There's another kind of playground in Cascais, Portugal's watering hole of kings and movie stars. Here, couples lounge on the grass in beanbag chairs while children of all ages jump on the in-ground trampoline, ride the zipline and climb the Tree of Wisdom fort. A blond toddler sits behind the wheel of a bright-green Volkswagen camper van playhouse, and tweens work on crafts in the 7,865-square-foot Kids Clubhouse.
This kiddie wonderland is part of the Martinhal Cascais Family Hotel, one of four Martinhal resorts in Portugal oriented around a family vacation experience.
When my twin girls were toddlers, the constant caretaking, sleepless nights and fears of child-unfriendly accommodations kept me from dreams of European travel with them. It turns out Chitra and Roman Stern (she's from Singapore, he's from Switzerland) noticed a lack of family-focused hotels.
In 2001, around when their first child was born, the Sterns began work on their first family hotel in Sagres, Portugal, which opened as the Martinhal Sagres Beach Family Resort in 2010. Chitra's motto for the resort: "Parents should have their cappuccino with the foam still on it." She wanted a hotel where kids felt at home and were cared for, so parents could truly relax and enjoy things as simple as an uninterrupted morning coffee.
The Sterns hit the bring-the-kids travel trend on the upswing. In 2016, Martinhal added properties in Cascais and Lisbon, each with signature amenities for child care and parent pampering. They've also launched an annual Family Brand Event in Cascais, featuring a day of TED-like talks and inspiration from notable names in the family market.
A guestroom at the Martinhal Cascais Family Hotel. The 100-acre property has 72 rooms and 12 villas.
My companion and I arrived in Cascais on the train from Lisbon (a 30-minute trip) and took a taxi 10 minutes up the Atlantic coast to the resort. The contemporary hotel is a destination in itself, with its double-level reception atrium and terraced gardens with water features. Designed by Portuguese architect Joao Paciencia, it was built in 2011 next to a 17th century building that is now an events space known as the King D. Carlos Hunting Lodge. The Quinta da Marinha and Oitavos Dunes golf courses border the grounds with rolling greens, and the ocean lies just beyond.
On our exploration of the 100-acre property, we visited the indoor/outdoor pool next to the full-service Finisterra Spa and another gated pool with a bar in the gardens. Our room, one of 72 (each with private decks or balconies), was well appointed and spacious. We also toured one of the 12 stand-alone, contemporary villas that are popular with families who prefer a home environment, with full kitchens and open-concept floor plans. It's not a shiny and fastidious London or Paris five-star but a family-friendly country cousin that strikes the balance between luxury and ease.
Though a visit to Martinhal doesn't require bringing children, I wish there'd been a Kids Clubhouse like this back when I thought travel with toddlers was impossible. Parents can drop off kids 6 months and older from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. to enjoy a schedule of activities and crafts in the baby, toddler and teen rooms (for kids up to 17). In-room babysitters are easily arranged for an hourly rate, and equipment such as safety gates and potties are available on loan.
We found the Portuguese and international options at the O Terraco restaurant (a daily breakfast buffet is included) compelling for adults as well as the surprisingly well-mannered children. And no one batted an eye at a child with a small trainer bike parked at her table. Next door, Os Gambozinos offers an a la carte Italian menu with pizza and pasta and a bar where parents can congregate (with baby monitors in hand) after the kids are asleep.
The next day was spent at the Martinhal Luxury Family Brand Event, listening to talks by independent names in the family travel market. Paul Lindley of Ella's Kitchen, a healthy baby food company in England, spoke about the power of thinking like a toddler in business and life. (As with learning to walk, he said, starting a business means you have to keep falling and getting up until that thing that seemed impossible is easy.)
Family bloggers and small-business owners shared rags-to-riches tales, notably Elsbeth Teeling of Relax Mama, a popular blog that became a book in the Netherlands, and Niamh Sherwin-Barry of the Irish Fairy Door Co. in Ireland. Mothers in the audience especially resonated with Mariana Duarte Silva's journey of unexpectedly falling in love and raising three children while struggling to establish the Village Underground in Lisbon, an unconventional working space built from containers, old buses and determination.
Fold-out bunk beds in a room at the Chiado.
After two days in Cascais, my companion and I took the train back to the city and checked into Martinhal's Lisbon Chiado Family Suites. Billed as "the first city-center elegant family hotel," it inhabits a 19th century former residence on Rua das Flores in the fashionable Chiado neighborhood. Thanks to recent refurbishments, the original curved ceilings and Portuguese tiles met contemporary furnishings. The one- and two-bedroom apartments have full kitchens, large living areas and Lollipop foldout bunk beds. The charming Kids Club is smaller than at Cascais but with similar child care options.
In place of the signature VW camper van playhouse at Cascais, the M Bar Family Cafe boasts a BMW Isetta with the single wheel in back. It's a hit with young and old.
"I didn't bring my kids, either," a woman next to me said as I savored that leisurely cappuccino and watched children playing in the Isetta. "But all the kids here make me feel right at home, without the hassle." Her sentiment could serve as a tagline for the Martinhal experience.
Nightly rates at the Martinhal Cascais Family Hotel begin at $276, including breakfast; rates at the Martinhal Lisbon Chiado Family Suites begin at $278 for a studio room, including breakfast.