A guide to Portugal’s Alentejo region, home of Europe’s finest beaches
Forget Ibiza. Forget the Riviera. In fact, forget the Med altogether. Portugal’s Alentejo region is lined with glorious beaches – but not many people seem to know about them.
It’s 7pm on a balmy Saturday night in June, and I have just ordered my first Sagres beer in I Cervejaria, a restaurant in Zambujeira do Mar, one of the prettiest villages on Portugal’s south-west coast. The place is empty, but this doesn’t surprise me at all. I have spent two weeks in this area, driving along empty roads, playing with my son on empty beaches, and staying in B&Bs where we are the only guests.
No doubt the restaurant, run by two brothers for the past 28 years, is buzzing in July and August, when Portuguese holidaymakers descend on the Alentejo coast. But for the other 10 months of the year, the trickle of diners who come to feast on fantastically fresh seafood reflects the general pace of life in the Alentejo: sleepy, bordering on comatose.
One of the poorest, least-developed, least-populated regions in western Europe, the Alentejo has been dubbed both the Provence and the Tuscany of Portugal. Neither is accurate. It’s scenery is not as pretty and, apart from in the capital Evora, its food isn’t as sophisticated. The charms of this land of wheatfields, cork oak forests, wildflower meadows and tiny white-washed villages, are more subtle than in France or Italy’s poster regions.
To travel here is to step back in time 40 or 50 years. Life rolls along at a treacly pace; there’s an unnerving stillness to the landscape. But that stillness ends abruptly at the Atlantic Ocean, where there is drama in spades. Protected by the South West Alentejo and Costa Vicentina national park, the 100km of coastline from Porto Covo in the Alentejo to Burgau in the Algarve is the most stunning in Europe. And yet few people seem to know about it. Walkers come to admire the views from the Fisherman’s Way, surfers to ride the best waves in Europe, but day after day we had spectacular beaches to ourselves.
The lack of awareness is partly a matter of accessibility (these beaches are a good two hours’ drive from either Faro or Lisbon airports) and partly to do with a lack of beachside accommodation. There are some gorgeous, independent guesthouses in this area (see below), but they are hidden in valleys or at the end of dirt tracks.
Our base was Herdade da Nespereira, a beautiful 600-acre estate of uncultivated land covered in rock-rose, eucalyptus and wild flowers 13km inland from Zambujeira. Our one-bedroom home, Azenha, was once home to the miller who tended the now-restored watermill next to it. A kilometre away from the main house, pool and restaurant, it is gloriously isolated. If Julian Assange ever leaves the Ecuadorian embassy in London, I suggest he hotfoots it to an Alentejo hideaway. He’d be safe for months.
The view from Azenha, one of four self-catering houses at Herdade da Nespereira. Alentejo. Photograph: PR
Stepping out of the house in the morning to greet our neighbours – wild horses on one side, donkeys on the other – with nothing but birdsong filling the air, I felt a sense of adventure you normally only get with wild camping.
“When people first arrive, they feel a little anxious wondering what they are going to do the whole time,” Sarah Gredley, the English owner of Nespereira, told me. “But it doesn’t usually take them long to realise that the whole point of being here is to slow down, to enjoy nature.”
Herdade da Nespereira windmill house, Alentejo, Portugal. Photograph: PR
We followed her advice, walking down to the stream in search of terrapins and otters, or through clusters of cork oak trees, their branches hairy with lichen like the ancient trees of a fairytale forest. On some days, we tramped uphill to the windmill, now a romantic house for two, for panoramic views across the estate and beyond.
When we ventured out, we were always drawn back to the coast – the gentle sands and shallow bay of Farol beach close to Vila Nova de Milfontes, the rock pools of Almograve or the cove at Carvalhal. At the end of the day, we would head, sandy-footed, to the nearest restaurant, knowing that at every one there would be a cabinet full of fresh seafood to choose from – bass, bream, salmon, lobster, prawns, crabs, goose barnacles, clams … We never ate the same thing twice.
