It is peculiar how the pandemic has affected the mind of even the most phlegmatic amongst us. I had convinced myself that my trip last week to Portugal would evoke memories of the most fabled expeditions of Polo, Columbus or Cook. In reality, I was on a three-day jolly with my wife and two friends to grab some overdue sunshine, gorge on seafood, wash down copious Copo de Tinto, maybe even swing a golf club.
The reason for my errant forecast was that I travelled on 18th May, one day after travel restrictions were eased to a small number of countries, of which Portugal easily being the most significant and accessible and a willingness to reciprocate. I had listened to the noise made by the travel press and on social media during the previous 3 weeks of confusion about testing requirements, onerous government regulation and annoying airline protocol. If you bear with me I will recall our experience, which far from being a logistical minefield was actually boringly straightforward, fast and efficient and enabled us to have a great few days. It may answer any questions or de-mystify any misunderstandings you may have.
Covid test at Gatwick airport two days before travelling (it must be a maximum of 72 hours before the time of departure). This was easy and took under five minutes. A ‘Fit to Fly’ certificate was emailed to us within 12 hours. Cost £60.
Checked in online (as usual) 24 hours before departure and then completed Passenger Locator Form on the Government website. This took under ten minutes. Up and at ‘em early next morning, driving to Heathrow and checked in the bag. Airport was very quiet and we went through departures, the ladies heading for the duty-free shopping whilst the gentlemen headed for liquid refreshment at Wetherspoons. Most shops, bars and restaurants were open.
No delays at the gate, passport, ticket and passenger locator forms were checked and the flight was 80% full with a normal level of service (make of that what you will!). Had to wear a mask but it wasn’t uncomfortable.
The flight landed and we had collected our bags and were out of Faro airport within 15 minutes.
Unsurprisingly the hotel at Castro Marim was quiet, but the service was very good, bar, restaurant and pool were open and the course appeared to be in very good condition. The spacious chalets and the surrounding grounds were maintained to a high standard and we enjoyed superb views along the coasts of the Algarve and Andalucia.
We ventured out to the excellent Panoramica restaurant in Praia Verde. Most Portuguese were wearing masks outside but the rules in the restaurants and bars mirrored our experience at home.
All bars were open, and although reasonably quiet, business has started to pick up with a few tourists, Portuguese locals and Spanish who had popped over the open, unpoliced border to enjoy Portuguese food and Portos, Douros and Alentejos. As numbers were relatively low the service was top-notch.
We were greeted the following day by bright sunshine and 24C, the polar opposite of the wet, windy and cold weather at home, and ventured to the Naval Club near Villareal to meet with Tino, the new Golf Director at Isla Canela, but an old friend of Golf Escapes. Government classification of Spain in the amber channel precluded the possibility of us travelling to Spain to meet him at the excellent Isla Canela hotel and golf complex. From previous visits, I can attest to the beautifully manicured course and the well-maintained and run hotel. Isla Canela has now invested in a second course and complex just 10 minutes away to provide choice for its clients (the second course is a challenging, very long links course, for the more advanced golfer, firmly ruling me out). The courses are positioned on either side of the wonderful border town of Ayamonte, packed with beautiful squares, great shops, bars and restaurants.
The only minor encumbrance was the necessity for a lateral flow test to be done 48 hours before our return flight. This was arranged for us by the staff at Castro Marim at a local pharmacy. The test was quick and cost €35. Results were emailed to us within 15 minutes.
For any golfer looking for a change from the main drag on the Algarve and prepared to turn left out of the airport, heading east, then the 3 courses at Castro Marim and Isla Canela offer a real treat and the opportunity to enjoy two nations, two cultures and quality golf.
The only real point of hassle is the need to book a PCR test to be taken within two days of arriving home. The test number is needed for the passenger locator form to board the return flight, it is essential that this is booked and costs £80. Unless you have a local test centre it is easier to get the test kit sent to you and to send it back by post.
The flight back was uneventful and quiet and it took just ten minutes to get through UK customs.
Was it worth the extra cost and time to take the tests? Absolutely. Not having travelled abroad since November 2019, we all felt that this was a much-needed but sadly too brief break and escape from the restrictions and weather at home, and we can’t wait for the next one.