In 2020, the clocks stopped. Time finally became my friend. Hours clawed back from cancelled commutes and events were discombobulating… then deliciously freeing. What on Earth to do with them all (and where to spend them?).
Back when I was waiting for reality to resume, I was reminded of the Portuguese saying: ‘To stay watching the ships.’ It means to wait for something to happen, but it never does. I decided if I was going to stay watching, I’d do it in Comporta: a series of tiny beachfront villages flanked by rice paddies, pristine protected beaches and miles of sparkling ocean.
Time is an abstract concept here, and that’s what keeps me coming back. Tour guides rock up half an hour late with a smile. Your food order arrives when it’s good and ready. And no matter. In-the-know explorers make the hour’s drive from Lisbon for a slice of truly slow travel, removing their watches to simply let the days pass. But once you’ve got your bearings, it becomes obvious this isn’t just another beach town.
Clusters of whitewashed buildings stand crisp against cerulean skies. Deeply tanned locals smoke cigarettes outside a clutch of quiet bars and (excellent) seafood grills. A handful of boutiques peddle neon-hued children’s toys and blankets, boho lampshades and beach dresses. So far, so Portugal. But catch a glimpse at the price tags and you’ll actually look over your shoulder. Who’s buying this stuff? Who indeed.
During high summer, the answer is obvious. The world’s elite descend on this little Assouline-approved freguesia, a flurry of creatives and artsy types seeking sun and solace in private villas (so that explains the Champagne in the minimercado). You’ll spot them in the wild, tucking into turbot and grilled clams at fabulously chic Sublime Comporta Beach Club, or packing out tables at Cavalariça, one of Portugal’s most inspiring modern dining spots, stylishly housed in an old stables.
But come September? The crowds vanish – and the balmy weather, empty beaches and world-class food remains. You’ll need a warm coat in the evenings, but it’s all part of the adventure. Trade mosquito bites and stifling nights for catch-of-the-day dinners by candlelight, rain battering the tin roof of the beach shack. Life-affirming coastal runs are no longer limited to before sunrise or dusk (just bring that jacket for when the adrenaline wears off).
Getting the place (and the restaurants) to yourself feels like being let in on a hushed secret. Stay through to October, and the surf becomes fantastic, too. Strong, uncrowded waves at Carvalhal beach tempt intermediates to try their luck, and seasoned experts to drive over for long weekends (just, please, don’t tell them I revealed their secret spot).
The characterful Cavalos na Areira riding school is open 365 days a year, taking riders of all abilities through rice fields and onto the beach, so the horses can splash in the ocean. Chatting to the guide mid-ride, I discovered my horse ‘belongs’ to Madonna. ‘Sorry. Madonna, Madonna?’ I sputter. ‘Yes. She always rides him when she’s in town.’ I was just glad not to be paired up with Shakira’s, who alternated between tearing down eucalyptus branches and biting the horse in front.
A handful of salubrious rural reserves offer minimal cabanas with fire pits, built in the middle of jaw-droppingly beautiful cork forests. But there are a couple of rustic, luxurious hotels, too: the locally famous Sublime truly living up to its moniker. Painstakingly curated permaculture courses and foraging experiences are all here to be explored. There’s a quietly palpable atmosphere, powered by passionate people doing seriously cool things with food.
And if eating is really your thing, end your trip in Evora, an epicurean dreamland in the heart of Alentejo just an hour’s drive inland. Its food scene is bubbling as star chefs from Lisbon up sticks to experiment with prized local produce.
Set within original mediaeval walls, the city is so beautiful it’s literally classed as an open-air museum – all the more so when its cobbles aren’t heaving with people, puffing through the midday heat. Days should be spent gawping at Roman ruins untouched by Lisbon’s 1775 earthquake, nights holed up in rustic tabernas and sinking bottles of regional wine.
Soon you too will stop wearing your watch and tell time by watching sunflower fields burn gold in the evening sun. And ships? What ships? You’ll hardly believe you ever watched those at all…
Browse our complete collection of hotels in Alentejo – at your leisure, of course…