A kilometre or so from I Cervejaria, on Zambujeira’s idyllic natural harbour is O Sacas, originally built to feed the fishermen but now popular with everyone. After scarfing platefuls of seafood on the terrace, we wandered down to the harbour where two fishermen, kitted out in wetsuits, were setting out by boat across the clear turquoise water to collect goose barnacles. Other than them, the place was deserted – just another empty beauty spot where I wondered for the hundredth time that week how this pristine stretch of coast has remained so undiscovered.
WHERE TO STAY
100km of the Alentejo coast is natural park, so there are no hotels directly on the beach. The accommodation below is within easy reach of the coast by car (a car is essential in this region, which has virtually no public transport).
Monte West Coast, Odeceixe
The stylish interior of Monte West Coast.
6km from Odeceixe beach
Newly opened this summer, Monte West Coast is a 50-hectare estate in a lush valley where an old watermill and outbuildings on the Seixe river have been converted into six stylish self-catering houses (sleeping between two and six; two have fridges but no kitchen). It has been renovated by Portuguese architect Pedro Oliveira, grandson of the film director Manoel de Oliveira, who is 105 years old and still making movies. The owner, half-Swedish, half-Portuguese Catarina Östholm Pinho, has transformed the traditional stone buildings with Alentejo tiles in the bathrooms and kitchens, and film posters on the 60cm-thick white walls. The hilltop pool offers gorgeous views of the valley, and a Moroccan-style tent provides an open riverside lounge area.
• +351 91 444 37 17, Monte West Coast, from €50 a night for a one-room house sleeping two.
Pont’a Pé (+351 282 998 104, pontape.pt) restaurant next to the river in the historic part of Aljezur, serves some of the best traditional dishes, such as clams in white wine and coriander, grilled fresh fish and roast lamb. I always leave completely full. And if you want to stay longer, the owner’s brother owns the bar next door, overlooking the river.
Casa da Diná, Malavado
One of four bedrooms at Casa da Dina B&B. Alentejo.
8km from Zambujeira beach
Tucked away up a dirt track on the outskirts of tiny Malavado, Casa da Diná is a four-room B&B run by Dina and her husband Walter, a painter whose works decorate their tasteful home. Whitewashed rooms have simple wooden furniture, and the garden is lush with peach, lemon, apricot and fig trees, but the real highlight here is breakfast.
Three “courses” might comprise, say, yoghurt with fruit, then smoked salmon and cream cheese or Mexican-style eggs, then homemade cake, all beautifully served on delicate white china with white linen napkins. On at least one night of your stay it’s worth booking one of Dina’s three-course dinners (€25 a head). There’s nothing in particular to make it child-friendly but small people are welcome, and Dina and Walter were endlessly patient with my four-year old, who loved hunting for lizards in their garden and feeding treats to their poor decrepit old dog.
• No phone, casadadina.com, doubles from €75 a night B&B (minimum two-night stay)
Dina’s tip: Café Central (+351 282 947 419) in the village of Brejão is my favourite restaurant in the area. The food is great, mainly grilled fish and seafood cooked to perfection, and the wine list is huge. From around €20-€25 per person.
Cerca do Sul Brejão,
Cerca do Sul guest house is painted in the traditional Alentejo colours of white with a blue trim.
4km from Carvalhal and Amália beaches
A group of low-slung white buildings surrounded by the empty expanses of the Alentejo, Cerca do Sul has seven rooms, including one family room, all opening on to the terrace. With chill-out music playing in the background, hammocks strung from the rafters, yoga classes (daily on demand and free once a week) and an inviting pool, the vibe here is relaxed. But there is plenty of action nearby: Carvalhal beach is a short drive away, and owner Sara Serrão keeps noticeboards updated with local festivals, activities and events. Breakfast is a buffet of fruit, eggs, scones, iced tea and homemade custard tart, taken on the terrace.
