Something’s up in Portugal. Despite a stellar history and a heritage that saw the nation become the great seafaring pioneers of the Age of Discovery in the 1500s, this small country on the geographic (and, dare we say, metaphorical) margins of Western Europe has of late been happier flying under the radar. But that might be about to change. To seek parallels from the world of football for a second, Portuguese star manager Jose Mourinho and star player Cristiano Ronaldo are at the very top of their games; blending outrageous talent, more than a little brashness and more than a lot of arrogance, safe in the awareness that they are very, very good at what they do. This new-found confidence translates perfectly to tourism (which represents 16% of GDP) in the country as well. Sure, the Algarve has long been a lure for families and golfers, but beyond the south coast the rest of the country has been something of a backwater. No longer. Welcome to our five favourite things in Portugal right now:
1. The Alentejo region
The bit that spans the width of Portugal from the Atlantic Coast to the border with Spain. Above the Algarve, the Alentejo is an area of outstanding beauty, characterised by gently rolling hills, forests of cork oak trees and vineyards. The latter two are synonymous because the Alentejo is one of Portugal’s finest wine regions (on which more later) and the forests supply much of the cork for fine wines around Europe. Add in some excellent design hotels, Neolithic stone circles that pre-date Stonehenge and then the icing on the cake, coming up next…
You heard it here first – Comporta will be the next big beach thing in Europe. Lisbonites have long known about this seductively sunny spot less than an hour from the capital but with a lack of quality of hotels it was somewhere to borrow a friend’s villa – very much an ‘insider’ destination. Now there are chic boutique hotels, such as Sublime Comporta, emerging, and persistent rumours of an Aman on the horizon. What’s all the buzz about? Well, mile upon mile of beautiful and untouched beaches, a very sexy boho vibe and great restaurants and bars.
Brits have long known about the pleasures (and the hangovers) of port but Portugal’s other wines are undergoing something of a revolution too. The fresh and very slightly fizzy Vinho Verde (literally ‘green wine’ but referring specifically to young wines) is made in the far north of the country, in Minho Province, which is within easy reach of the lovely city of Porto. The Douro Valley which winds its way inland from Porto is, of course, home to Port wine vineyards but also to some decent red wines in both claret and Burgundy style. Staying in Douro Valley vineyard country is also about to get much more civilised thanks to the opening of the first Six Senses property in Europe. Speaking of civilised places to stay, some of the Alentejo’s best wines are made at Malhadinha Nova, where guests can get involved in the grape harvest, donning head torches and getting up before dawn to pick grapes. No obligation, mind – guests can always just drink the eventual end product instead.
4. Areias do Seixo
We’ve touched on some pretty good boutique hotels, but now it’s time to concentrate on one in particular that might just be one of the coolest hotels in Europe. Areias do Seixo is about an hour north of Lisbon and two and a half south of Porto so positively demands a road trip between the two. What’s the draw? There are several: quirky design (funky free standing wood burning stoves suspended from the ceiling, beds on wheels etc), delicious food (not a given in Portugal, if we’re being honest) and wonderful rugged beaches just a short walk away. A near perfect long weekend destination, basically, that works brilliantly with the under-rated capital Lisbon as well.
Surfers should forget the south-facing Algarve of white villa complexes and golf, golf, golf and head to the wilder, woollier west coast, namely the Costa Vincenta National Park stretching from Cape St Vincent (from where Portugal’s great navigators set sail) to the border with the Alentejo. There are charming little communities dotted along the coast such as the lovely Pedralva, once a working village and now a very good value hotel, and superb surfing beaches such as Amado for reliable and beginner-sized waves and fun surf schools. There are plenty more technical beach breaks for pro-surfers as well. The whole place has a laid-back Brazilian Costa Verde vibe, but it’s a 2.5 hour flight to Faro away instead of having to fly to Brazil.
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