A welcome that is well thought-out and personalised creates the kind of memory that brings luxury travellers back again and again. Take the arrival at InterContinental Lisbon. It was 11.45 p.m. The lift stopped at the 17th floor (you know that from blue and white Portuguese tiles set on the wall opposite the lift doors to form a metre-high 17). In room 1710, a unique Lisbon treat awaited me in the form of three really warm custard tarts. And not just any tarts but Pastéis de Belém, as made since 1837, today still fashioned by hand to a recipe from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos that was devised by de-frocked monks after monasteries were closed during Portugal’s Liberal Revolution in 1820.
This is a 331-room hotel that, thanks to Eric Viale, IHG’s Area Manager – and soon to be head of France – continually reminds you of Portugal, past and present. The samovar in the Club Continental lounge, a clever conversion of the rear of the main lobby, has Portuguese tiles as buttons (and there are the hotel kitchen’s excellent version of custard tarts on the breakfast buffet).
This is a 19-floor hotel that literally, from the high spot above Parque Eduardo VII, dominates this beautiful city. And beautiful it is, litter-free and full of lovely, helpful people. In 2017, the number of tourists to Portugal surged 12% to 12.8 million and this year a further rise of 12% is expected (hotels are full and there are not enough of them). The InterCon, as it is often called, opened in 1985 as Le Méridien Lisboa. In 2003, as part of the Tiara group, it was renamed Park Atlantica Lisboa, and in 2014 the owners sensibly decided that InterContinental was a better brand. It is a very well thought-out hotel, with an excellent 24/7 LifeFitness gym, with lots of fresh fruit – always a sign that the GM cares about wellness.
As I left what is really an unforgettable and admirable hotel, I marvelled at the futuristic video in the elevator. I went out, into the blazing sunshine, to be greeted by a posse of television cameras, and then up rolled a mammoth BenficaTV bus. Lisbon’s Benfica football team (‘The reds’), a publicly quoted company, has, with 14 million supporters worldwide, the honour of having the highest percentage of supporters in its own country. It can certainly pay for such a bus. Last September it reported profits of €44.5 million, enough also to support its own television network, BenficaTV, and a weekly newspaper. From custard tarts to a football bus, I smile at lovely Lisbon today.
One of the many reasons the city is such a tip-top luxury destination, by the way, is its infrastructure – buy a Lisboa card online beforehand for free transport and many cultural admissions, and pre-booked airport pickup to avoid peak-time lines for taxis. Another reason is its really super people, who normally have excellent English and, regardless, want to help. After leaving the InterContinental I was on my way to Estoril and had not realised some buses do not run at weekends. I was rescued by a non-speaking Jehovah’s Witness, who understood the written words Estoril and Alcântara-Mar station; she left her conversion booklets and became a guide for seven minutes. Thirty minutes later, I got off the train at Mont-Estoril, the last stop before Cascais. On one side, immediately, was the beach. On the other side, high above the train station, soared a futuristic grey-steel sculpture of a hotel.
This is InterContinental Estoril, an anomaly, 52 rooms slotted into one end of three floors of a seven-floor residential block, but fortunately, the power of the brand means the IHG logo is as big as it can be, both ends of the block. I think the interior was divided up by Dr Rubik, or a jigsaw maker. To get to lovely end suite 201 from the lobby I turned right, then left, past the all-glass wall looking into the Atlantica Residences’ lobby: at the lifts on my left I pressed where I wanted to go, and took the arriving lift down to the second floor. Sometimes, at that floor, it let me out one side, to the spa, sometimes to the other, to the corridor. But I did immediately fall in love with my suite. I looked down at the hotel’s garden and outdoor pool, and across over the tops of trains to the ocean. And I was quickly enamoured of the food.
The hotel’s restaurant, which is run by IHG, is Atlantico, an old single-floor tiled-roof house three minutes’ walk from the hotel, with full signing privileges. It is superb. At lunchtime, there is a sizeable terrace, but as evening progresses, this is covered in with a concertina of glass panels. No flowers on the tables; only big inner-lit white glass bowl-shaped lights on gold stands. Turquoise Chilewich mats are so suitable for this ambience, and I went Portuguese, including a local red wine, Monte da Ravasqueira 2017. Bread included half-slices of rustic white, olive baguette or brown wholemeal, with Portuguese Distintus oil.
I should know by now that you cannot keep a good chef down and Daniel Abreu, helped by consultant Miguel Laffan, sent out a deep-fried cod patty as a preamble. Then it was my choice. I started with Azores tuna tartare with ginger, lime and sesame oil, and went on to seafood tagliatelle with champagne and saffron sauce. Although there are dozens, if not more, casual eating places within 20 minutes’ walk, Atlantica was doing very nicely indeed, both from the unusually discerning guests this unique hotel attracts and also from local residents. I hear Estoril is so popular with expats, who get 10 years’ tax exemption if they move here, that it has four international schools.
Estoril is mentally uplifting, even for a brief visit. That was my first thought on waking up and looking across the two balconies of suite 201 at the sunrise. Estoril also has unusually thoughtful and creative people. As well as selections of fruit and lots of water, waiting in suite 201 was a spiral-bound book, a personalised travel journal. Carina Rodrigues, who says she herself always keeps a travel diary, had led this compilation, and over a dozen of her colleagues had signed the foreword. It was actually amazingly humbling to look through and realise how much work had gone into all this, a reminder of travels that had covered much of the world, with photos going back many years as well as 2018’s Greenland and Iceland.
Memories came rushing back. I arrived in Geneva once when Mandarin Oriental had a lifesize cow-for-charity outside its front door. Philippe Leboeuf, GM of Mandarin Oriental Paris, was visiting, and he joined his Geneva colleague, Lars Wagner, for a photo. The book went on and on, but I had things to do, like find my way back to the gym, which uses mind-fitness to find, through several all-wall glass panels which sometimes open automatically, sometimes not. I joined the locals, too, in an early morning power-walk along the coast path, between the rail line and the sea: it is only 15 minutes to Cascais. Later in the day, the small, sandy protrusions that constitute beaches will be chock-a-block with sun worshippers. Now, there are only sunbeds, in military order.
Breakfast at InterContinental Estoril is a delight, especially if you are early. You are in the main hotel, rear of the sunny lobby which opens on to a glass-sided terrace. An adjacent inner room has the full buffet. I meditated while enjoying great figs and papaya, and looking at the view. There is a library room here, too, where previous guests have left books. An eclectic collection in English, German and Portuguese gives an indication of who stays here – a couple of times I have talked to an athletic father and two early-teen kids who have also just arrived. The daughter, about 13 and as poised as model Kalya Gerber (16 years old and new ‘face’ of Karl Lagerfeld), carries a Louis Vuitton shoulder bag, suitably worn.
This is a hotel for the discerning, who want quality. The curvilinear outdoor pool, below my terrace, is uncluttered, as if it were your pool back home. For those who are driving, the valet service was one of the quickest I remember – there is a mass of carpark space under the hotel, as you see when taking a shortcut to the rail station and the sea. For those, like me, who relish every bit of exercise, you can bypass the lift-down-to-carpark and, instead, walk outside, two minutes down a cobbled slope and then take 50 wood steps down to the rail station carpark. Just as I got there, the time for my train, 11.09, approached, and only two seconds later, in pulled the railcar and I began my scenic coast-hugging trip back to central Lisbon.