A simple city break now comes with added uncertainty – a new platform could win over travellers who usually book independently
It was our first Covid-era holiday, booked through a service that launched post-lockdown. Cruising up Lisbon’s Tagus River towards the Atlantic, a light breeze picked up and the temperature dropped from a more than balmy 31C (88F).
Our teenage skipper, Audrey, swung Idle-Vice (a 1950s motorboat) around, in perfect time for us to see the sun beginning to graze the horizon near the 16th-century fortification of Belém Tower.
After six tetchy months in our one-bed flat, peering over laptops mid-Zoom, my boyfriend and I were able to briefly forget our stint as incompatible co-workers. Three weeks before, like thousands of others, we’d cancelled a trip to France when it joined the holiday quarantine list. This two-night Lisbon break was precious.
Millennials like me have grown up with easy access to European holidays: bookable within the grasp of our smartphones. Indeed, our travel habit has been blamed for a collective failure to scale the housing ladder: according to research by GfK, each year my generation spends £150bn globally on tourism.
Lockdown, followed by a blanket travel ban and a continuously shifting holiday map, meant last-minute flights booked through a comparison site and a hastily selected Airbnb would no longer cut it.
My solution? Nemo Hotels, Generation Y’s answer to the high street travel agent, complete with a virtual concierge, an app and a nod to more responsible consumerism (one per cent of revenue goes to charity partners; Nemo plants a tree for each hotel booked). It is Atol-protected, so if the company were to fail you would be entitled to a full refund (vital under current circumstances). It was developed when the crux of Nemo Travel (an existing booking service for longer-haul trips) fell all but dormant under the pandemic.
First you choose a hotel through the Nemo website (you pay 10 per cent deposit upfront and can then change the dates of your trip up to a week before travel). The site lists 28 boutique hotels in Portugal with double rooms starting from £75 per night in Lisbon (at Brown’s Central Hotel) – there are plans to extend online bookings to other countries (Italy and the UK are next).
Next you can add flights, tours, and bespoke extras by speaking (via email, text, Whatsapp, over the phone, or through a white-labelled version of the Vamoos travel app) to one of the “concierges”, who include Tom Harding and his co-founder, James Wales. Most customers are aged between 26 and 40.
They include Harry, who’s 31 and lives in London. Harry decided to use Nemo Hotels to book his honeymoon in Portugal. “I never really thought I would use a one-stop shop to book my whole holiday,” he said. “There is a level of uncertainty when looking to go on holiday now, so it was reassuring speaking to Tom and having that expert guidance.”
I found this to be the case in the run-up to my Lisbon trip, when England looked set to re-add Portugal to its list of countries from which arrivals must quarantine (this did happen, a week later). This uncertainty may have added to the dearth of British accents around the city, the empty rows of plane seats and easy-to-book restaurant tables.
A waiter at Audrey’s, the restaurant and café at our hotel, Santiago de Alfama (which stayed open, mostly empty throughout lockdown), told me: “It’s a good time to be here.”
The hotel, run by husband and wife team, Manuel and Heleen, is a mine for keen amateur historians (it’s in a restored 15th-century building, on the same street as the church where Christopher Columbus is believed to have got married and on the first floor you will find an excavated Roman staircase).
But the real find was Manuel. He picked us up from the airport in one of his vintage “barn find” cars (Grace, a mint green Jaguar) for a tour of the city, listed a selection of traditional Portuguese dishes to try at family restaurant Pinóquio (restaurantepinoquio.pt) and organised our transfer to Hifen (facebook.com/hifenrestaurantebar), a tapas spot in the pastel-tinged resort town of Cascais.
During our stay, we walked (six minutes) from the hotel to Castelo de São Jorge – where some castle remains date back to the sixth century BC – for views over the city; jumped on the 28 tram and took a pit stop at Time Out Market where I ordered from Sea Me (peixariamoderna.com/en) after turning to Tom, via the app, for a recommendation.
We also took an Uber to the Jeronimos Monastery, which, like the wider city, welcomed only a steady trickle of visitors, and dipped our toes in the Atlantic after a stroll from Cascais to Estoril. Clear views of the cobbled streets in a city that, pre-pandemic, was a hotspot for overtourism, were an enjoyable side effect of the current travel restrictions. Yet, undeterred by UK quarantine, Nemo Hotels customers continue to book trips to Lisbon.
We gazed up at the Ponte 25 de Abril from Idle-Vice, as Manuel described how Lord Byron likened the Tagus to the Bosporus. Audrey – Manuel’s daughter and the muse for the hotel’s restaurant – slowed the boat for us to take photos, as I acknowledged the value of expertise and local knowledge for Covid-era travel. On the plane home, I vowed to quit my Airbnb habit.
How to do it
Bookings through Nemo Hotels (nemo-travel.com/hotels; 07821 133273). Doubles start from £175 per night for the Santiago de Alfama hotel (nemo-travel.com/hotel/santiago-de-alfama) through the Nemo Travel website. A private river tour on Idle-Vice is £320.