By Matthew Chernov
Arguably the most well-traveled character in cinema history, James Bond has stayed in many of the world’s finest hotels over the past 56 years. From the fabulous Fontainebleau Miami Beach in Goldfinger to the posh Peninsula Hong Kong in The Man with the Golden Gun to the gorgeous Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico in Spectre, Agent 007’s globetrotting adventures routinely involve him checking into the kind of nightly accommodations that most of us only dream of experiencing. Yet amid all these luxurious lodgings, perhaps none is more inviting than the spectacular Hotel Palácio Estoril in Portugal.
Prominently featured at the beginning of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, this stunning hotel instantly became an iconic Bond destination when George Lazenby uttered the phrase “Everything seems up to the Palácio’s usual high standards” upon entering the lobby at the start of the film. From that moment on, 007 fans around the world began making reservations to stay there.
Having visited several Bond locations during my last few vacations, I decided it was time to set foot in the Hotel Palácio myself. So recently, my girlfriend Patty and I flew to Lisbon and took a 50-minute train ride to the nearby seaside town of Estoril, located on the Portuguese Riviera.
Although we loved exploring Lisbon’s colorful neighborhoods, bucolic gardens and charming side streets, the city can feel a bit touristy at times. Luckily, Estoril was the complete opposite. There’s a relaxed and breezy vibe to this affluent resort community that’s palpable from the moment you step off the train.
The first thing you’ll notice when you arrive in Estoril is Tamariz Beach. With its calm waters, clear skies and laid-back sunbathers, this picturesque spot is as tranquil as it is lovely. To acquaint yourself with the area, take a leisurely stroll along the boardwalk, where you’ll pass a dozen restaurants and bars all offering fresh seafood and cocktails. And be sure to spend a few minutes admiring Forte da Cruz, a medieval-style castle that was built in the 17th century as a home for the Portuguese royal family. It directly overlooks the shoreline and adds a touch of historic drama to the mellow surroundings.
The second thing that will grab your attention is the famed Casino Estoril. Situated behind a dancing water fountain in a large public square, this modernist gambling palace is an essential attraction for every serious Bond fan, and the reason is quite simple: In 1941, Ian Fleming visited the casino and witnessed an impulsive MI6 agent named Dusko Popov humiliate a wealthy card player using money earmarked for a secret mission. If that scenario sounds similar to the baccarat battle between Bond and Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, it’s no accident.
Fleming was working as the assistant to the British Director of Naval Intelligence at the time, and was so impressed by Popov’s foolhardy confidence that he incorporated what he saw into his first novel. So thanks to Popov’s reckless behavior and Fleming’s vivid imagination, the James Bond series was officially born.
Patty and I wandered briefly through the casino on our first night in Estoril, but since neither of us enjoys gambling very much we quickly departed. Still, if the smoky air and slightly depressing atmosphere doesn’t bother you, it’s well worth a peek inside.
The main reason for Bond fans to visit Estoril is clearly the Hotel Palácio. Built in 1930, this elegant establishment has welcomed countless kings, queens, foreign dignitaries, spies, movie stars, and celebrities over the years, and the flawless staff continues to treat every new guest with the utmost level of courtesy and care. And don’t worry if you don’t speak Portuguese because English is spoken in the hotel and throughout most of Estoril.
As we approached the Palácio’s front entrance, I felt my heart rate begin to increase. The reason was obvious. Festooned with flags from various countries, the hotel’s main entrance looks virtually identical to the way it appears on screen in OHMSS. I experienced a Bondian sense of déjà vu as we stepped through the doors and into the lobby.
If you’ve called ahead and informed the hotel of your interest in James Bond, you might find a folder waiting for you at the check-in desk. Inside it, you’ll discover a packet of promotional materials that are guaranteed to put a smile on your face. They include a mini poster from OHMSS, several photos from the film taken inside the hotel, copies of Ian Fleming and Dusko Popov’s original travel documents from 1941, and an official certificate signed by the Palácio’s General Manager that welcomes you to the “James Bond Experience.” If you’re like me, this generous keepsake will make a fine addition to your 007 collection back home.
After checking in, make a quick stop at the hotel’s beautifully appointed bar – nicknamed the Spy Bar – for a cocktail before heading to your room. Stylishly decorated with low antique armchairs and dark wood accents, this cozy lounge specializes in gin, and includes at least 22 different varieties of the spirit on the menu. Of course, you’ll also find what’s referred to as a “007 Martini” listed there, which is made with Tanqueray gin, Stolichnaya vodka and Lillet. As an added bonus for Bond fans, the inside cover of the cocktail menu contains a facsimile of Ian Fleming’s original passport documents. For the full experience, ask your white-suited bartender to direct you to the table that Fleming himself sat at when he was a guest at the hotel in 1941. Here’s a hint: It’s on the left side of the bar, near a door leading to an enclosed patio.
Patty had a refreshing gin and tonic while I ordered the 007 Martini. Not surprisingly, it was one of the best I’ve ever had. Crisp, ice cold, and with just the right amount of boozy kick.
