gallon of tequila the night before; a martyr in Adidas sportswear to do an 11am spinning class on a Sunday.

Spinning involved Sonny blasting high-octane remixes of 60s swing songs while encouraging you to dial-up the intensity of the exercise bike. She also wore three fluorescent vests. 

Whack, boing, repeat at The Campus | Picture: Josh Milton

Spinning is part of what The Campus has to offer. From world-class athletes to those actually picked first in gym class, everyone can do something there. It boasts a heated pool, gym, and steam room; the holy trinity of athletics. 

When I left the studio after the one hour session on the first floor, the stairs mocked me like a pimply highschool bully asking for my lunch money. 

So, I asked the lift to marry me. It said yes.

‘Designed to be Instagrammable’

After a couple hours of going ‘ahh’ in a hot tub, I took a cab away from the smooth pool waves to a crinkly crusted quiche.

We’re at PURE, Quinta’s all-white vegan joint. It’s so relentlessly healthy, you get your five-a-day just from breathing the air.

Smoothies of every color line the shelves as does a salad bar that’ll make the next supermarket iceberg lettuce you buy look like green-painted cardboard in comparison.

It’s at PURE where I met Joana, a marketing strategist at Quinta. She gave me the low-down of the Magnolia over açaí bowls.

‘All the other hotels in the area are more traditional,’ she said. ‘But the Magnolia is modern. We welcome everyone.’ 

‘We designed the hotel to be Instagrammable,’ Joana added.

‘From your room to the restaurant, it’s designed to be, how would you say,’ she said, as the PURE waiter arrived with our equally Instagrammable salads and smoothies, ‘picture- perfect.’

I quickly regretted not taking a photo of my salad.

Eating, eating, eating

Alice and I’s room in the Magnolia was a bloc of two-storey apartments bracketed by the pool and a wellness studio; complete with spa, steam room, and gym open well into the late PM.

Rest and play are both covered; get a hotel that can do both. The spa offers wraps, cleansing facials, and gel polish pedicures.

Between the tennis court within the hotel grounds and the rentable pedal bikes, if you’re in the mood to be vertical, you’ve got plenty of options here.

When our cab driver heard what hotel we were staying at, he replied ‘Oh, the pastel pink one?’ | Picture: Josh Milton

When it was time to be horizontal, my option was a tidy and compact room that had permanently plump pillows. Two beds. Four towels. No fridge. But it was 100% Instagrammable, just like Joana said.

Considering I’ve only ever been to crowd-pleasing, vaguely appealing, unimaginative as hell hotels—the hospitality equivalents of Ed Sheeran—the Magnolia was a major upgrade for me.

Moreover, as jaded Londoners, Alice and I felt like our lungs were on vacation, too. My existence purified like water in a Brita filter jug. The air is crisp, and the sun always shined.

Every morning, breakfast is served in the hotel restaurant that’s a few footsteps from the pool and the bloc.

Cheese, croissants, and maple syrup-soaked pancakes are stacked high on guest’s speckled green porcelain plates. For three glorious mornings, I ate about as much as Brad Pitt in Ocean’s 11 did. In other words, RIP my diet.

Big bar, big guys, big drinks

Drinks later that night at sports bar Dano’s, next-door to The Campus, dulled the strain my legs were still feeling five hours on from spinning. 

Dano’s is big.

My food at Bovino’s told me I’m too femme (left), while Alice’s bespoke cocktail, the Alabaster, at Dano’s told her sweet nothings | Photo: Josh Milton

HD televisions bellow out international soccer matches and it seemed that some of the beer boys from the airport had found their way here.

The staff were basically like the cast of Cheers, they’ll remember your name and do everything to make you feel content (and your blood-alcohol level sufficiently high).

One cast member was Ze Pedro.

Like Dano’s, he was big. The bar’s mixologist had eaten two kilos of sushi earlier that day. His Breton-striped shirt broadened his already bumper shoulders as he handed us the off-menu cocktail he designed himself, the Alabaster.

‘The first sip will have you go,’ he does a large, muscular shudder, ‘but, like me, it’ll grow on you.’

It grew on me.

The smoked whiskey of his cocktail in it paired well with the pulled pork burger and side-salad I ate. All the ingredients at Dano’s, as well as nearby restaurants, are sourced locally. As you drive, cycle, or stroll around, farmland is as common as mansions and Ralph Lauren-wearing retired CEOs.

‘It’s not just waving a Pride flag,’

Following days of counting waves at the Praia da Quinta do Lago beach and eating steaks worth more than my life at Bovino Steakhouse, I sat on a creaky bar stool with Orlando.

I had a blossoming sunburn and was 12.4 km east from the hotel in downtown Faro. Full of mid-rise cream buildings and graffitied walls, it’s a world away from the resort.

Orlando stood tall in a floral print shirt. The 21-year-old hostel manager lived in the São Pedro neighborhood. He moved to Portugal from Rio de Jeniro, Brazil, three years back. 

‘Safety,’ he said when I asked why. ‘It’s too dangerous out there to be black and LGBTI.

‘I needed to get out of that place. So, I came here. I could never go back. Portugal is unique, it’s not like the rest of Europe.’

Achievement unlocked: pasty Londoners get a tan at the Praia da Quinta do Lago beach | Photo: Josh Milton

Orlando, with his zany Zara short-shorts (still not as short as mine, though), was the first and only young gay man I met on my trip. He wasn’t surprised: ‘Quinta is mainly for retired people.’ 

But what exactly can a resort area do to attract LGBTI people? To him, there’s no flat-pack answer here.

‘It’s not just waving a pride flag,’ Orlando said, sipping his cheap plastic cup beer, ‘it’s about being an ally.

‘Faro Pride is in a month and if Quinta links with local Pride groups, LGBTI people will come.’

‘The least Portuguese part of Portugal’

This ‘if they build it, they will come’ advice from Orlando got me thinking to a moment earlier that evening. 

On the way to meet Orlando, I hitched an Uber to get to downtown Faro. If you don’t drive, the rideshare app is a lifeline for locals and those working inside the resort who travel in.

Driving through tight, dark motorways, Adele blasting from the car radio, my driver, Ricardo, who’s driven for Uber for a year and a half, sketched out his customer demographics.

‘Around three out of five people I pick up are British,’ he said. ‘Faro is the least Portuguese part of Portugal.’

‘I guess so,’ Orlando said when I told him.

‘But Quinta Do Lago is a paradise.’

The Magnolia Hotel [ ; (+351) 289 390 705] offers a Standard Double Room from €92/£80 on a B&B basis or €108/£94 on a half-board basis.

See also