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NO ONE could every accuse me of possessing a sense of realism; hence my refusal to acknowledge that I will never play for Manchester United even though I am (a) 50, and (b) lacking in the necessary footballing ability.

But even I accepted, when given a copy of 1001 Golf Holes You Must Play Before You Die, that my life expectancy and financial means would together prevent me from meeting the title's challenge.

However, I have decided to try to accumulate an eclectic round by playing at least one from each of its 18 chapters and a trip to the breathtakingly beautiful five-star resort at Penha Longa, near Lisbon, enabled me to chalk up hole six, a challenging 501-yard par-5 on the Robert Trent Jones Jnr-designed Atlantic course. Should a companion volume Hotels You Must Stay In Before You Die follow, Penha Longa will undoubtedly feature in that, too. Set in a 545-acre national park in the shadow of the Sintra mountains, this is a former royal retreat where every guest is treated like royalty.

My partner Shirley and I were struck throughout our stay by the friendliness of the staff, who exhibited a genuine pride in both the resort and its location and an engaging knowledge of its history and cultural attractions.

Their serenity and charm probably owes much to their working environment for Penha Longa has a luxuriously elegant and relaxed ambience.

For more than 700 years the area's qualities have bewitched its occupants, right from primitive Iberians for whom it was a centre of cult worship, through the monks whose monastery was complemented by a palace built by King Manuel in the 16th century, to today's guests visiting the Ritz-Carlton Hotel establishment.

An earthquake in 1755 partially destroyed a church which had also been built on the site, but the palace and the re-constructed 14th century monastery remain, and are the focal points of a relaxing stroll through the grounds and amenities.

Each of Penha Longa's sumptuous 177 rooms features a large terrace with panoramic views overlooking its twocourses, gardens and countryside. Ours looked out onto the first and final holes of the Atlantic course, and beneath was the hotel's swimming pool – a vista whose appeal grew as the sun dipped and the shadows lengthened across the rolling fairways of a course whose challenges awaited me the following day. The Atlantic has hosted many prestigious events, including the Portuguese Open, although Penha Longa's golf director Andrew Glen feels it would need to have several back tees built to test European golf's elite, who hit the ball so much further than their predecessors, thanks in part to advances in equipment technology.

However, he is justifiably proud of renovation work which has taken in everything from renewing bunkers, fairways and greens through to upgrading the golf buggies and rental equipment available.

The Atlantic offers three phases: the opening holes thread their way through fairways guarded by olive, cork oak and eucalyptus trees; the middle section takes the player out into open, scented hillsides offering stunning views of the ocean and the seaside towns of Estoril and Cascais; and then the course winds its way back to the clubhouse through the shaded vales nestling in the foothills of the Sintra mountains.

The majority of its holes are visually stimulating and the closing stretch will maintain a player's interest no matter the scores on his or her card to that point. Unfortunately, during my visit the fairways were parched due to the effects of a drought and Penha Longa's decision to ensure what water was available was used to maintain the tees and greens. However, a programme of reseeding with the more drought-resistant Kentucky Blue Grass was undertaken through winter to restore the Atlantic to its former glory.

To restore me to my former glory, such as it ever was, proved beyond even the resort's new Six Senses Spa, but a visit was no less of a delight for that.

I could tell you that Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, renowned for its summer ballet and musical festivals, or that it was popular with 19th century artists and poets such as Lord Byron and Hans Christian Andersen.

But instead let me tell you about its cakes – well, Portugal's love affair with cakes as exemplified by Sintra, but, I gather, common-place throughout the country. The confectionery is laid out in colourful row upon row and you can stand sipping coffee and eating cake to your heart's – if not your health's – content. You decide the size of the slice, from a slither to a slab, and have it weighed and priced by the bakery industry's answer to Carol Vorderman: I'll have one from the top, one from the middle, and two from the bottom, please. Heaven.

If you want to indulge and yet return home the same weight, Penha Longa provides other physical activities: cycling, horseback riding, tennis, squash, the nine-hole Monastery golf course plus its own fitness centre.


Penha Longa, Portugal

Published: September 2, 2006

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