Clinging to the top of a cliff face, I try not to look down at my husband and children 200ft below. Not for the first time, I question my sanity in opting for another activity holiday. But it’s our last full day here, and I’ve abseiled before — albeit on smooth, much lower walls — and the techniques remain the same. Perhaps most motivating of all, however, is the fact my young sons have just tackled it, as has their dad and most of the rest of our 15-strong group. If I bottle it, I’ll be letting them down.
This Alentejo coast trip represents a new departure for us after three years of holidays with UK-based PGL Family Adventures. There’s new highs, like surfing, plus it allows us to combine sports with beach and pool days in more or less guaranteed sunshine.
What I hadn’t appreciated when choosing this trip was that rather than focusing on one main area, activities would take us out to several glorious sites in the Southwest Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park — the kind of places you’d be unlikely to discover yourself if you came to this stunning region independently.
We mountain bike along a coastal path with glorious Atlantic views, stopping along the way to peek at storks’ nests atop pinnacle-sharp rocks, pick wild garlic and drink the sweet juice of a rare flower whose name we can’t translate — a lifesaver should one get lost here without water. We canoe down a gorgeous estuary with chickens grazing on the marshy banks and jellyfish floating indolently by. We follow cactus-lined, overgrown paths to reach hidden waterfalls in which we bathe, and we play in sparkling streams scented by the wild mint, lavender and eucalyptus growing on their banks.
Best of all, we spend a day at a remote lagoon where the kids create and pilot rafts, leap from high rocks and help build a rope bridge across the water. Activities here for us to do at our leisure range from sunbathing on the banks, taking the raft out in search of turtles or basking in the undergrowth, to swimming or doing a bit of archery.
Days do turn a bit Lord of the Flies when our tangle-haired kids start brandishing sticks, comparing cuts sustained in the undergrowth and wearing clothes so stained you wonder if they’ll ever get clean again — but then surely that’s the point of an escape like this.
Our apartment is perfect — located in a three-star complex a two-minute walk over the dunes from the beach, in the town of Vila Nova de Milfontes. There’s an indoor/outdoor pool, mini-golf, a tennis court and a playground. Self-catering gives us flexibility, although we take advantage of the breakfast provided each morning, plus the fantastic picnic lunch most days, and there are two group dinners at the apartment complex. We cook one evening but everything is such good value in this untouristy region of western Portugal that it seems a shame not to search out local restaurants. Seafood, unsurprisingly, is the highlight — clams, sardines, squid and octopus, the best of it at A Fateixa, at the harbour — but we also tuck into an unseemly number of ice creams and custard tarts from the heaving town pasticceria, Mabi.
Everyone in our group of four families is sad when the week comes to an end, and all say they’d highly recommend it to friends. We feel we’ve been properly challenged, and our only real disappointment is in not having had the scheduled full day’s surfing. Had I known all my boys would take to surfing so keenly, I’d have booked another optional lesson for our free day in the middle of the week. But as it was we were very happy chilling around the hotel pool and picnicking and playing on some of the best beaches in Portugal.
8 things we loved on this trip…
2 Friendly activity leaders
3 Wild Atlantic beaches
4 Estuary canoeing
5 Clifftop mountain-biking
6 Secret lagoon and the waterfall bathing
7 Delicious local seafood and ice cream
8 Hotel pool lounging and the cold, crisp local beers
What we didn’t like…
That the tides and winds cut our surfing day short
How to do it
Published in the Summer 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family