Sunday, February 25, 2024
Home Vacation Can a fitness retreat in Portugal still feel like a holiday?

Can a fitness retreat in Portugal still feel like a holiday?

by Staff
Would this holiday be all hard work – with very little enjoyment? (Picture: Getty)

It happens every time I go on holiday

During the packing process, I spend considerable time outfit planning. Which dresses work for the beach? Which for an evening cocktail? And which will look nice in the photos I inevitably forget to take?

But it doesn’t matter anyway, because by day two of any holiday – down to a combination of humidity and the sheer excess of food and alcohol – nothing sits comfortably anymore. Waistbands cut in and there’s no stretch. 

I’m having the time of my life eating two ice creams a day, three courses at every meal, and napping in the midday sun – but I stop feeling excited about the outfits I’ve brought with me and just end up re-wearing the same handful of items that I feel most comfortable in.

So, I decided to switch it up and go on a holiday where I brought a bit more of my home routine into a trip – regular exercise and less indulgence – to see whether it was a) actually still fun b) I felt better by the end of it. 

Jetting off to Pine Cliffs Resort in the Algarve, Portugal for three nights, I’d packed my bikini, like usual, but also a tonne of workout gear – because I would be getting a taste of one of the programmes they offer: Bootcamp Insanity.

The view from Pine Cliffs resort
The weather was still lovely in November (Picture: Jess Austin)
The hotel
The hotel’s architectural style is colonial (Picture: Jess Austin)

Bootcamp Insanity is among the many wellness courses Pine Cliffs offers (others include Weight Management and Fitness Journey) and the resort clearly prioritises movement. 

Alongside one of the most well-stocked gyms I’ve ever seen (let alone a hotel gym), they have eight pools (one Olympic-sized), a golf course, Strictly star Annabel Croft’s tennis academy, padel courts, a football academy, and regular exercise classes including spin and Pilates. 

Upon checking into the beautiful hotel room, I found a big plate of fruit, a green juice drink, and a ginger and turmeric shot.

I looked over my itinerary – a taster for the bootcamp programme, which normally does two exercise sessions a day – and worried slightly this holiday might be all hard work and restraint, with very little enjoyment.

And you know what? It turned out, I was wrong. 

The bedroom
The hotel room also had a balcony overlooking the sea (Picture: Jess Austin)
The Bootcamp Insanity programme
A typical itinerary for someone on the Bootcamp Insanity programme (Picture: Pine Cliffs)

I started my first morning at Pine Cliffs by going to Serenity Spa for an introduction and was shown around by the lovely Ines, who then took me to meet my trainer, Rogério. 

I assumed I was in for a bog-standard gym assessment – weight, BMI, fitness goals yada yada – and I was, but it was to be followed by a fitness test

How many crunches could I do in a minute? How many push ups? How many squats? Now run for 12 minutes. 

As someone who goes to the gym 4-5 times a week, and is a teacher’s pet, I found myself trying to explain away my results not being perfect. My BMI was slightly above healthy; my run wasn’t as fast as it normally is. 

What I loved is that Rogério, very matter-of-factly, brushed those concerns aside. Why should I care if my BMI is slightly higher when I exercise as often as I do? It’s not an accurate reflection. Sure my run might have been slower than usual, but I normally run outside and not on a treadmill so that will change things. 

There was no shaming, just reassurance and kindness. 

One of the gyms
One of the hotel’s gyms, where you can take exercise classes (Picture: Jess Austin)
The outside area of the spa
The outside sunbeds at the spa (Picture: Jess Austin)

It was safe to say I was a little bit knackered by the end of that 15 minutes, but I soon found out this was just the warm-up for my personal training session. 

We focused on key movements and form. Rogério, whose background is in Pilates, was all about getting me to ‘scoop my belly up’ and engage my core.

On the thigh abductor machine, he advised against loading up weights and leaning back into the chair – instead sitting up tall, unsupported, while making sure I could complete the movement fluidly and correctly. 

Leg extensions, cable pulls, side planks, exercise ball planks – nothing used too much weight, it was just about achieving a full range of motion. 

By the end of our hour-and-a-half together, I could feel muscles I didn’t know I had. I also didn’t begrudge that I had spent nearly two hours of my holiday working on myself. 

That afternoon, I got some alone time, so I headed to the Thermal Oasis – Pine Cliff’s spa. 

Serenity Spa pool
I had the spa to myself (Picture: Jess Austin)
The Kniepp
The Kniepp in all its beauty (Picture: Jess Austin)
One of the saunas
One of two saunas on offer (Picture: Jess Austin)

An absolute perk of going during the winter months is that for two hours, I had it to myself. That’s the steam room, ‘experience’ showers, Kniepp (when you walk from hot to cold water in a continuous loop), the jacuzzi, the pool with water jets, the two saunas – one Himalayan salt and the other traditional herbal. 

Honestly, it was bliss. 

That evening, I got to enjoy time with my husband over dinner, who had spent the day off doing tennis lessons. It wasn’t our ‘typical’ holiday, but we both felt happy. 

The second day was all about the bootcamp. I met Rogério by the outside obstacle course for some comprehensive stretching before taking on the stations.

Each for three sets and the whole loop three times. Log walking, hurdles, backwards slalom, mountain climbers, jumps, monkey bars, before finishing off with sprints. 

I thought it would be easy and I was wrong. But it was enjoyable and time flew as I worked my way around the circuit. 

