Picturesque Azenha do Mar
Picturesque Azenha do Mar

The Alentejo’s beautiful west coast

Fleetwood Mac’s greatest hits were playing at the Praia de Carvalhal beach bar when we arrived.

As we lazily sipped our chilled beer and squiggled our toes in the warm soft sand, it brought back wonderful memories of our (occasionally) misspent youth!

Some things in life never seem to change over time – and great beach bars with their rickety wooden chairs sit right at the top of the ‘never change’ list. They look just the same as they did 50 years ago!

Carvalhal beach bar
Carvalhal beach bar

Carvalhal Beach itself is one of the most appealing along the Western Alentejo’s coast and, on this sunny day in mid-September, only attracted a handful of late-season tourists. Some sunbathed, some splashed in the shallows whilst others surfed a little further out, all watched carefully by the lifeguards.

We were spending a week exploring the Alentejo’s beautiful coastline, starting in the south near Odemira before working our way north towards Grândola.

Lovely main town beach at Vila Nova de Milfontes
Lovely main town beach at Vila Nova de Milfontes

Initially, we stayed in the comfortable and tranquil Enigma Hotel, set deep in a tree-lined countryside with great views towards the north side of the Monchique Hills. Before heading for the beaches, we visited Odemira itself, attractively situated above the River Mira. The riverside café was the perfect place for morning coffee where we admired a flotilla of quietly quacking ducks swimming serenely upstream.

The popular resort of Zambujeira do Mar was only a short drive away and has recently been smartened up considerably. There are superb views over the main beach from the promenade and we enjoyed a tasty mixed seafood lunch in one of the town’s many restaurants.

Zambujeira's wide sandy beach
Zambujeira’s wide sandy beach

During the afternoon, we strolled high above the ocean on the striated rocky cliffs at Cabo do Sardão. There are superb views along the coast here, but, sadly, Portugal’s most famous storks were not at home in their lofty nest on a sharp pinnacle adjoining the precipitous seacliffs. These storks are thought to be the only ones in the country that nest quite so close to the sea and in such a precarious place.

Vila Nova de Milfontes, a little further away at the mouth of the lovely River Mira estuary, is unquestionably the jewel of the whole Alentejo coast. This utterly charming resort has magnificent sandy beaches and calm waters on both sides of the estuary. Tourists throng here in the peak summer season.

Striated cliffs at Cabo Sardão
Striated cliffs at Cabo Sardão

After driving out to see the views from the main headland, we enjoyed exploring the main town beach and testing the warmth of the water with a dip in the sea. Then meandering through the streets, we eventually discovered the rather well-disguised route down to the town’s small harbour and the A Fateixa fish restaurant. Here we sampled a delicious grilled Golden Bream, somehow made even tastier by attentive service, the glorious day and great view over the harbour!

Our next stop was Azenha do Mar, a little further north. It lies in a much wilder coastal setting, and has a picturesque cove tucked below high cliffs with a pebbly beach. This small coastal community was only formed in the 1960s and, to supplement their income, the local fishermen decided to harvest seaweed.

The peaceful river at Odemira
The peaceful river at Odemira

The beach, with its little fleet of fishing boats, is well worth a look and, at low tide, the rocks retain water forming a natural swimming pool. However, most of Azenha’s many visitors never actually reach the beach. They only make it as far as one of the Alentejo’s most famous seafood restaurants perched on the cliff above. At weekends, reservations are essential!

The drive north towards Grândola was an absolute joy. There was little traffic, and we wended our way through rolling hills resplendent with cork oaks, pines and eucalyptus. The seaside resort of Porto Côvo, near Sines, was our choice for a mid-day break.

Hiking trail at Senhora da Penha
Hiking trail at Senhora da Penha

It is a friendly fishing village but with a rather unsightly ruin on its seafront. However, a closer inspection revealed some charming small beaches tucked away between rugged cliffs. The village centre had well-manicured white houses with coloured doors and windows. The pedestrian-only main street had a splendid choice of cafés and restaurants, so there was no problem finding our lunch!

We passed through even better pastoral countryside as we ventured further north beyond the town of Sines on the N120. We had reached the scenic and largely unknown Serra de Grândola, and were staying nearby at the peaceful Sobreiras Country Hotel. Deep in unspoiled countryside, this comfortable hotel was the perfect place to fully enjoy the best of this beautiful region.

Scenic Lagoa de Melides
Scenic Lagoa de Melides

The Serra de Grândola hills rise to over 350m and have a generous covering of cork and holm oak forest, along with olives, wild pear, arbutus and a scrubland of mastic, gorse, rosemary and wild roses.

The Hermitage of Senhora da Penha, at the summit of one of the Serra’s highest hills, is reached either by a scenic hiking trail or an attractive road that twists and turns up the hillside. The hermitage itself is uninteresting, but there are great views in all directions.

Cork oak country at Serra de Grândola
Cork oak country at Serra de Grândola

Santa Margarida da Serra, the main village of the region, with its narrow streets and tiny houses, is definitely worth a visit. It has a population of less than 200 and survives on an agricultural economy. It is a pleasant place for quiet exploration, has a nice church and boasts one very unusual building – a miradouro created from an old mortuary! Sadly, the view from the top is disappointing.

The quiet road to the west coast passes through more of the Serra de Grândola’s gorgeous unspoiled landscape of hills and forest. Our initial destination was the Praia da Costa de Santo André. This long stretch of sand has the Atlantic Ocean on one side and a huge lagoon on the other, which is home to many bird species. The calm waters of the lagoon are ideal for swimming, canoeing and wind surfing.

Hidden beach at Porto Covo
Hidden beach at Porto Covo

Lamentably, the supporting infrastructure of accommodation and eateries looked very run down, so we drove on to Praia de Melides, a little further to the north. It is an attractive and very popular beach separated by a narrow strip of sand from the picturesque Lagoa de Melides. There are opportunities to kayak on the lagoon and it is also popular for swimming.

There are hiking trails, horse riding, bird watching opportunities and board walks from the main car park down to a lovely beach area – so it is perfect for a family holiday. There were many dining opportunities close to the car park, although some had already closed for the season.

It was our last day of our Alentejo coastal exploration before driving home, and we chose the gaudily decorated pirate-themed Bar Lança for a very late lunch. As we tucked into some delicious grilled black pork, Go Your Own Way from Fleetwood Mac’s greatest hits began to play on the juke box. It is our very favourite Fleetwood Mac song. How appropriate to finish our week just as it began! Happy days!

By Nigel Wright
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Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal 15 years ago and live near Guia. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and seek out new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening and photography.