Portugal, a Maritime Nation
A story by Rachel Warrilow

Portugal is deeply connected to the Atlantic Ocean that flanks its southern and western coasts. Historically, the 1794-kilometer stretch of rugged shoreline has served the country well: providing bountiful fish for commercial gain and serving as a vast launching pad for naval fleets during the 15th century, helping to establish one of the first maritime empires in the world.

Steeped in history, with ancient castles and towns dotted around the country, Portugal is one of the oldest nations in Europe. Despite measuring one-fifth the size of Spain, its only neighbour, Portugal has always fought to be independent, and today, many regions remain well preserved and barely touched by tourism. Now this maritime nation is having a moment, thanks to its distinctive beauty, friendly people, and excellent fish. Portuguese staples include salted cod, known as bacalhau, which has been popular since the 14th century when it was favored by sailors on long voyages at sea. Another favourite is polvo à Lagareiro, a traditional octopus dish drenched in lashings of golden olive oil and the famous Portuguese sardines grilled over charcoal during summertime.
Octant Douro
The Portuguese coast is wildly beautiful. From the Algarve to the Azores Islands, there are wide sweeping bays, golden dunes and secluded cove beaches framed by stacked cliffs and strata rock formations that appear to have been carved by giants. International surfers flock to the towns of Ericeira, Peniche and Cascais for the invigorating Atlantic waves and laid-back lifestyle within easy distance of Lisbon, the capital. In the southernmost region, where the strong Nortada wind blows during summer, the Algarve is home to countless kitesurfing and surf spots that are dotted along the 250-kilometer coast that boasts 300 days of sunshine a year. 

Only two and a half hours from Lisbon, the Algarve is “a vacation paradise offering everything from natural beauty, gourmet cuisine and fine wines, to world-class beaches and golf,” says Katya Bauval, Executive Director of Sales and Marketing of the Vila Vita Collection. Their exclusive portfolio of luxury villas and beachfront residences presents “beautifully imagined and lovingly decorated residences in beachside villages where traditional Algarvian lifestyles persist and raw nature survives.” Bauval describes the region as “a haven of unspoiled beaches and picturesque, white-walled villages, a place of medieval castles, cobblestone streets, where the warmth of the Portuguese people comes from a genuine pride in their home.”

A member of The Leading Hotels of the World with a five-star classification, the Vila Vita Collection ensures the highest levels of comfort, style and service. “Each villa is a secluded sanctuary-like retreat in the authentic Algarve.” From the Red Chalet, a listed historical building in Armação de Pêra, to Villa Alegria, a contemporary clifftop residence in the village of Salema with beach and ocean views, Vila Vita has a dream repertoire of holiday gems in undiscovered locations. “The time-forgotten fishing village of Salema, where we have several of our villas, is home to some of the most famous rock formations in the region and the warmest of welcomes,” says Bauval. "This is a place where we can enjoy the simplest of pleasures, where life needn't be so difficult.”

From the seaside to the city, the capital Lisbon is set on the waterfront along the river Tagus, a charming meld of the past - cobbled alleyways and hills climbed by rattling trams - and present -the cool clubs and late-night bars of hip Bairro Alto. A vibrant intercultural melting pot of nationalities, including Brazilians, Cape Verdeans and Chinese, this modern metropolis is bursting with life and colour, now mentioned in the same breath as cosmopolitan hubs like London, Paris, Rome and Barcelona. The pretty historical centre known as Alfama is brimming with gastronomic restaurants, bars, art galleries and boutique hotels housed within characterful buildings. Castelo de São Jorge, a Moorish castle dating back to the 1100s, sits on a hilltop overlooking the red-tiled roofs of the city beyond. Pastel-coloured buildings are adorned with quintessential Portuguese tiles known as azulejos, decorated with every possible pattern and colour.
                           TempoVip DMC Portugal
                          Maison Albar Hotels Le Monumental Palace 
Although the centre is compact and easy to explore, an insider’s guidance is key to uncovering the real ‘Lisboa’ that locals know and love. The city is “the magnificent gateway to Europe," boasting “culture, gastronomy, history, nature, and a cosmopolitan vibe strongly linked with our tradition”, says Danilo Cerqueira, founder of TempoVIP DMC, a Destination Management Company based in the city. Founded in 2004, TempoVIP DMC offers meticulously planned experiences connecting clients with locals and lesser-known locations. Cerqueira explains how his expert team loves “the opportunity to share” their “passion for Portugal, crafting extraordinary, memorable and exclusive experiences.” He understands that luxury could be a “five-star hotel”, “a deserted beach” or exclusive private access to Harry Potter book and film locations, including the Lello bookstore in Porto, in one case.

