I love to showcase the work of outstanding foreigners when I write here. Those who not only come to Portugal for their own delight but also seek to give something significant back to the country, often adding new and innovative value to the nation, its population and economy.
It’s, therefore, my pleasure to be reminded of a conversation I had a couple of years ago with Chitra Stern, she of the Martinhal phenomenon, who has recently added a new jewel to her already impressive crown of hotel developments and experiences.
As a guest on the Good Morning Portugal! show, Chitra was impressive and inspiring, talking with me about the creation of her United Lisbon International School, where her latest marvel can also be found in the Parque das Nações, or Park of Nations as some call it, in the capital.
During that conversation, I was able to ask her about her early days in Portugal that I was surprised to hear dated back to the early 2000s, when she and husband Roman first started a family here, leading them into their globally-renowned business niche in the years that followed.
Friends and readers in the Algarve will likely be familiar with the Sterns’ first development in Sagres, about which I asked the now-highly-regarded entrepreneur, originally from Singapore.
“What was it like?” she repeated, when asked about the Quinta do Martinhal development where it all began. “It wasn’t like that 20 years ago!”
“Roman and I arrived here in 2001,” she recalls. “First of all, we found a country with amazing people. Friendly is an understatement.”
“They were not as extrovert as maybe other cultures, but they were genuine, sympathetic and nice people. And English was already widely spoken back in 2001, which surprised me a little bit.”
“A very interesting culture with kilometres of white, sandy beaches,” Chitra continued, saying then to her husband that it was like the “California of Europe” – one of the first, clearly, to seed this now popular sentiment.
This was the Sterns’ first trip to Portugal, at a time when EU infrastructure funds were kicking in, causing new highways to be built and airports to double in capacity. And this was where their life in Portugal began: the Algarve, which for so many is the amuse-bouche that can lead to a many course meal as we deepen our love and attachment to this culture.
“We found an amazing tourism destination which was the most undiscovered country in Western Europe, and about to be a founding member of the Euro in 2002,” adds Chitra in retrospective recognition of some very good timing.
Like Portugal, this couple were “on the edge” – in a good way – of something big. The World Expo had happened in Lisbon in 1998 and things were “taking off”.
“Twenty years ago, things were happening, and there was a great spirit of innovation,” she told me in full nostalgic flow, even though, and perhaps hard to believe, processes were even “more bureaucratic at the time”.
Imagine too a newly-completed A2 from Lisbon down to the South, another important detail for these lovers of the Western Algarve who, in their early 30s, “took a leap of faith”, neither speakers of Portuguese at the time.
“I was 32 when I had my first child and it changed my life,” recounts ‘Mrs Martinhal’, not an unreasonable title given the strength of her and husband Roman’s vision of an upmarket hotel resort where parents could enjoy the good things in life (and the natural beauty of the location) whilst there was still “foam on their cappuccino”, a phrase I’ll explain later.
From being completely footloose and popping off to wherever took their fancy, these new parents realised they’d have to create the type of place they’d like to now go to, complete with young children, and the Martinhal experience in Sagres was born.
This would be a place where parents could enjoy a glass of wine in delightful surroundings whilst the kids are entertained at a high-spec and beautifully designed club. Babies can eat food as good as the adults are enjoying, albeit pureed. And everyone can relax, even enjoying the cappuccino before the foam has disappeared, a predicament many parents will know who haven’t ‘had a moment’ during intense bouts of childcare.
More easily dreamed up than done, however, it took eight years for the Sterns to deliver their dream, facing a global financial crisis, and a lot of hard work along the way.
“We opened in 2010,” Chitra continues, by now, and rather modestly, the mother of four children. “We worked really hard, living on site. It was a big thing to survive the crisis and come out in one piece. Several developers lost their projects to banks.”
It seems the customers could not have too much of a good thing and so were born, in the next decade, equally luxurious spin-off projects at Quinta do Lago in the Algarve, Chiado in bustling Lisbon, and over to the West Coast, in Cascais – all five-star experiences to delight the whole family, all celebrating iconic Portuguese locations.
Which brings me back to why I recall this memorable conversation. I often namecheck and recommend the Park of Nations to people looking for great Portuguese experiences, that part of Lisbon which some Portuguese, I am told, still call “Expo” 25 years later.
That seminal place and moment in Portugal’s recent history, and change of fortunes, upon which it could be said the Sterns built theirs, is full-circle home to the latest marvellous Martinhal manifestation.
As Silver anniversary celebrations were held in honour of the inauguration of Parque das Nações for the World Expo of 1998, “when a whole new and modern district of Lisbon was born”, just around the corner Martinhal opened their stunning Lisbon Oriente phenomenon comprising 82 stylish hotel accommodations, 70 branded residences (with seven penthouse apartments), a fitness centre, two swimming pools, a restaurant and bar lounge, a legendary Martinhal Kids Club and a business centre.
Sustainably designed, the building’s architecture was executed by world-famous Portuguese architect Eduardo Capinha Lopes and within, Executive Chef at Martinhal Daniel Andrade oversees “a culinary voyage through oriental and mediterranean fusion cuisine” at the stunning Terrace restaurant.
When I first met Chitra, and to this day, I wonder how all of this is achieved by mere mortals. It’s hard not to be impressed, entranced even, as I was, as I still am, by the audacity and realisation of this incredible, luxurious contribution to Portuguese tourism and Portugal’s reputation on the world stage of high-end hospitality.
By way of some explanation, it turns out Chitra has a favourite Portuguese phrase – “não vamos baixar os braços”, which loosely translated means “we will not let our arms down”.
For Chitra, this is a touchstone turn of phrase that seems to also mean ‘keep calm and carry on’ – despite what might happen in life and along the way – whether the 2008 financial crash when building Martinhal Sagres, or the Covid pandemic when creating their international school, more recently.
This woman is clearly unstoppable, and from her and husband Roman we can take some inspiration to also keep our arms up when adversity inevitably calls. “We can either curl up and die in these moments as entrepreneurs,” says Chitra, “or we can keep going!”