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Stretching from Santiago do Cacem to the Cape of St. Vicente, the Rota Vicentina trail offers intrepid visitors breathtaking beach views and off-the-grid footpaths. (Regiao de Turismo do Algarve)
Stretching from Santiago do Cacem to the Cape of St. Vicente, the Rota Vicentina trail offers intrepid visitors breathtaking beach views and off-the-grid footpaths. (Regiao de Turismo do Algarve)

The best way to discover Portugal’s unexpected charms Add to ...

If the good citizens of southwest Portugal are suffering, they are suffering in silence. The terrain where the Algarve meets the Alentejo is also one of the poorest corners on the continent, like a point on the losing end of a poverty matrix. Yet all we see are riches – of sand, of sunlight, of smiles. And of Speedos.

We’ve come to arguably the most dazzling beach in the region, Praia de Odeceixe, a name whose pronunciation will make you suffer if you let it (o-de-SHAYSH is close), but which arouses an emotion approximating euphoria. Bracketed by shallow inlets for hunting mollusks and stepping stones to caves in great cliffs, the beach is so deep that the trek from higher ground to the sea is a full foot-singeing five minutes, and so wide you couldn’t spot a kite were one flying at the opposite end. When the tide goes out, dips in the sand form warm pools for water-winged babies. And as the sun begins to sink, those cliffs make for first-rate hiking, offering perspective on the whole wondrous scene.

To what must be a frustratingly hand-to-mouth life here – a place where wages are some of the lowest in the European Union, and where austerity has hit hard – Odeceixe is a gift.

And now, more good fortune has arrived: This spring, the government officially launched the Rota Vicentina, a 340-kilometre-long coastal walking trail stretching from Santiago do Cacem, just northeast of Sines, to the Cape of St. Vicente.

This means not only a better-marked means of getting to those clifftop panoramas, but also more customers for the tavernas and churrasqueiras sprouting up on the coast; and possibly a less expensive, less hectic, less spoiled alternative to the Algarve’s oversubscribed Lagos-Albufeira corridor.

My family and I discovered Odeceixe by chance during what should have been an unremarkable beach vacation, a rare concession to two young girls typically obliged to trail their parents up mountains and across smoggy urban jungles. We rented a cottage on a quinta, or estate, run by a Dutch émigré named Inge, in the countryside north of the seaside town of Lagos. After exhausting a binderful of beach recommendations, our host suggested we drive north. “The wind,” Inge said. “It will drive you mad. But it will be worth it.”

The westerlies didn’t amount to the concern the breezes had been inPortimao, a fashionable Algarve beach where gales whipped up grains of sand that attacked us like tiny daggers. Indeed, it was curiously calm. As we veered north at Vila do Bispo, the parched, sand-beaten Algarve landscape yielded to something akin to a Northern Ontario green, and the terrain became rockier and more densely forested. Road signs displayed graphics of camping tents.

Focused on the fresher, cooler air coming through the rolled-down windows of our car, we didn’t notice any signs for walking trails pointing toward the Vicentine Coast; perhaps they hadn’t yet been installed. But we did notice one for that little hard-to-pronounce town.

We barely made it out the other end of the town centre, nearly wedging our car in a slender residential alley. (I suppose we would have been happy enough getting stuck in this sleepy cluster of stone cottages.) We persevered, however, and followed the curves of a tributary until we came upon a backlog of parked cars, the hint we’d arrived somewhere extraordinary.

Odeceixe may be the most immense beach on the Rota Vicentina, with a lively café that pipes jazz standards by day and electro at dusk; but it is not the only one. Not by a long shot. At the trail’s northern reach, the coastline features a series of sandy coves interspersed with Roman ruins and, on Ilha do Pessegueiro, the remains of a 16th-century fort. From there, the beaches appear at intervals of a few kilometres, if they’re interrupted at all.

South of Odeceixe, Bordeira is a wide and desolate seaside, less protected from the wind by cliffs. When you reach the southern coast, it’s a quick scoot over to Sagres, captured by Francis Drake in the 16th century and now just slightly too far off the A22 highway to attract major tourist attention.

Which is exactly why you should give it yours. There wasn’t much in Sagres for Drake to rampage in the first place – just an empty fist of land punching into the Atlantic, cradling a beach of fine sand. But this is not a mild-mannered place. With the girls asleep in the back of the car, we drove around a squat, sweeping fort, then wound down the precipice to the beach.

As we opened the doors, the girls were whipped awake by the promised bracing wind – one that, we discovered, can conspire with the tides to put on a wildly unpredictable water show. We exhausted ourselves swimming in the shallow shelf, jumping the waves until the maelstrom became too aggressive. From a rocky outcropping, we watched the breakers overtake entire swaths of beach. Seasoned surfers whooped in awe.

Our supposedly humdrum holiday turned into a series of thrilling discoveries – even near Lagos, which, we’d assumed, had been all but depleted of novelty. East of Lagos’s port, we followed a lonely driveway to Meia Praia Beach and its Bahia Bar, where we drank Sagres beer while the girls terrorized minibeasts under the decking.

Another time, we felt our way through a confounding labyrinth of residential streets to reach Praia do Camilo, a little nipper of a beach down a thousand stairs that repays you in charm.

Cantilevered over the bluff at the top of the stairs, a contemporary restaurant called O Camilo serves gorgeous grilled fish from noon on. Feeling smug after taking our reserved seats while others were turned away, we resolved to come back for our last meal in the country. Then we got lost again, retreading a roundabout many times. This part of the world can seem delightfully off the grid, even within view of the city limits.

There’s an overwhelming sense of victory to be had when you set out to settle for what you get, and instead return besotted. We got more than we bargained for in southwest Portugal. There is a middle ground for families weary of climbing mountains, but not weary of life.

If you go

Where to stay

Quinta da Alfarrobeira: Three cottages, rented by the week, surround a farmhouse and pool down a rural lane from the small village of Odiaxere. Estrada de Palmares, Odiaxere; 00 351 282 798 424

Martinhal: If amenities are what you want, this contemporary beach resort outside Sagres has them. You’ll find restaurants, a spa, pools and a kids club. Quinta do Martinhal, Sagres; martinhal.com

Tres Marias: A superchic homestead with eight rooms between the sea and mountains south of Porto Covo, Alentejo. Ribeira da Azenha, Milfontes; 00 351 965 666 231

Where to eat

O Camilo: You will get lost on the way, but your reward is a dozen fish cooked as many ways on the menu, plus a billion-dollar view of the Praia do Camilo. Estrada da Ponta da Piedade, Praia do Camilo, Lagos; 00 351 282 763 845

Bahia: You’ll find the usual beach-bar fare – burgers, salads and tapas – along with local beers, Brazilian cocktails and trendy music. Meia Praia, Lagos; www.bahiabeachbar.eu

Restaurante da Praia: Overlooking Praia do Arrifana, the best restaurant for miles serves fresh whole fish and exquisite salads for a fraction of Algarve prices. Arrifana; restaurantepraiaarrifana.com

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