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Portugal: A Perpetual Delight
By Mike Thiel

For Mike's complete Portugal slideshow, click here.

Portugal is one of my favorite European countries, and I've visited it many times. I'm happy to say that, with the euro skyrocketing, Portugal remains a relative bargain compared to much of the Continent, and more and more Americans are discovering this tiny country's diverse charms.

Most any visit to Portugal will start with a visit to Lisbon, as our most recent did. It's a beautiful capital, built like Rome on seven prominent hills. When in Lisbon, I mostly enjoy strolling its magnificent boulevards and plazas, sitting in a sidewalk café, or poking around such quaint cobblestoned neighborhoods as Al Fama, and enjoying its cuisine, especially the seafood. A quick, inexpensive, and leg-saving way to sightsee and get the lay of the city is to grab one of the vintage electric trolleys that squeal their way around the hilly terrain at Lisbon's center.

Venturing Into Port Wine Country
The real mission of our most recent visit was to tour the north, specifically Porto and the Douro River region, the epicenter of the ancient port wine trade. We took the Alfa Pendular, the high-speed train which got us there in just under three hours and cost about €40 for first class. It is extremely comfortable, passes through some beautiful country, and offers very good service. And I can honestly say that lunch aboard was a delight.

Porto itself is a gem, a lovely blend of modern city, historic churches, forts, museums, lovely residential areas, and quaint barrios spreading over hilly terrain on both sides of the Douro River. The river is intimate, flowing through a gorge in the center of the city then spreading out to a flatter estuary and the Atlantic Ocean. Its banks are connected by a number of high bridges, one of the most beautiful and famous being a construction of Gustav Eiffel.

Across the river from Porto is the town of Vila Nova de Gaia, the center of the port wine trade, its banks lined with famous-name bodegas and warehouses that export this ancient, mostly after-dinner drink to all parts of the world. Porto is interesting by day but most charming at night, when it bridges, forts, and historic structures clinging to the gorge and the waterfront of Vila de Gaia are floodlit.

I would highly recommend staying at the Pestana Porto, a modern, riverside boutique hotel of just 48 rooms and suites built within the walls of several conjoined UNESCO World Heritage Site buildings that date from the 16th to the 18th centuries. It is convenient to the most historic parts of the city as well as public transportation. We stayed only one night in Porto, taking the get-on/get-off-where-you-want tour bus for an overview of the city, and stopping in one of the bodegas in Vila de Gaia for a explanation of port wine making. That night, we dined at one of the open-air restaurants lining the river and took in a late Fado show—featuring the intensely emotional music for which its known—in the dungeon-like bowels of one of the ancient buildings in the old barrio. One day certainly doesn?t do Porto justice, and I would recommend at least a two- or three-night stay for a more leisurely and complete experience.

Cruising the Douro River
The next day, we rented a car and headed up the Douro River to Regua, the center of the port and Douro wine-producing region. (This region may be most famous for its port wine, but it also makes some fabulous non-fortified red and white wines.) Regua is an active river port, with day-boats and hotel boats basing out of it for tours of the wine country and beyond, some even doing one-week cruises to the Spanish border.

We opted for a delightful excursion aboard a day-cruiser of the DouroAzul Lines, leaving at mid-morning, which took us through gorgeous hilly wine country ablaze in fall colors and punctuated by magnificent white-washed wine estates along the banks. The comfortable cruise incorporated deck service of typical Portuguese hors-d'oeuvres accompanied by a dry white port for starters, and a wholesome sit-down lunch. It ended at the village of Pinhao with a tour and wine-tasting at the wine history museum located in the very attractive, riverside Vintage Hotel.