The bootcamp stations
The second day was all about the bootcamp (Picture: Jess Austin)
The bootcamp stations
I did the circuit three times (Picture: Jess Austin)

As always, Rogério focused on my form. When doing mountain climbers, I’ve always heard a click in my hip. I thought it was normal. 

Rogério also heard this, assured me it wasn’t, and corrected my position to make sure I didn’t click. When I would revert to old habits out of tiredness, we switched to planks – which he also advised me on. 

While walking back to the studio after for assisted stretching, he clocked that I walk more heavily on one foot and I disclosed my troublesome lower back on my right side, which he then focussed on during stretching.

All this is to say he was incredibly perceptive and helpful in recognising my problem areas. 

Day two of exercise complete, I went back to the spa for a sports massage by the fantastic Carla, who seemed to read my mind as she pummelled my stiff muscles to the scent of orange oil. 

One of the spa treatment rooms
One of the spa treatment rooms (Picture: Jess Austin)
One of the spa treatment rooms
And another (Picture: Jess Austin)

In between sessions and treatments, I had plenty of time to laze around and read on our balcony, or on the sunbeds dotted around the grass. The pools were a little bit too cold for a dip, but the sun was still shining. 

I worried that I would be too knackered to do anything else after my day of activities but I actually felt revitalised – opting to go for walks down the beach and a couple of drinks before dinner.

I definitely still felt like I was on holiday – but I feared that that would all change when it came to the ‘healthy meals’ that were part of my plan.

Can you truly enjoy a trip if you’re not stuffing your face in full ‘holiday mode’?

Pine Cliff’s answer to this is Zest. It sits somewhere between a café and restaurant, operating all day and offering tasty but less indulgent foods: think acai bowls, banana breads, smoothies, salads, and protein-dense foods. 

Breakfast at Zest
The breakfast acai bowl was one of my favourite meals (Picture: Jess Austin)
A salad at Zest
I came away from each meal sated, but also feeling like I’d made a responsible choice (Picture: Jess Austin)

While it might not scream ‘Portuguese fare’, it was very tasty. The almond joy smoothie almost had me convinced it was a peanut butter and banana milkshake. The kale caesar salad with a yoghurt based dressing was actually more tasty than its namesake. 

I came away from each meal sated, but also feeling like I’d made a responsible choice. 

I still got my pastel de natas when having breakfast at the hotel’s Jardim Colonial, but for lighter breakfast, lunches and dinner, Zest – with its views over a square filled with lemon trees – taught me that not every meal has to leave you feeling sleepy. 

On my last day, I left bootcamp behind in favour of a padel lesson with coach Bruno. Padel, for those unfamiliar, is a bit like if tennis and squash had a baby. Smaller courts and racquets, bigger balls, same scoring as tennis but different rules. 

As someone with zero depth perception, I worried it would go the same way as previous tennis attempts. But while I did nearly take out an elderly couple with a ball hit out of the courts, I really enjoyed myself. 

The padel courts
The padel courts where I was taught by Bruno (Picture: Jess Austin)

Bruno was a fantastic coach – he’d been giving my husband ‘the best tennis lessons ever’ for the previous two days – who made learning a new sport less intimidating by making it fun. 

Even though my workout gear got a good wearing, Pine Cliffs isn’t just about fitness. 

The resort itself is massive – made up of a main hotel (where we stayed), Ocean Suites (which are geared more towards families), and rentable villas. Perfectly-manicured green lawns, only interrupted by pools, stretch until you reach the edge of the cliffs.  

From there, you can take a lift, or walk, down to the sandy beach, which stretches for 5km.

When I went down at 8am for an early morning dip with the Regional Director of Serenity (their wellness brand) Maria D’Orey, we almost had it to ourselves.

Even though it was November, the water was still warmer than it is in the UK during summer, and offered a refreshing wake up.   

The cliffs on the beach
We had the beach to ourselves (Picture: Jess Austin)
Jess after her morning swim
Still smiling after my morning dip (Picture: Jess Austin)

They have numerous restaurants. While some were closed for the winter months, that didn’t matter to me as I had the best tuna steak of my life at O’Pescador.

The lemony, peppery, coriander dressing is the stuff of dreams. The wine that accompanied it – Invisível (meaning invisible), which is white wine made with red wine grapes – is one I will desperately try to get back home.

And the service was incredible – friendly, knowledgeable and kind. 

The wine and champagne bar, Mirador, overlooks the cliffs and sea and is the perfect spot to watch the sun set in the evening. 

The view from Mirador bar at sunset
The view from Mirador bar at sunset (Picture: Jess Austin)
A view of the hotel
My time at Pine Cliffs still felt like a holiday (Picture: Jess Austin)

There’s a games arcade for kids (and adults), a cooking school (open during summer), clothes shops, wine shops, gift shops, the beach where you can kayak and do watersports. 

So, actually, you don’t have to work out if you go there. However, if you do choose one of the fitness plans, you are in good hands. 

My time at Pine Cliffs still felt like a holiday. I had a good mixture of moving my body while also sunning it on a lounger.

Like every break I’ve been on, I forgot to take photos of me in the dresses I packed – but when I did put them on, I felt really good.



Everything you need to know

  • Prices at Pine Cliffs from £180.00 per night for two adults sharing a deluxe room resort view including breakfast – based for February 2024 travel.
  • The Bootcamp Insanity programme from €1040 for 3 nights.
  • Fly directly to Faro Airport with Easyjet from London Gatwick. Prices start from £65 return.


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