• +351 93 110 5167, cercadosul.com, doubles from €70 B&B
Sara’s tip: The Historical Way is the romantic side of the Rota Vicentina, as opposed to the dramatic scenery of the Fisherman’s trail. The section between Odeceixe and São Teotonio, which you can access at Odeceixe bridge, is really beautiful and diverse, running along the Seixe river, then through eucalyptus forest – take a picnic.
Herdade da Matinha, Cercal
Herdade da Matinha hotel is a riot of colour in a lush valley.
15km from Malhao beach
Hidden in a valley 5km south of Cercal, this country house is bursting with colour, thanks to owner Alfredo’s vivid paintings and red, pink and orange doors, chairs, sofas and cushions. Guests lounge in daybeds and by water features looking like they never want to leave. And if you make the most of the yoga studio, horse riding and cool pool it would be easy not to. Those who want to walk the Rota Vicentina could not be better placed as it runs right through the property. Dinners are prepared by Alfredo and Monica and served at high tables laden with vases of wild flowers and vintage kitchenware (meals are not cheap, though, at €38 a head for three courses, excluding wine). Family suites have bunk beds in a separate space visible from the parents’ room.
• +351 93 373 92 45, herdadedamatinha.com, from around €100-€170 B&B
Monica’s tip: Choupana (+351 283 996 643) is a very simple wooden restaurant directly on the beach in Vila Nova de Milfontes. Not many people go there – but we often go as a family and love it. It’s a great spot to end the day as the sun sets right in front of you.
4km from Aivados beach
An unpaved road running through fields of wheat and wild flowers brings you to Três Marias, a 10-room B&B, run by Balthasar Trueb (half-Swiss, half-Portguese in case you’re wondering). A passionate advocate for the area and a mine of information, he helped set up the Rota Vincentina walking route (see below). Ten rooms, including two family rooms with kitchenettes, are arranged in two houses, with polished concrete floors, mossie nets and small bathrooms. There’s no pool but the coast can be reached on the hotel’s free bikes. Outside there’s a shaded chill-out area with cushions and a telescope (night skies are dazzling) and the fields are home to donkeys and an ostrich – a lone survivor from Balthasar’s former life as an ostrich farmer. But that’s another story.
• +351 965 666 231, B&B doubles from €80.
Balthasar’s tip: Herdade do Pessegueiro is a great riding school offering everything from a one-hour lesson to overnight trekking programmes, staying at hotels en route. In the low season they also offer rides along the beach. From €20 per hour.
Best for children, Vila Nova de Milfontes
The shallow, child-friendly waters of Farol Beach. Photograph: Isabel Choat
Most of the beaches along Portugal’s west coast are pounded relentlessly by Atlantic Ocean waves and the Altentejo is no exception. Few are safe for children to swim from, so the gently sloping sands of Farol beach, protected from the rollers by a headland, are perfect for families.
There’s a restaurant right on the beach, so parents of older kids could feasibly sit on the terrace with a beer as their children paddle in the shallows. At low tide, kids can also busy themselves searching for crabs under the rocks.
Best for drinks with a view, Odeceixe
The broad expanse of Odeceixe Beach which has a river running across it. Photograph: Valter Jacinto/Getty Images/Flickr Open
Odeceixe beach is breathtaking: a broad expanse of sand with a shallow river running through it (ideal for young children). The cherry on top of this natural gorgeousness is Bar da Praia, a tiny space with just three or four tables inside, and benches outside for taking in the view. It’s laid-back enough for you to rock up with sandy feet, sophisticated enough to serve good Portuguese wines in decent-size glasses and high-quality Spanish tapas. The cool soundtrack, the easy charm of the Spanish owners, the gobsmacking view… I didn’t want to leave. Next door, if you want something more substantial, is a more traditional restaurant and bar, with the same stonking view and a more extensive menu, including €4.50 burgers, plates of prawns, and pork chops with chips.
