Trip idea / Portugal

The Alentejo

Rugged Backcountry and Beachlined Coast

There’s so much more to Portugal than Lisbon, Porto and the classic Algarve.

The lowdown

  • Best for

    Road trips, wine and food lovers, wild beaches, active families.

  • When to go

    June to September is ideal for beach lovers. Spring and Autumn are great for inland exploration.

  • Combine with

    Porto & Northern Portugal for a more extensive road trip or head south to Tavira for a taste of authentic Algarve.

  • Cost

    From £1,430 per person for a 7 night fly-drive including 4 nights at Sao Lourenco do Barrocal and 3 nights at Sublime Comporta, car hire and flights.

Stretching from beachlined coast through rugged backcountry to the Spanish border is the vast Alentejo, a secret realm where tourists are few and authentic charms are many. Portugal has been on our travel tip-list for a year or two now. As well as being beautiful and reliably warm, it constantly ranks among Europe’s most affordable holiday destinations. New flight routes pop up and there always seems to be an innovative hotel opening.

However, we reckon a rather less heralded corner of Portugal is stepping into the spotlight. Extending the width of the country, the vast Alentejo perfectly sates the increasing clamour for unspoilt, immersive destinations off the beaten track. It also works perfectly for a twin-centre trip. There’s an extensive interior to explore, including one of those eye-catching new hotels (more on that later), where local produce washed down with big-flavour wines take centre stage. Then the coast, which has miles of sandy beaches, is worthy of any brochure cover.

    Start Inland

    The north-eastern extreme of the Alentejo – part of what’s known informally as the Alto (Higher) Alentejo – is characterised by wild, rugged countryside. Huge rocks and megalithic dolmen litter the wide open land; brown agricultural fields border great green meadows. It’s a place to stride, cycle, horse-ride or birdwatch, be it up gentle hillsides or beside (or on) the artificial Alqueva Lake, which contains sandy beach islands amid its numerous tentacles.

    There’s also exceptional, giddy stargazing on offer, with the Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve doubling as the world’s first designated Starlight Tourism Destination. By appointment, guests can visit the Observatory in Cumeada for guided night-time viewing, or take a nocturnal canoe-ride on the lake with an astrological expert. Prepare to be quite amazed at how much you can see.

    Dizzying Views

    From planets to plonk: lots of very good – and predominantly red – wine is made in the Alentejo, and we can arrange vineyard tours and tastings. There’s also a well-established pottery scene, and no better place to buy gorgeous pots, plates or mugs than Reguengos de Monsaraz (known locally just as Monsaraz), an ancient hilltop village visible for miles around. Looming above its whitewashed limestone buildings and twisty stone lanes is the Monsaraz Castle, with dizzying views in every direction  from above its bullfighting ring.

    Locals are very proud to be from the Alentejo, and that has much to do with its unassuming but delicious cuisine. You’ll eat especially well at São Lourenço do Barrocal, a family run hotel surrounded by self-catering cottages and an eighth-generation farm. As well as inventive food which draws heavily on the estate, there are characterful rooms balancing luxury style with rustic comfort, plus a cedarwood-scented spa and two pools, one of them reserved for families.

    Famed Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura helped refurbish and repurpose much of the land and outbuildings, adding in lots of warm, contemporary style and painstakingly seeking out original terracotta tiles.

    To the Coast

    Towards the coast, found an hour south of Lisbon, the Alentejo’s default landscape becomes cork and pine forest, interspersed with streams and tracks. Fringing this fertile scene are loads of golden-sand beaches – headlined by the 13-mile Tróia peninsula and its hub, lovely Comporta.

    Though it now caters to the likes of Madonna and Christian Louboutin, this ex-farming village still offers a welcoming, accessible vibe rather than any pretentiousness or air of exclusivity. It has been compared to Ibiza, back when Ibiza was still Ibiza, and not “Beefa”. The reason for such comparisons is simple: there remains, happily, something wonderfully low-key and back-to-nature about Comporta, from its wild, rangy dunes to simple, single-storey houses backed by green rice fields. Much of the area is a protected reserve where new-builds are banned. Life comes easily here. Pines perfume the air, fizzy surf crashes in from the Atlantic, quiet lakes hide inland, driftwood dots most beaches and chic boutiques in the village sell elegant shawls and hip, hand-loomed kaftans.

    You’ll also find beach shacks along wooden boardwalks, their garlicky clams accompanied by beanbags, blueberry caipiroskas and beat‑up stereos playing lazy bossanova. Rather more luxurious, our favourite base is the aptly-named Sublime Comporta: a 17-hectare estate featuring a main hotel and modernist, glassy villas with private pools. The food is as good as at Sao Lourenco, and once more there’s a spa, another pool and bikes to borrow. Other ways to spend your days include dolphin-spotting boat trips – the best time is March- November – yoga and surf schools or horseback trots along the sand.