“Portuguese people are the true hidden gems,” says Cerqueira, “Supporting the local community is in our DNA. When I think about authenticity, what immediately comes to mind is visiting Manuela’s oyster farm in the Algarve, painting Portuguese tiles at Antonio’s family atelier, or having an organic salt tasting with Jorge. It truly is about people and their lives’ passion. Look for these hidden gems in Alentejo, the Algarve, Douro, Açores or Madeira—the true way to experience Portugal.”

Another expert DMC based in Lisbon is Portugal by TravelTailors, which designs bespoke itineraries that “showcase the very best of our country”, explains Paula Alves, Partner and Sales and Operations Director. “It is essential that all travellers leave Portugal with their heart and soul truly full of amazing experiences and a sense of understanding of our culture, traditions and history.” Coupled with creating authentic cultural connections, Alves and her team are dedicated to once-in-a-lifetime experiences, “We organized a 50th birthday dinner in a private fort on the beach for a very special client. The fort was decorated entirely with white roses and lilies, dinner was prepared by a Michelin-starred chef… with a port wine ritual, an opera singer and a spectacular firework display.”

Alves inherently understands the magic of her country, “Besides our centuries-old history, amazing wines, delicious gastronomy, friendly people and breathtaking ocean views… it's the ‘saudade’” —meaning a deep emotional state of melancholic longing - “you only understand after visiting Portugal and especially after listening to Lisbon Fado - it's mesmerizing, leaving a tingle in your arms and a longing in your heart.” A genre of music dating back to 1820s Lisbon, Fado is a mournful melody accompanied by Portuguese guitar. 
                       Vila Foz Hotel & Spa
                                 Portugal by TravelTailors
Vila Vita Collection
Another integral element of Portuguese identity is anchored by the ocean, “We are people of the sea,” explains Alves. “95% of our land is actually underwater, from continental Portugal to the Azores Archipelago in the mid-Atlantic Ocean, so our roots are in the water. And besides, half our coast bathes in the Atlantic. Also, we love food—uniting families and friends, cooking together, sipping wine and laughing. The true Portuguese family experience.”
For charismatic bars serving glasses of port and petiscarias serving tapas of fresh fish and seafood, Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city, is 300 kilometres north of Lisbon. This colourful and historic port town is set on the banks of the Rio Douro with a maze of hilly backstreets. Maison Albar Hotels Le Monumental Palace is a five-star hotel located on the wide Avenida dos Aliados, within walking distance of the cathedral and the waterfront. Part of the French Maison Albar Hotels group, Le Monumental Palace is emblematic of Porto’s rich history, formerly housing the glamorous Monumental Café established in 1930 and originally designed by Italian architect Michelangelo Soá in 1923. The grand building boasts an ornate Art Deco façade and its interiors shine with 1920s and 1930s glitz, with gold trimmings, luxe furnishings and black-and-white photographs adorning the walls. Art Deco elements extend to the 76 rooms decorated in muted colours with marble bathrooms and spectacular views of the city. Marcelo Guedes, the hotel’s Sales Executive, describes Le Monumental Palace as “your 5-star second home in Porto” where “a dedicated team welcomes you warmly with a deeply knowledgeable concierge team prepared to surprise you with some of the best activities in town. A tailor-made program is organized for each guest that gives them access to local living.”

The Monumental Café is now Yakuza, a first-class Japanese dining concept serving fresh sushi and sashimi. And Le Monument Restaurant offers a ‘14 stops around Portugal’ tasting menu with a wine pairing, created by Michelin-starred chef Julien Montbabut. Guedes explains that “Montbabut pays tribute to Portuguese products with dishes interpreted with the savoir-faire of French cuisine.” Capitalizing on the feast provided by the Atlantic, a typical menu starts with puff bread with salt flower and homemade olive oil followed by veal paired with seaweed, smoked eel, crab, traditional salted cod cheeks and smoked lobster.