As an alternative to a day cruise, AmaWaterways has introduced a 12-day Lisbon-to-Porto itinerary that includes a 7-day cruise aboard the 106-passenger AmaVida, a simpler, smaller vessel than its usual river cruising ships, and one that's designed specifically for experiencing the intimate Douro River of Portugal. Each of her 215-square-foot cabins on the upper two decks has a small balcony and cozy interior seating area, both of which are perfect for viewing Portugal's wine regions as the lazy Douro floats by. The ship also has a spa, dining terrace, small fitness room, and heated swimming pool on the sundeck.

Our ride back to Regua was aboard a historic steam- and smoke-belching train, where we were served refreshments accompanied by live music from a young band of troubadours. All in all, this was a great way to spend a day, meet some wonderful people, and see the Portuguese countryside.

We spent a couple of nights in this area, staying at the then-brand-new Aquapura, a boutique hotel created from a 19th-century wine estate, and overlooking the Douro River. It is the type of hotel that definitely makes a statement, with ultra-modern and chic architectural design and decor. Our understanding is that the owners spent some €26 million creating this cutting-edge, 50-room hotel and spa.

Unfortunately, when we visited just a few moths after the Aquapura's opening, we felt that that those design concepts focused too much on form rather than function. To the good side, rooms were very spacious, materials and finishes were excellent—as were the facilities (pool and spa)—and the reception staff was very welcoming. However, smoked mirrors, poor reading and bathroom lighting, dark corridors, and a myriad of other glitches in design detracted from the experience, as did the dining service and the dining itself, which we felt was uninspired. In fairness, management seemed to realize some of the design shortcomings, and the staff was probably still in shake-down mode.

During our stay, we also visited the famous Mateus Palace—you know, the one featured on the label of the oval bottle of rosé wine, which probably was the wine that introduced a lot of today's boomer wine aficionados to the pleasures of the vine. We may have grown beyond the wine, but the palace that graces the bottle is well worth visiting, preferably early or late in the day to avoid the tour buses from Porto.

Heading Back South
Our recommendation for your trip south from Porto is to rent a car and shun-pike as much as possible, taking at least two or three days to work your way back to Lisbon. Portuguese roads are good and well-marked, and drivers are generally courteous, though they do drive fast.

Must-see places along the way? The medieval walled town of Óbidos, though rather touristy, is worth an overnight visit. It abounds with hole-in-the-wall tourist and craft shops, but its narrow cobbled-stone streets throng with tourists. It is a good evening stop, and you can take your choice of accommodations, opting for the old—the Pousada Obidos, whose nine rooms and restaurant are sprinkled around the ramparts of the vintage castle—or the modern Praia del Rey Marriott Golf & Beach Resort, a complete five-star resort development about five minutes away from the vintage town. We stayed here, and thoroughly enjoyed the excellent facilities, service, and a delicious, well-served dinner.

Even before you get to Óbidos, the town of Batalha, with it magnificent, ancient Dominican monastery built between 1386 and 1517, is worth a stop, as is the beach town of Nazar&eacaute;, a bit honky tonk, but with a marvelous perspective on the Atlantic and some nice beach restaurants for lunch.

Closer to Lisbon, I would definitely recommend a stop in the classy and hip beach town of Cascais, the most upscale town of Lisbon's "Riviera." Also plan a visit to Sintra, the summer mountain escape for the former kings of Portugal. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to various palaces and fortresses with magnificent gardens, some dating back to the 15th century.

From either of these final stops, it's an easy drive to Lisbon's airport for an afternoon flight home, having enjoyed a visit to an intriguing corner of Europe that is relatively unsung on this side of the Atlantic.

Hiding Away In Portugal
Call Hideaways Travel Services, our in-house boutique travel agency, to book your stay in Portugal or anywhere else you roam: toll-free at 877-843-4433.

Pestana Palace: A bit inconveniently located a few miles from the center of Lisbon, but the architecture, ambiance, gorgeous gardens, and quiet setting make up for it. Four old palace suites (where Madonna stayed when she was last in Lisbon) are supplemented by wings of more modern rooms and suites in garden annexes connected by glassy skyways. The restaurant in the Palace is just what you?d expect of old-fashioned European dining.

