There’s something surreal about Quinta do Lago. Set on the southern coast of Portugal, the resort is a 15-minute drive from Faro airport along a highway and then back roads, before the route turns to smooth tarmac. A discreet sign lets you know you’ve arrived – if the manicured grounds and impressive villas haven’t given it away already.
Residents use the many roundabouts as landmarks – so, for example, you’ll find the driving range at Roundabout 4 or Bovino Steakhouse off Roundabout 6. Almost 50 years ago, Quinta do Lago, which literally means “farm on the lake”, was an isolated farmstead. That was before property developer André Jordan transformed the area into one of Europe’s most exclusive destinations. Surrounded by more than 800 hectares of the Ria Formosa Natural Park, the gated community and golf resort has catered to the likes of Ayrton Senna and Princess Caroline of Monaco (and speaking of which, one of the first things I learn during my stay is that Quinta is three times the size of the principality).
Until recently, says chief executive Sean Moriarty, Quinta do Lago was recognised as a “very elite, wealthy retirement home for golfers. That’s the way it was for quite some time, but it was also a hidden gem for a lot of people. What we’ve been trying to do over the last couple of years is to bring in more families, make it more open.
“A lot of people describe Quinta do Lago as a sanctuary. When they come here, people don’t torment them, people aren’t at them all the time.”
“Them” presumably refers to any of the sports and TV personalities who’ve made their second home here. Rumour has it that former professional footballer and England captain John Terry has a villa, so I’m on high alert for celeb sightings. Is that Littlefinger from Game of Thrones in the cafe? If so, he’s looking remarkably tan. I walk past Judy Murray on my way to breakfast and find out later that she’s running a tennis camp for kids. I think of all the parents hoping for the next Andy or Jamie.
If you don’t happen to be one of the super-rich who own property here, your accommodation as a visitor will range from self-catered villas to hotels such as the Conrad Algarve and the eminently Instagrammable Magnolia Hotel. But the current buzz around the resort is all about The Campus.
“What we’re trying to create here is a fly-to destination, not just a drive- to destination,” says Moriarty. Officially opened in autumn 2018, the €10 million Campus has already hosted the Beijing Sinobo Guoan football club, which trained on its stadium-quality pitch. Alongside football, the venue boasts tennis and padel courts, an aquatic centre, yoga studios and The Bike Shed.
Run by the Irish cyclist and double Paralympic champion Mark Rohan, the Shed is his bid to put the Algarve on the cycling map in much the same way as Mallorca. Offering everything from custom bike fittings to one-on-one coaching, it’s geared towards both recreational and competitive cyclists and triathletes. “We had a guy here with his daughter, who wanted to do a 10-kilometre ride, and they ended up doing 20 kilometres,” says Rohan. So it’s with some trepidation that I wheel my bike outside and prepare for my guided tour of the Ria Formosa.
It turns out we needn’t have worried. Considered one of the seven natural wonders of Portugal, the nature reserve is a pleasingly flat maze of canals, islands, marshes and barrier islands. It’s also a birdwatcher’s paradise, our guide tells us as she hands around binoculars. She points towards a corner of the wetlands and from our bikes we spot a spoonbill and a glossy ibis. (“I used to date a girl called Glossy Ibis,” quips one of my group.)
Of course, no visit to Quinta do Lago would be complete without swinging a golf club – even for a complete newbie such as myself. We make our way towards the driving range (yes, at Roundabout 4) and visit the first Paul McGinley Academy in the world. Founded in 2011 by the captain of the 2014 Ryder Cup-winning team, the academy is managed by José Ferreira, who shows us around the TaylorMade Performance Centre. It’s the only one of its kind in Southern Europe, and is equipped with machines to test everything from your swing to your weight distribution. When Ferreira tells us that the radar technology used in their tracker is the same as that used by the navy, I wonder, briefly – why?
But all such cynicism is brushed aside when Ferreira drives us to the short-game practice area for a quick lesson. Set back from the driving range, the secluded area can be reserved for VIPs and is where Rory and Tiger like to practice, explains Ferreira. It’s stunning. Atypically for the Algarve, the clouds are heavy that day and rain threatens at any moment. Now and again bright rays of sun shine through, giving the proceedings a vaguely religious quality. Is this my Damascene moment on a golf course?
I clutch my club, adjust my feet, eye the ball. And swing.