Best for rockpooling, Almograve
Don’t forget your bucket and net. Photograph: Isabel Choat
Every child loves rockpooling, and at low tide Almograve is a great place for hunting down crabs, shrimp and small fish in the many pools. You’ll need to stay with younger children and keep a keen eye on older ones. The waves here are rough – but it’s a great spot to while away a couple of hours with a bucket and a net.
Best for isolation Carvalhal
Carvalhal beach is reached by dirt track from Zambujeira do Mar. Photograph: Henrique Feliciano Photography/Getty Images/Flickr Open
In July and August, Alteirinhos is the beach of choice for holidaying Lisboans, who prefer its slightly more isolated location over the busier beach at Zambujeira. It’s great if you want to feel part of the short-lived summer buzz. But if you want peace and quiet, even in the height of summer, try Carvalhal, an idyllic cove that is rarely crowded. There are no restaurants or kiosks at either beach so remember to take food and water with you.
THINGS TO DO
Of the few tourists I saw in the Alentejo, most were wearing hiking boots. The Rota Vicentina is a 350km path between Santiago do Cacém, about 100km south of Lisbon, and Cabo de São Vicente at the south-western tip of the country. The route comprises two sections: the inland Historical Way, which runs through cork oak tree forests, valleys and villages, and the Fisherman’s Way, which follows the cliffs, offering superb views of empty golden sands, crashing waves, and the chance to see unique wildlife such as nesting storks at Cabo Sardão. With easy access on to the path and clear waymarking, it’s very easy to walk sections of the route independently, but several tour operators have packages, including British walking specialists Headwater (headwater.com) and Inntravel (inntravel.co.uk), and local outfits such as Ramblin’tejano (ramblintejano.com).
• Find maps, GPS coordinates and places to eat and sleep at rotavicentina.com.
Get a gentle introduction to the waves with Odeceixe Surf School. Photograph: Michael Dragaschnig/Odeceixe Surfschool
Portugal has some of the best surfing in Europe and hosts numerous international competitions. But you don’t have to be a professional to take to the waves. There are several surf schools along this stretch of coast. The Odeciexe Surf School offers one-, three- and five-day courses starting at €50 in low season (equipment extra).
Isabel kayaks with her son on a Nature Activities trip.
If surfing is too hardcore, kayaking offers a gentler way to enjoy this coastline. Nature Activities is a new company run by Lisbon escapee Carlos Lourenço, offering kayaking excursions at the mouth of the river Mira, opposite the town of Vila Nova de Milfontes. Paddle across the delta, the sea winds at your back, spotting storks, herons and kingfishers along the shore (three hours from €25). Shorter trips (one-two hours) can be enjoyed by children from eight years up. Further upstream, Eco Trails offers a different view of the river, starting in the town of Odemira and following the river as it narrows, spotting numerous species of bird in the bankside reeds (three-five hours from €15pp, 5-15-year-olds half-price).
Walking companions at Burros & Artes. Photograph: /Isabel
A donkey’s plod is the perfect pace for this languid region. Burros & Artes offers tailormade tours from two to eight days from an idyllic base in the Vale das Amoreiras near Aljezur, just over the border in the Algarve. You spend a couple of hours getting to know your trusty steed. Learning how to handle him or her, before setting off on a mapped route along the Rota Vicentina, staying in pre-booked guesthouses or hotels en route. You don’t actually ride the donkey – it’s there to carry your baggage and/or tired child. Owner Sofia also offers 1½-hour walks along a valley trail lined with rock-rose, lavender and eucalyptus – ideal for children.
• +351 282 998 331, donkey-trekking-algarve.blogspot.co.uk, accommodation from €40pp a night, donkey €60 a day, 90-minute trip €30.
Way to go
How to do it
Accommodation was provided by Herdade da Nespereira (+351 283 958723, herdadedanespereira.com); doubles from €120 B&B, watermill house from €185 (high season). Flights were provided by Monarch (monarch.co.uk) which flies to Faro from six UK airports from £90 return including taxes. Car hire was provided by Carrentals (carrentals.co.uk) which offers seven days’ hire from Faro airport from £88.
Font: The Guardian