Off the beaten path
High up on an ochre cliff overlooking the cobalt blue Atlantic Ocean stands a stately hotel. In the quiet grounds of manicured lawns and palm trees all seems restful. A woman lolls on a white lounger, her image reflected in the still swimming pool, and a waiter arrives with a tray of ice-cold refreshments. But just a minute away from this tranquil scene is a very different sight. More than a dozen men in training whites are working up a sweat on a full-sized football pitch. Lounging is the last thing on their minds.
Cascade, just outside Lagos in the Western Algarve region of Portugal, is no ordinary five-star hotel. The resort offers facilities for relaxation, including a spa and gourmet restaurant, but also several sports academies, a gym and a medical centre staffed to treat any sporting injuries that might occur.
The football academy is headed by Sweden's Sven-G?ran Eriksson.
'Swiss businessman Urs Wild presented the idea to me,' says Eriksson. 'He had run hotels in the region before, but was keen to do something different and came up with the idea of a hotel with professional facilities for football, golf and tennis. I jumped on it.'
This winter the first professional teams arrived to take advantage of the facilities. 'We've had the Russian and the German football teams here and they have already booked for next year,' says Eriksson. 'The hotel has big rooms with sea views and in just a couple of minutes walk you are on the cliffs or the beach. Then, in less than a minute's walk you are on the pitches, which are fantastic - you can compare them with [English] Premier League quality. [Former German striker] Rudi V?ller told me he has never seen anything like it.'
Eriksson first came to the Algarve in 1979, when he arrived for a training camp as part of the Swedish team. He lived in Portugal for five years when he was manager of Benfica and has a house in Cascais, just outside Lisbon.
'The Algarve has the perfect climate for sports of all kinds, with very mild winters,' says Eriksson. 'It is popular for water sports, fishing and golf, although I don't play myself. I brought the England team here in 2006 just before they began training for the World Cup. We stayed at Vale do Lobo, a beautiful resort outside Vilamoura, and a few of the England team went out fishing. It is very easy to hire boats for day trips and you can explore the coastline and snorkel.'
The region has been developing steadily over the past 30 years, as more and more tourists are drawn to the extensive coastline, long hot summers and a vibrant, welcoming community.
'Everything has changed since I was first here in the 1970s. There were very few nice hotels at that time, but the infrastructure was not there. Today you have everything, whether you are single or travelling with your family,' says Eriksson. 'I think they have been rather clever in Portugal - they are not building as much as they have in Spain in certain areas. The Portuguese are looking after the landscape and are keen for it not to be hotels, hotels, hotels.'
Eriksson is not the only sporting Swede to have fallen in love with this stretch of Portugal's coast. Former tennis number one, Stefan Edberg, has taken on the tennis academy at Cascade and is thrilled to have discovered the region. 'During my tennis career I did not play in Portugal,' he says. 'So it was a territory of Europe I didn't know much about. I feel it is a forgotten part of Europe and is a little bit different from the rest of the riviera. There are not so many people and it is a safe place, which I like.'
Edberg now comes to Lagos three or four times a year. It is an ancient maritime town, from where Portuguese discovery ships set sail in the 15th century. 'There is a lot of history here,' says Edberg. 'There is a fort in the old town that dates to the 17th century, which houses a small museum, and there is a very nice harbour with a promenade that reminds me a bit of Nice. All around the old town are lots of great restaurants and then, of course, there are the high cliffs and fabulous beaches. When I have a lot of friends over, it is very good value for money compared to a lot of other places in Europe. You get a really good meal for a good price and most of the food is excellent. The people are very friendly, too.'
Eriksson agrees. 'The Portuguese are lovely and they treat foreigners very well. They know how to live well - the fish here is fantastic, and so is the wine. There's ice-cold vinho verde at lunchtime and the reds from the Alentejo region in the evening.'
Away from Lagos there is plenty to explore. Both Eriksson and Edberg recommend a drive to Sagres, on the southwestern tip of the Algarve. 'It is a beautiful drive and it takes you right to the edge of Europe,' says Edberg. The area is popular with surfers, as the windswept beaches get the full force of the Atlantic.
Just east along the coast from Lagos is the bustling town of Portim?o, where sardines come straight off the fishing boats and onto the charcoal grills that line the harbour. Just out of town is a new go-karting track, which Eriksson enjoys taking friends to. 'It's an amazing track - one of Europe's largest kart circuits. You hire a go-kart, put on a helmet and off you go. It's so much fun. They are really fast.'
Edberg only plays tennis a few times a week now. 'We have some great courts here, but I don't play that hard, just enough to keep my body in shape,' he says. 'It's a wonderful game. But I come here to relax and enjoy life - take walks, go down to the beach, and enjoy the restaurants. Life is pretty simple, which is the way I like it.
'It's a really nice part of the world - a little bit forgotten, as most people go to the South of France. But if you want more value for money, a little bit more peace and quiet, and if you like activity, it is a good place.'
How to get there
Several airlines - including KLM, British Airways and Lufthansa - operate flights from Hong Kong to Lisbon, from where you can get a connecting flight to Faro or take the train to Lagos.
Where to stay
Praia do Canavial, Lagos
Tel: +351 (282) 771 500
Vale De Lobo
Almancil Tel: +351 (289) 353 000
Quinta do Martinhal
Apartado 54, Sagres
Tel: +351 (282) 240 200
Where to eat
Estrada da Praia da Gale, Albufeira
Tel: +351 (289) 591 795
Restaurante Pezinhos N'Areia
Praia Verde, Castro Marim
Tel: +351 (281) 513 195
68 Rua Candido dos Reis, Lagos
Tel: +351 (282) 760 659
What to do
Tennis and football academies at Cascade Resort
Stefan Edberg builds tennis programmes for players and coaches. Professional football teams also train, and this year the academy will run a school for children.
Autodromo Internacional do Algarve
S?tio do Escampadinho, Mexilhoeira Grande in Portimao autodromodoalgarve.com