You may not have heard of Chitra Stern but you’ve no doubt heard of the multi award-winning and fabulously family-friendly Martinhal Family and Hotel Resorts in Portugal. And it was Chitra who started them. Working alongside her business partner and husband, they developed the flagship Martinhal Beach Resort and Hotel in Sagres from scratch and have since then opened three other properties, including the “world’s first city-centre elegant family hotel” in Lisbon. Never missing a beat. the Martinhal properties are a leader in family travel because the attention to detail, whether you’re travelling with newborns or more discerning teenagers is second to none and Chitra has done it all with no less four children of her own. She takes some time out to chat to kodomo.com.
What is your first childhood memory of travel?
My first ever memory of travel was a trip with my parents and my younger sister (I have five siblings now!) to Colombo, Sri Lanka. I was 6 years old and I remember the colonial style hotel with mosquito nets over grand 4-poster beds.
Where have you had your best holiday to date?
The best holiday I have ever had was something we did together as a family – it was driving from Sagres through Europe all the way to Vienna and back in our family car and staying in several different hotels on the journey. Europe is an amazing place and we loved experiencing the different people, food, cultures, buildings, economies and industries as we drove through.
Where was the first place you went with a little one in tow? How did it go?
Our first trip with our first baby was actually to Singapore to visit my parents. Our son was 5 months old and it was quite a riot! The airplane journey was an experience as it was my first time having to deal with impatient passengers who have no clue why the poor baby might be crying, giving us horrible stares to make us shut the baby up! In defense of several others though, all parental types were sympathetic and helpful, helping putting bags up on top of the cabin etc. Staying in a hotel in London en route was also quite something. It was my first experience of how intolerant some are of children coming out of the house!
How do you find the experience of travelling with children generally?
It can be a wonderful and bonding experience where kids and parents learn a lot about themselves and the world around them. The trauma and stress can easily be negated. Some of the negation can come from ignoring people who have no empathy and other bits from planning the trip well.
Do you ever travel with your children for work?
I have done but I try to either help myself by bringing a parent along, or I leave them with someone trustworthy, like grandparents or the nanny.
Have you had a worst holiday?
The worst experience has got to be in an unnamed city-centre hotel where we had breakfast with our three kids all under the age of four and we just were not made to feel welcome, by either the hotel staff or the other guests. The issue is that children feel the stress of the parents, and vice-versa. We feel stressed as parents when we are in an environment that is unwelcoming of families. And the kids act up because you’re stressed. It’s like a self-reinforcing infinity loop that leads to disaster.
What is your must-have travel accessory when away with children?
A mobile phone with roaming or with a local SIM card!
And top tips for travel with kids?
Basic medication is always important but I never gave them Calpol to sleep on flights. If they were teething, I gave them Calpol so they wouldn’t feel the pain so much. Ibuprofen is also useful to counter inflammation during colds so that their ears won’t hurt.
A nasal decongestant spray is also useful if they are prone to ear pain during the descent of the airplane. Baby wipes and hand gel, iPad for those crucial minutes of entertainment and some simple biscuits like digestives, just to tide them (or yourself!) over when having a sugar low.
What made you launch the Martinhal hotels in the first place? Have you any future plans you can share with us?
Having the four kids was definitely an inspiration for the Martinhal brand as we observed several other brands that were fulfilling the family holiday space. Seeing how difficult it was to get both what the parents want on holiday (sophistication, good design, great food and wine, spa treatments, quality time with the kids, me-time) and what kids want on holiday (fun, stimulating time, good sleep time, good childcare), we felt that there was a space for the Martinhal brand. The next step for the brand is definitely creating more city-centre family hotels once we have proven the concept with our Martinhal Chiado.