After your cocktail, it’s time to make your way to one of the Palácio’s 161 sleeping rooms. In addition to classic and superior accommodations, the hotel offers a variety of deluxe suites named after famous people who’ve visited in the past, including Orson Welles, Ed Sullivan, and Tyrone Power. We stayed in a suite named after Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida, who just so happened to co-star with Sean Connery in the 1964 drama Woman of Straw.
In OHMSS, Bond orders a bottle of Dom Pérignon Champagne and caviar for two from the Palácio’s attentive room service, and sure enough both items are still listed on the in-suite menu. Unfortunately, that exact order will cost you more than $500 today. Interestingly enough, although the caviar isn’t Royal Beluga, it’s still native to the Caspian Sea. So you’ll be able to confidently recite Bond’s famous “North of the Caspian” quip if you decide to splurge on a tin.
One of the most memorable images in OHMSS is the glowing reflection of the word “Casino” in the Palácio’s outdoor swimming pool at night. The bad news is that the hotel and casino aren’t actually close enough in real life for the reflection to happen naturally. The good news is that the uniquely shaped pool hasn’t changed one iota since 1969. Patty and I spent a couple of hours lounging poolside, reading, sipping drinks, and occasionally dipping a toe into the water. We would’ve gone for a swim, but the outdoor pool isn’t heated and the water was just a bit too cold for comfort.
Instead, we headed to the Palácio’s incredible indoor Banyan Tree Spa, which Patty describes as being “a water park for grownups.” Here you’ll find a dynamic pool with a continuous circulating current, a sauna, Turkish baths, soothing waterfalls, a Jacuzzi, and a variety of powerful spray jets that will give your muscles a rejuvenating workout.
For the complete James Bond Experience, however, you’ll need to spend a few minutes talking with Jose Diogo, the Palácio’s charming Head Concierge. He’s been working at the hotel for more than 50 years, and appears briefly on screen in OHMSS as a bell boy who fetches Bond his room key. If he’s on duty, you might find him near the hotel’s main entrance, or behind the Concierge desk, dressed sharply in his official uniform. He’s incredibly friendly and a consummate professional, so don’t hesitate to politely introduce yourself.
Having made arrangements ahead of time, I found myself chatting briefly with Mr. Diogo about James Bond, Ian Fleming, and the Palácio’s colorful history.
“I started working here as a bell boy on May 11, 1964, when I was 14 years old,” Diogo informs me. “The producers of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service came three weeks before filming to speak with me and one of my colleagues about being in the movie, and we accepted their offer because we thought it would be nice to be in a James Bond film!”
Like many people in the late 1960s, Diogo was a big fan of the 007 movies. “I liked to watch James Bond at the time, so when this happened it was wonderful.”
When I ask him what it felt like to see himself on a movie screen, he tells me it was a rather private experience. “I went to see the film at a cinema in Cascais, but I didn’t tell anyone. I just sat in the theater, and I looked at the movie, but I didn’t say anything to anyone.”
According to Diogo, the hotel was quite full at the time of filming, but luckily they were able to accommodate most of the cast and crew. “Many of the actors stayed here, including George Lazenby, Telly Savalas, and Diana Rigg as well.”
Gesturing to the nearby Spy Bar, Diogo tells me about their signature cocktail. “In the bar, we created a special James Bond martini, and it’s marvelous!” he says. “Everyone who comes to the hotel likes to order that drink.” When I inform him that I’ve already had one, he smiles and nods approvingly.
“Ian Fleming stayed here in May, 1941, during the Second World War,” he tells me. “The bar in the hotel is very famous because all the spies in Portugal would come to drink and hear all the latest news. You see, Portugal was neutral during the war, so the Germans and British spies would all visit. They went to the casino to gamble because they could hear stories about the situation in Europe.”
These days, Diogo can instantly spot a James Bond fan when he sees one. “Since the film’s 40th anniversary ten years ago, many guests come to the hotel and want to stay here because of James Bond,” he says. “They like to speak with me and take photos. Some people visiting Lisbon will come here by train or private car to see the hotel from the movie, and if I’m here I’ll give them all the information about James Bond.”
By way of example, he tells me about a recent encounter he had with a large tour group. “Two weeks ago, many Japanese travelers came to the hotel. About eight couples with children. They entered and I came over and said “Can I help you?” But I knew they were here for James Bond. So they took lots of photos and asked questions, and I said “You are in the presence of a James Bond actor!” Then I gave them a folder of documents that they liked very much.”
For a Bond enthusiast like me, spending a weekend at this remarkable hotel is an experience I’ll never forget, and I’m extremely grateful to Mr. Diogo and the entire staff at the Hotel Palácio Estoril for their generosity. Sometime next year, on the 50th anniversary of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a large celebratory event will be taking place at the hotel, and George Lazenby himself will be on hand to help mark the occasion. If you’ve ever considered visiting the Hotel Palácio, you might want to start making plans right now.
Article and photos by Matthew Chernov