It’s 2001 and Chitra Stern stood at the edge of a sun-bleached cliff in Sagres, Portugal. A gust of wind whipped through her hair as she gazed out at the massive ocean in front of her. Five hundred years ago, the Portuguese thought this place was literally where the world ended. But here on this cliff, Chitra’s story was only just beginning.
She and her husband, Roman, drove back to their home in Lagos, a modest three-bedroom space with a garage that they worked out of, in full dotcom-era style. They had moved to small-town Portugal earlier that year from London on the idea of starting a business in real estate, Chitra with an MBA and Roman with a background in finance and strategy. But something about Portugal made them realize that it wasn’t just real estate they wanted to experience, but hospitality.
Hospitality was an area that neither of them had a whole lot of experience in, save for an investment in a small bed and breakfast in Ireland that, admittedly, taught them a lot about the type of business they might want to run someday. Still though, their families thought they were completely nuts.
“Our families were supportive, but they thought, you know, they're leaving London, they're leaving stable jobs. There was very little experience,” Chitra admitted. “We were young and brave and foolish.”
But their plans were anything but foolish. They knew from the beginning that they had wanted to contribute meaningfully to a growing tourism industry, and they had been watching Portugal closely.
“Portugal had been part of the European Union for 15 years, so we felt the buzz and the energy,” Chitra said. “There were a lot of infrastructure funds being invested in highways and airport capacity, and these sorts of investments have an economic effect.”
They fell in love with Sagres, a small town in the southwesternmost tip of Portugal. Though Sagres itself was quiet, it was part of the much more touristy Algarve region, which is a beachy, warm area of Portugal where English is widely spoken.
“[Algarve] had 35 golf courses, so we had to think outside of the box and say, ‘what can we do here that’s going to be a differentiator?'” Chitra explained. “We said if you're going to operate something it has got to be upscale, because in a seasonal destination, you're not going to make it otherwise. We wanted something that was going to be an anchor project as well, in terms of tourism, that could push tourism from just one month to all year. A five-star resort would make a big difference.”
What they built was Martinhal Sagres, a luxury resort that isn’t just about good food and great design, but a deep commitment to global citizenship and, most importantly, family.
Creating a luxury resort with a family focus was a central part of Chitra’s vision, who has four children of her own. She noticed that other professionals like her were delaying having children until later in life, focusing on building their careers or getting an education first. Then, when they traveled with their children, they wanted their own vacation as much as an experience for their kids – and not something that focused solely on one or the other.
“After we had our first child, we realized how difficult it was to travel to nice places with a family,” Chitra explained. “Sometimes when you travel with your kids, you're treated as a pariah of society. A place may say they’re family friendly, but actually, you don't feel welcome.”
The ways Martinhal commits to family are not just numerous, but fully embedded into the DNA of the brand. A baby concierge allows parents to reserve baby equipment, from baby gates to bottle warmers, to make a stay with an infant more comfortable. The five on-site kids clubs offer age-appropriate activities, from a creche for babies to kayak tours and beach games for teenagers. The Blue Room offers space for families to relax together, and even has a family cinema for private viewings. And everyone can rent bikes and test them out on the Martinhal pump track.
Even the food caters to a variety of eaters, from fussy to foodie.
“My kids love pizza and burgers, but on a one-week holiday, I like to at least have a choice of what we eat,” Chitra said. “Our menus have freshly pureed food for babies, and options for kids like chicken and mashed potatoes or grilled beef. We have pizza and burgers too, but they’re high quality. And we even have half-portions of adult meals for the foodie kids.”
The creation of Martinhal didn’t happen overnight. In fact, Chitra and Roman lived on the property for seven years, while raising their small children, opening the resort when she turned 40. Today, Martinhal has four properties under its brand, an expansion that started with Martinhal Quinta in 2015. The company is due to open its fifth location, the Martinhal Residences, in Lisbon soon.
“It was very intense,” Chitra said, talking about that first opening. “They were very happy years on one hand, because, you know, children are just amazing, and I became a mother. But there were stressful times, I won't lie. We had to give it blood, sweat and tears, times 10. We were building and finishing the construction, but also building a team and starting that business from scratch.”
Whether they knew it or not, her kids were fully immersed in the Martinhal business from the beginning.
“I still remember my third daughter as a three-year-old when we were on site at the hotel, saying, ‘Look, Mama, our house is almost ready’ when it was still in construction. We learned so much from the entrepreneur experience. Every crisis builds character.”
While Chitra has a hunch that one of her kids will follow the path of hospitality, she insists there is no pressure either way.
“I think they need to love what they do, and not just go into it because their father or mother have done something,” Chitra shared. “Use all the experiences you have and apply them to your new career, and be passionate about what you do. That's what we tell them.”
Creating Martinhal hasn’t just changed life for Chita and her family – it’s completely changed the tourism landscape of Sagres for the better, creating a massive positive economic impact for the whole region. In 2017 Chitra was invited to join a special task force for foreign direct investment set up by the office of Portugal’s prime minister.
“I don't know in how many countries this would happen where a female foreign entrepreneur would be invited to join a special task force, alongside the Minister of Economy,” Chitra marveled.
One of the things she discovered in her analysis was that Portugal was attracting lots of startups, but unable to keep them around.
“I identified that the lack of international school spaces was forming a barrier to foreign investment,” she shared. Foreign investors were wary of putting their money in Portugal because they didn’t have an education system for their kids that they felt was adequate. So, in true entrepreneurial fashion, Chitra went into problem solving mode, and on September 14th, 2020, launched the United Lisbon International School. Today, there are over 425 students enrolled.
“My husband and I love working together. We love solving problems," she said. "And that’s what an entrepreneur does, right? You provide solutions for pain points that people have."
"People said, ‘Why are you starting a school? What do you know about international schools?’ But I guess that's what we did for the hotel business, right?," Chitra continued. "It’s about doing research, bringing the experts in, hiring a great team, and really marketing it.”
Today 25 percent of the students at the United Lisbon International School are Portuguese, a point of particular pride for Chitra.
The name United was intentional, and personal.
“We started the school in 2017, the year Brexit voted to leave the EU and when [Donald] Trump was speaking against the United Nations and trying to dismantle NATO – institutions that had been put in place to keep our world united and not go to war," Chitra said.
"We have kids born into the world who are mixed race children," she continued. "They’re British, but they will still be called foreigners. People will still say things like ‘go back to your own country,’ which was a typical thing in the UK at the time. Intense disappointment and sadness led to this. You can only solve global problems by being united, by being a global citizen, understanding the world's problems and finding solutions for sustainability. Maybe it's sort of fulfilling our karma, you know, feeling that we could do something about it.”
Raising global citizens is not just a project of the Lisbon United School – it’s part of the ethos of the entire Martinhal brand, and an ethos that Portugal has embraced warmly. In 2019 Chitra gave a TEDx talk called Why Portugal is Trending, citing that the real reason Portugal was becoming such a hotspot for tourism wasn’t just the tax incentives, but the welcoming atmosphere to other people of other nationalities and religions.
“Human beings are not robots,” she said. “We want to be happy in the place we live. It’s not just about the conveniences and the sunshine. It’s about feeling welcome.”
When Chitra looks back at the woman in 2001, standing on the cliffs of Sagres, she sees someone who is about to embark on an exciting adventure, an adventure that she won’t even begin to be able to anticipate. At the time, she and Roman had only planned to stay in Portugal for five years. In the end, they built their lives here.
“Portugal has given us this opportunity,” she mused. “Our life project. We've had four kids here, we've built up our businesses here. And it's been an amazing adventure so far.”
“What can I say?” she added. “Portugal really delivered.”