Lapa Palace: This five-star Orient Express hotel shares its neighborhood with the embassies of major countries, including that of the United States. It is a compound unto itself, with residential wings in a garden setting around the atmospheric pink palace building. The service is all that you've come to expect of Orient Express.

Bairro Alto Hotel: This relatively new, 55-room boutique hotel would be our choice for an in-town stay. It is conveniently located—facing the Praca Luis de Camöes—and a short walk, street car, or taxi ride from anywhere you want to go in Lisbon. Rooms are on the small side but are very nicely furnished, with modern baths, and service is outstanding. Request a Prestige Room for the best accommodations. Its rooftop bar is an excellent spot to have a drink and see the sun set over the Tagus River.

Pestana Porto: A delightful new hotel set in vintage buildings, and facing a plaza and promenade along the Douro River. It is within walking distance of most sites. The rooms are spacious, and the service excellent.

Vintage Hotel, Penhao: A charming country-house hotel set in a quaint village in the middle of wine country. It sits on a high bank overlooking beautiful gardens and the Douro River. This Ralais & Châteaux offers 43 rooms and suites, most overlooking the river. Its dining room is classic European, with good food and excellent service. Facilities include a pool and tennis court, and a spa is in the planning stages.

Aquapura, Regua: This country estate, surrounded by vineyards and overlooking the Douro, got a modern makeover and opened as a chic boutique hotel in mid-2007. Its 50 rooms are spacious, with ultra-modern baths and an overall contemporary feel. Its facilities are extensive, including an indoor pool and spa. When we visited in the fall of 2007, we felt that, in many instances, form had taken precedence over function in the concept of the hotel, and we found myriad glitches that affected visitor comfort. Services also left something to be desired, but that could be attributed to shake-down issues. We've noted that more recent comments on TripAdvisor give the hotel high marks, so we'd like to think that most of our concerns have been overcome.

Praia del Rey Golf & Beach Resort: This modern Mediterranean-style resort hotel, set beside the ocean, is surrounded by a seaside 18-hole golf course and a large residential development. It offers 179 rooms and 9 suites, all with ocean views, plus extensive facilities: indoor and outdoor pools, a spa, tennis courts, and more. It is central to many of the most popular sights around Lisbon.

Pousada do Castelo, Óbidos: This is the first historic pousada in all of Portugal, now operated by the Pestana Hotel Group. Its 6 rooms and 3 suites are scattered among the turrets and ramparts of the ancient castle overlooking the town. Very atmospheric, though surprisingly, the furnishings are largely modern with antique accents.

Hotel Palacio de Seteais, Sintra: A beautiful old palace building in a gorgeous garden setting, proximate to what you want to see in Sintra. Unfortunately, its furnishings and facilities (specifically the bathrooms) are rather dated, and it's not clear, being a historic building, how much can be done to bring it into the modern world. During our visit, it was indicated that the hotel would be closing for modernization.

Fortaleza do Guincho: This 17th-century, coastal fort converted to a boutique hotel, sits on a point all by itself overlooking the wild Atlantic and large swaths of beach popular with windsurfers. It offers 27 rooms and suites in its outside walls, which surround a central courtyard.

Hotel Albatroz, Cascais: The Hotel Albatroz has an enviable setting, spread among several former residential homes and palaces right on the rocky Atlantic shore. It has 47 bedrooms, 5 junior suites, and 8 full suites distributed among several historic buildings. Each room enjoys unique and exclusive decor. The interiors are a blend of the original elements and contemporary touches, creating a romantic and peaceful atmosphere. Its restaurant, which overlooks the ocean, is excellent.

Driving Tips for Europe in General and Portugal in Particular
  • If possible, always rent a diesel car. You?ll find it much more economic.
  • In Portugal, when traveling on highways, stay to the right unless passing. Doing otherwise might earn you an expensive ticket.

    January 2009

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