Frequent Flyer

Ninety-two-year-old Margaret Thompson won recognition from Portugal’s Tourist Board on her 100th visit to the Algarve. On her 115th trip, Sophie Sadler met her to reflect on her memories of the region.

I talk to Margaret from the comfort of her studio in the Luz Beach Apartments in Praia da Luz. She has just completed her 115th flight to Portugal. As she sits in an armchair overlooking the beach, the serial traveller is delighted to talk to me. She loves Tomorrow magazine, which keeps her abreast of all the local news. She has recently become a subscriber, so the magazine is posted monthly to her home village of Ovingham, in England. She then passes it around to others who often visit the Algarve.

Margaret has had a stressful year doing refurbishment work after her house, which she has lived in for 61 years, was flooded, yet she appears unfazed. It is wonderful to chat with a nonagenarian who is so upbeat, has a perfect recall of facts, and has so many insights and memories to share.

A retired primary school teacher, Margaret has always enjoyed a foreign holiday and was able to travel during school breaks. She often drove to Italy with her husband, Peter, until they started to get tired of the 399-mile journey to Dover from Newcastle. They started shopping around for flying holidays and first visited Portugal in 1973, when they flew to Lisbon with Thomson Holidays. They subsequently discovered Vale do Lobo, which they visited repeatedly over the years.

In 1978, they were introduced to the Travel Club of Upminster. They loved this small family-run travel business due to the repeat guests who returned every year and became good friends. Margaret remembers flying into Faro Airport when the terminal was just a wooden shed.

Their first stay in Lagos was at the Ventura apartments, above Lagos’ slave museum. Margaret’s amazing recall of detail is evident when she tells me that two weeks cost just £278 at that time. However, it was not all happy holidays! It was April 1978 and Portugal was at war with Angola. The Messe Militar (military lodging) was opposite their hotel. “An idiot tried to blow up the Messe Militar with a car bomb, which destroyed the windows of our room and opened up a crater on the road,” Margaret recalls. She and Peter were evacuated and taken to the Golfinho Hotel, which no longer exists. This strange introduction to the Algarve did not, however, put her off from returning. 

After sadly being widowed in 1982, when she was just 50, Margaret realised that the Travel Club was a great opportunity to take holidays where she could socialise with fellow holidaymakers and not be on her own. She would often stay in the Hotel Galè in Armação de Pêra, now the Holiday Inn. During this time, she came to look at Praia da Luz and recalls, “It was just rocks and fishing boats. There was nothing here at all.” A group of 30 of them also took a trip to Vilamoura, which she describes as “a building site”.

It was the warmth of the Portuguese people that kept Margaret coming back: “I’ve always felt welcome here. The Portuguese people are very kind.” She also loved the climate, walking and of course, the pastel de nata!

It was in 1993 that the Travel Club rep recommended she try the Luz Beach Apartments. Margaret was not convinced because she remembered there being nothing there,  but she went to check it out and loved it. From that first trip she returned to the Luz Beach Apartments 46 times and now views it as a home from home. She loves staying in the beachfront apartments to watch the world go by. She notes, “Of course, when we first stayed here, the apartments didn’t have balconies; they were added later.” We stand on her terrace, and she points out a seagull that visits her every day.

Margaret with Ana

While still teaching, she would travel in school holidays, but retirement gave her the freedom to take longer stays, often bringing friends. “I usually tell my friends to come. I love the Algarve lifestyle. Nothing is a problem. I even say that the favourite phrase of the Portuguese is: no problem.”

She chats happily about the times she enjoyed here with friends. Sadly, now she is 93, many of those friends are no longer with us, including Katelyn, who travelled with her on her historic 100th trip. She treasures a painting of Luz beach, which her friend Douglas painted while staying at the apartments. “He died of a heart attack shortly afterwards,” says Margaret, “so that was the last painting he did.”

She used to attend Luz church and have lunch with friends. Decreased mobility means that she has had to give up some of these activities, but she still loves coming back twice a year. “I like to come now to be looked after and catch up on all the gossip,” she chuckles. The receptionist, Bethany, keeps her things in storage for her and always gives her a warm welcome. The housekeeper, Ana, is a good friend and regularly pops in for a chat while the manager, Claire, books special assistance at the airport and always makes sure that a walking stick is laid on the bed when she arrives.

In 2018, Collette Kent, who was then working for Luz Beach Apartments, realised Margaret’s forthcoming trip would be her hundredth. Collette contacted the Algarve Tourism Board to see if they could recognise her as their most loyal customer. She was not disappointed.

On arrival at Faro, João Fernandes, the president of the Algarve Tourism Region, and Alberto Mota Borges, director of the Airport of Faro, welcomed her with open arms (literally) and handed her a bunch of flowers. Margaret remembers, “It was such a hoot. I had no idea. We were met by a lady who told us she would take us to pick up our baggage and then she came with us into arrivals, which I thought was not usual. But, when we were met by so many people, including the tourist minister and journalists, it was a complete surprise. It was all very well planned.”

Courtesy of Portugal Resident Bruno Filipe Pires
Margaret with Colette Kent, João Fernandes, president of the Algarve Tourism Region, and Alberto Mota Borges, director of the Airport of Faro to mark her 100th trip in 2018. Courtesy of Portugal Resident Bruno Filipe Pires
Courtesy of Portugal Resident Bruno Filipe Pires

“They are to mark your 100th trip to the Algarve,” explained João Fernandes, when he handed her the flowers. 

Over the years, Margaret has made many friends in the Algarve. Luís Vicente has been driving her to and from the airport for 18 years. The Holiday Inn recently contacted Margaret to tell her they still had some of the clothes she had left there, and, now that they were being refurbished, she needed to collect them! Luís went there and delivered them to the Luz Beach Apartments.

Margaret now pops down to the seafront Luz Beach Café,  below her apartment, to eat dinner daily. She often chats with Miguel and Rita, who have run the newsagents for 25 years. As manager Claire says, “She is an inspiration.”

As Margaret doesn´t use email or a smartphone, she books all of her holidays to Portugal through a local agent, Norseman Travel, which arranges everything for her, and she likes it that way. She has just completed her spring visit but will be back in September.

Margaret’s history of visiting the Algarve is also a history of tourism over the last 50 years. So much has changed – yet also so little. The same food, hospitality and landscape that Margaret fell in love with still exists and brings people here today. Just in greater numbers and using different methods of technology! But Margaret´s travel log will forever be a bit of the Algarve´s history that has brought us to where we are today. 

Boa viagem Margaret. See you next time …


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