With gentle salt spray, honeycomb rock and field after field of wild flowers, the Alentejo Coast is one of the best kept secrets in Portugal. Here's an inside guide to the things to do on the Costa Vicentina, including hiking the Ruta Vicentina, an untamed beauty at the edge of Europe.
Portugal's Algarve, of course, is well known, with sandy beaches, scooped out waterways and all-inclusive corporate resorts.
Further up north is the Costa Vicentina or Alentejo, a rocky jigsaw of sand and surf, of wild flowers, family businesses, fresh eucalyptus and the mighty cork.
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In the far south-west corner of the Iberian Peninsula between Lisbon and the Algarve.
It's the largest protected coastal park in Europe, officially known as the Parque Natural Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina with over 100 kilometres of pristine coast, green hills and gentle valleys.
And while travellers haven't found it yet, the birds certainly have. The average hiker can spot more than 50 species in a day around the lakes and meadows.
Recommended reading: Portugal Cork Trees; Beautiful But Under Threat
I found the Costa Vicentina through hiking company Headwater and their award-winning walking holidays.
Our week long trip started inland, walking through sleepy white villages and country tracks, alone but for the horses and carts. Local bee-keepers drank fiery medronho with their morning coffee and our boots went thump, thump, thump on the gentle earth.
Pink petals swayed against a bright blue sky. Shards of rock ruffled the incoming waves. We slept in sweet family farms, small tavernas and organic eco-chic retreats.
In all, it was the perfect place to put one boot in front of the other and head off on a beautiful walk. And the name of the hiking route was the Rota Vicentina.
The Rota Vicentina runs for 350km between Santiago do Cacém, around 100km south of Lisbon, and Cabo de São Vicente at the south-western tip of the country.
It has two main parts:
But although we spent so much time hiking, there are other things to do in Costa Vicentina. Here's a list. And then a hiking itinerary for the Ruta Vicentina at the end.
The Alentejo is known for its hardy red wines, with USA Today readers voting it the best wine region to visit in the world. Saude!
Visit the herdades and quintas scattered across UNESCO World Heritage Site countryside. Discover more about the Alentejo wine region here.
The lack of development and astounding natural habitat makes birdwatching one of the top things to do in in the Costa Vicentina.
Frank McClintock is a character and a half and he's also one of the foremost birding experts in Portugal. He and his family run the gentle lakeside Casa Rural. It's an unpretentious place where guests dine together and dogs roam around. It's also a great place to stay for twitchers.
Recommended reading: 17 Authentic Things To Do in Portugal: A Country with a Divided Soul
Where there's rugged coast, there's surfing and it's one of the best things to do on the Costa Vicentina: as long as you can surf.
Less a beginner's spot and more for the well established surf crowd, beaches Aljezur, Arrifana and Praia do Amado stand out for their surf suitability.
Inside info: for centuries, the Portuguese relied on the cork tree for economic activity in this part of the Costa Vicentina. But then the wine industry ran into problems... Read more about the trouble with Portugal's cork trees here.
For years, Christendom thought the windswept town of Sagres to be the edge of the world until Columbus gathered together his sailors and ventured further afield.
Now, Sagres attracts a surfer crowd, albeit one more interested in actually surfing than lying on the beach and looking cool.
Recommended reading: The Hiking Gear List: What to Pack for A Walking Holiday
Not sure of your fitness levels? I tried this hiking route as one of the things to do in the Costa Vicentina two years after foot surgery but before I was back to full fitness. It was lovely! A great part of the design is that some of the walks loop back each day so that if you have overdone it and need to spend a day resting, you can simply skip the next day.
Take the train from Lisbon to Santa Clara-Saboia station. Stay at the Casa Rural for three nights on the shore of a freshwater lake. The transfer is around 35 minutes and can be arranged with owners Frank and Daniela.
A track lined with purple gladioli dips and weaves between ridges offering shimmering lake views. Descend to the hamlet of Cortes Pereira. A leafy trail leads you back through cork forest sprinkled with green winged orchid. Relax on your jasmine scented terrace before dinner whilst watching grey heron glide over the lake.
Walking the tranquil Vinganca Trail mixes rustling oaks with yellow wheat fields, low hills and the soft song of the nightingale. Stop off in a local bar, muddle your way through conversation with farmers, and then buy a picnic and head off to the nearby reservoir.
The walk back has a panoramic descent to the sound of cicadas and perfumed rockrose.
Arrange a 75 minute transfer to the small village of Almograve, for stunning cliff top views and the start of the Fishermen's Trail.
Over twenty different species of birds nest along this coastline, including rock doves, white storks and the peregrine falcon.
Then head inland through golden wheat fields to Luis's 900 acre Herdade do Touril, for the next two nights.
Retrace your steps to Cabo Sardao and its delightful red and white lighthouse. Watch out for white storks whose nests balance on pinnacles of rock amid rainbows of ocean spray. Return to Herdade do Touril and dine outside.
Walk between colourful fishing villages and beaches to the charming village of Zambujeira do Mar, a delightful place to enjoy a spot of lunch. The path then travels inland to the seven room Cerca do Sul, in the heart of the Natural Park. Relax around the hotel's outdoor pool before enjoying dinner on the terrace.
Take a 10 minute transfer to Ribeira de Seixe, which leads to the ocean. Follow the coastal path to Azenha do Mar. Continue along the wild cliffs above thundering bays until you return to the village. Relax in a hammock. Why not?
Travel back to Santa Clara Saboia station to connect back to Lisbon or travel on elsewhere in Portugal.
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