Tracing Porto’s Rio Douro west to where the mouth of the river meets the ocean, the Vila Foz Hotel and Spa sits on the water’s edge within walking distance of the 17th-century Castelo do Queijo. Susana Tavares, the hotel’s Chief Commercial Officer, also recognizes the importance of the ocean in Portuguese culture: “it’s impossible not to love Porto, the city of the sea. For us, it’s an enormous privilege to experience this proximity to the Atlantic, an endless source of energy, serenity and freedom.” Full of character and old-world charm, this five-star hotel with an ocean backdrop evokes tranquillity despite its proximity to the Porto. “Above all, we want our guests to feel relaxed and at home, finding the tranquillity that will transform their stay into an experience of absolute well-being," says Tavares.

“We want to offer the authenticity of the city and our residential neighbourhood of Foz, which means ‘mouth of the river’, where people know each other and greet each other. We have beautiful beaches but also independent grocery stores, traditional shops, small restaurants and local bakeries. This is what we want to offer our guests—the essence and charisma of Foz,” explains Tavares. The luxurious suites are dedicated to refined elegance and comfort. “And an attentive concierge is always available to deal with the most varied requests: guests can visit the fish market with our chef who will prepare lunch on board a private boat, or a wine tasting, for example.”

From views of the sea to life at sea, Octant Hotels was named after the navigational instrument used by Portuguese sailors during the Age of Discovery. Newly rebranded, this group of luxury hotels comprises properties all over the country, each with its own Experience Manager that designs personalized excursions for guests to “feel the place” and “to inhabit a local kind of luxury”, explains Gonçalo Alves, the Head of Sales. For the opportunity to reconnect with nature and disconnect from the digital world, Octant Évora fuses stylish contemporary residences with countryside experiences, a farm and spa. This family-focused hotel located 150 kilometres inland of Lisbon on 11 hectares of Alentejo plain is best explored on foot, horseback or hot-air balloon. Private villas cater for families with children, who can experience life on a farm and learn about the animals, including the resident sheep, miniature pony, chickens and ducks. For extra relaxation, the spa offers divine treatments and there is even a list for kids. Octant Évora also prioritizes the grown ups, and there are dedicated peace-and-quiet areas like the adults-only ‘contemplation pool’. The hotel’s architecture respects and blends into the land and each of the 56 rooms has a terrace that looks out over the plains that are home to many species of birds. In fact, a birdwatching tour regularly takes place along the stream next to the Monte Novo Dam, where the expert guide gives a real insight into local wildlife. There are many other back-to-nature activities to enjoy, including an ethnobotany tour that takes guests on a journey around the estate to discover the vegetable garden and orchard to find and sample aromatic and medicinal herbs—a soothing and insightful experience.

Situated inland between Lisbon and Porto, Octant Lousã is a white former 18th-century palace with ornate details that add a touch of fairytale charm to the rolling hills and mountains where deer and wild boars roam free. Known as Viscondessa do Espinhal Palace in a previous life, this classic and contemporary residence is now a classified Historical Heritage Building of Public Interest and a four-star hotel, the first boutique hotel in Portugal. Under the terracotta-tiled roof, there are 46 bedrooms with light, bright interiors and grand features such as regal marble archways and luxurious soft furnishings. The well-manicured grounds have a dazzling swimming pool, a children’s park and plenty of fresh air. The area is popular with cyclists who are drawn to the undulating terrain and mountain peaks that reach 1205 meters. As a member of the Bikotel group, Octant Lousã has everything a cyclist may need: bike repair and wash stations, takeaway picnic menus, a sports masseuse and a wide selection of bicycles to hire, from electric to mountain bikes, including racks in some of the bedrooms. There are countless cycling and walking trails and tours throughout the Serra de Lousã, with lovely viewpoints and visual spectacles like waterfalls, castles and pretty villages to stop at and refuel with a cold drink and a pastel de nata, the famous Portuguese egg custard pastry.

