‘Mouth of hell’. Say what? The literal translation of the destination to which we are heading isn’t entirely enticing. Having just driven past the most stunning stretch of Portugal's unfettered westernmost coastline, where wide white-sand dunes stretch to Atlantic waves, it doesn't seem so fitting either.
Swerving into Cascais itself, we soon pootle past a lemon-coloured 15th-century fairytale castle complete with a pointy turret. Next to Cidadela de Cascais, peacocks roam the surrounding parkland. At the end of this pedestrianised seaside avenue we see Farol Design Hotel. Right on cue Mr Smith announces ‘Are you sure you've got Cascais' meaning right? Because the next time you tell me to go to hell, I'm heading straight here.’ He’s a card that Mr Smith. But he's right: it does look distinctly like a gateway to good times.
Farol is a traditional 19th-century Portuguese villa with a modern extension perched on a rocky outcrop on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Parking up alongside shiny Mercs, we roll out of our slightly shabby rental car wondering if we should excuse ourselves with some sort of bumper sticker (although ‘My other car’s a Honda Civic Hybrid’ might not have that much cachet in this distinguished Portuguese town).
Truth be, I can be wary of establishments that choose to use words such as ‘design’ in their name – pointing out such a trait shouldn’t be necessary. But here it adds a playfulness to what otherwise looks at quick glance like a grand seaside home. In the lobby, painted portraits of supermodels are the first indication of the private owners' appreciation of the fashion world. We’re reminded by the friendly receptionist that we’ve plumped for one of the suites that were originally decorated by Portuguese fashion designers. Of the 34 rooms, 10 had their interiors concocted by names such as Ana Salazar and José Antonio Tenente.
When the designer behind our simple, white sea-view abode mapped out its look, perhaps she was riding the Noughties' minimalist wave – it contrasts refreshingly with the hotel's more flamboyant areas. The restraint lets the view do the loudest talking: which is appreciated when you have a panorama of the Atlantic to appreciate.
We are here in spring, but the sun is in a summery mood and it shines high in a deep blue cloudless sky, luring us poolside. Padding down through the hotel’s plush black-carpeted hallways treats us to a swagger through the cocktail lounge (complete with actual ashtrays – retro!). Doors are open to the all-black private dining room where huge eccentric muslin-wrapped chandeliers float above like exotic sea creatures. We squeeze pass a throng of glamorous Russians enthusiastically smoking away, out onto the pared-down concrete-floored decking that exudes contemporary cool. The old-fashioned lighthouse and Portuguese villa of Santa Marta, just visible around the corner near the Museu Condes de Castro, remind us of we're in Portugal.
The soundtrack of the waves on the rocks below (best enjoyed from a four-poster lounger) certainly helps guests take thoughts down a gear. But if there's any danger of becoming too lethargic a bracing dip in the pool will slap you awake. It is hard to prise ourselves away from the Café del Mar vibe at all, but the tantalising platters of sushi we’ve seen being served are like Getty Images come to life and are making us hungry. Saving our appetite for Japanese cuisine until the next night when we're booked into the in-house restaurant, we hit that coastal road again.
Admiring those windswept beaches, we take a table in the glass-fronted Furnas do Guincho, where we're presented with a plate of rubbery long goose barnacles seconds after sitting. If I'd been asked to visualise a sci-fi cartoon called Mouth of Hell, these terrifying rubbery orange tubes might have been what I'd visualise being eaten. Thankfully, after we snap open the crustacea's leathery jackets, their shiny salty fishiness prove surprisingly moreish.
Our next meal is more conventional, but delicious too. Scrambled eggs and coffee from the mega buffet in the hotel's voyeuristic Atlantic-edge restaurant has us revved up to explore. We start with a stroll around the Parque Marechal Carmona, and then nosey around the town’s beaches. Busy, but ideal for people watching, there's no doubt we're in Portugal as we watch young families, teenagers and pensioners happily claiming their squares in the sand.
It’s a pretty, chocolate-box town that gets cooling sea breezes – no wonder Portugal’s royal family liked to retreat here to Cascais from the capital during the sweltering summer months. It remains just as popular today with couples and families from Lisbon, eager for a dose of sea air. Before we’d come away we’d weighed up whether to spend a long weekend in a beach resort, or book a European city break a whirl at Farol Design Hotel has been the ideal compromise.
Our second and final evening feels like a significant anniversary (helped along by prices usually reserved for special occasions). It's so popular that service is not so snappy, but we barely care once the local well-priced vinho verde we've been recommended starts to slip down. Those cheeky Portuguese winemakers are known to save the best stuff to serve on home turf. Thankfully the secret is out about all this magnificent coastline has to offer, and Farol Design Hotel is a reliable bet for a cultured coastal mini-break.