Forty-one kilometres down the river Douro east of Porto, the Octant Douro is a design hotel in the verdant town of Castelo de Paiva. Positioned quite literally on the riverbank, this contemporary masterpiece harmonizes with the natural surroundings, blending into the hillside that curves up from the river’s edge. Minimalism and neutral interiors enhance the sense of tranquillity and therapeutic balance evoked by the waterside location. The rooms and suites have spectacular views of the river or mountains—guests feel completely immersed in nature. A private marina has a fleet of boats that are ideal for exploring the ebb and flow of the river, which is “one of the cleanest in Europe”, says Alves. “Plus our Experience Manager can organize a range of special moments for our guests. For example, an excursion to discover vinho verde, also known as Portuguese ‘green wine’, 30 minutes from the centre of Porto. Or perhaps a romantic picnic on one of the islands in the river, or a gastronomic excursion that involves meeting our chef, discussing culinary preferences before the chef prepares a bespoke 5 to 7-course meal in a surprise location complemented by wines selected by the hotel’s sommelier.” Alternatively, guests can relax at the hotel, enjoying the three swimming pools that overlook the river. And there are two restaurants, serving local tapas or gourmet fine dining—and an extensive list of 135 wines.

Back to the Algarve in the southernmost region of Portugal that is sun-drenched during summer and warm during winters. Octant Vila Monte is another excellent reason to visit Moncarapacho, which is 10 kilometres from Olhão and a 10-minute drive away from Fuseta beach. The newly renovated sleek modern building is inspired by traditional Algarvian architecture with multiple rooms, suites and a private villa ideal for families who seek privacy and space plus all the mod cons. A member of the Design Hotels group, Octant Vila Monte has contemporary interiors that embrace the “hippy boho chic” aesthetic, says Alves, plus superior levels of comfort and functionality. Local handicrafts add a homely and laid-back feel. Lush gardens, an orange grove and spacious terraces enhance the vast outdoor space where there are two heated swimming pools. À Terra Restaurant serves Algarvian delicacies made with fresh ingredients, including fish from the local market and the hotel’s home-grown fruits and herbs. During their stay, guests can capitalize on the services of a personal assistant, who curates personalized experiences and services, such as boat trips, picnics on a deserted beach or fun moments at the villa - barbeques, private yoga classes or a spa treatment, for example.

The final stop is the Açores Islands, commonly known as the Azores, nine volcanic formations surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean over 1500 kilometres off the Portuguese coast and a two-hour flight from Porto or Lisbon. The islands’ landscapes are undeniably wild: black sand beaches, volcanic lakes, crater lagoons, thermal lava-warmed pools and renowned surf spots. On São Miguel, the largest island in the archipelago, Octant Ponta Delgada overlooks its eponymous port and the ocean. Inspired by the natural surroundings, this lifestyle hotel’s interiors favour wood and shades of green throughout its 123 rooms and suites with spectacular views and an outdoor pool with panoramic vistas. The eco-luxury Spa Azor uses 100% natural and organic products made locally using the essential oils from the laurus Azorica plant, leaves from the cryptomeria tree, and Azorean milk. Outside, the climate and waters are mild. As a result, diving and a plethora of other adventurous water sports are popular, including surfing, scuba diving, canoeing and paddle boarding in the ocean or on one of the nearby lagoons. Alves describes other memorable activities, such as diving to the bottom of the ocean with an egg and placing it on the seabed. Because of the island's volcanic nature, the egg boils within ten minutes, and when the diver returns to the shore, breakfast is served. Unusual and unique, the remote Azores Islands are well worth the flight, especially when catching a glimpse of the whales that occasionally glide past the archipelago sometimes referred to as the Hawaii of the mid-Atlantic.
It is no surprise that Europe’s maritime nation is now topping world travel lists. Travelers are drawn to its rich history and unique culture, plus the geographical diversity that contrasts from north to south, from countryside to coast. Ultimately, Portugal’s restorative oceanic energy will continue to attract visitors for many years to come.
Rachel Warrilow
Rachel is a writer with a professional background in literature, travel and fashion. After growing up in the Middle East, Rachel has travelled extensively - living in Japan, Australia and the UK - seeking experiences that continue to shape her writing. Rachel currently lives in Mallorca, Spain.