An enchanting land of hidden coves, castles, cathedrals and cozido stew
Portugal has all the ingredients for an unforgettable holiday: miles of golden coastline, idyllic islands, historic architecture, exotic wildlife and dramatic landscapes, all crowned by year-round lashings of sun. Combine the above with the produce of countless vineyards and fish markets to serve a delectable dish (best baked for one to two weeks).
Alentejo This area offers a rural landscape unlike anywhere else in Portugal, with rolling grass plains and undulating corn fields interspersed with sprawling forests of cork oaks and pine. Down along the coast, the long, sandy beaches are brisker and breezier than the Algarve, and crowd-free. The pace of life here is southern and slow, so linger in the little villages that appear like tiny nests of whitewashed houses, while enjoying local wines and scoffing traditional sweets from local monasteries.
Take time to explore the hills, which conceal regal Roman temples at Evora, and crumbling medieval ruins at Monsaraz. Dine underneath 18th-century frescoes at the Hotel Convento de São Paulo, a beautiful 12th-century convent converted into a comfortable hotel.
Stay: The quiet and peaceful Hotel Convento de São Paulo, which is a converted convent. Rooms from Dhs450-Dhs1,200. www.hotelconventospaulo.com (+351 266 989 160).
The Algarve The Algarve is well known as a massive tourist draw, and with good reason. You can book a package trip from many destinations for an extremely affordable price and end up with exactly what you expected. The town of Albufeira is a good option, offering little secluded coves as well as long stretches of sandy beaches, plenty of watersports and golfing opportunities, walks into lush Portuguese countryside, and a year-round sunny climate.
If you want to avoid the tourist resort-packed Litoral area, then venture into the serra (hills) to experience traditional Algarve folklore, song and dance, especially popular on feast and saints’ days during summer. The Barlavento region to the west has a rockier coastline and beautiful hidden bays, while the Sotavento area to the east is mile after mile of sandy beaches and warm(ish) seas.
Stay: The Bayside Salgados Apartments are an affordable accommodation option, with terraces overlooking the sea. Rooms from Dhs75. www.bayside-salgados.com (+351 289 583 760).
The Azores This group of nine volcanic islands scattered across the Atlantic are all uniquely stunning, but all share a similarly lush, green landscape and relaxed island attitude. São Miguel is the biggest, and boasts a village of thermal springs and fertile vegetation inside its central crater.
A speciality here is cozido do Portugal (a variety of meats and vegetables) cooked inside the springs. Santa Maria is the most southerly of the islands and provides good surfing off the Praia do Formosa, and similar ribbons of white sandy beaches are to be found on Terceira – the most densely populated of the group – along with historic cathedrals and palaces. The central cluster of islands – Graciosa, Faial and Pico – do a great line in geological wonders, meanwhile, with sulphur caverns, tunnels to gashes in the earth’s crust, and Portugal’s highest mountain, Ponta de Pico.
During the summer, boats operated by Atlantico Line (www.atlanticoline.pt, +351 296 288 933) connect all the islands, or book a Biosphere Expeditions package (www.biosphere-expeditions.org, 0870 446 0801) to travel by boat tracking whales, dolphins and rare sea turtles.
Stay: Casa Vitoriana are Victorian-era self-catering apartments on the Ponta Delgada, the capital of São Miguel, known for its quaint charm. Rooms from Dhs177-Dhs515. www.casavitoriana.com (+351 296 285 081).
Lisbon Portugal’s capital city is spread across the hillsides that overlook the Rio Tejo, and offers gothic cathedrals, majestic Moorish castles and quaint museums. Although it has all the cultural offerings you’d expect, Lisbon remains scandalously cheap; you can book a room in a hotel such as the beautifully restored ex-convent York House at a fraction of the price you’d expect. Or stay at one of the many pensoes in downtown Baixa, a grid-like network of lovely backstreets.
Start the day with a pastel de nata (custard-filled pastry) and espresso in Belem, and end it in the hilltop district of Bairro Alto, where the streets are lined with restaurants and bars packed with friendly locals. The eastern waterfront has been revamped in recent years, and now boasts an oceanarium and great seafood restaurants.
Stay: York House is a modern, chic boutique hotel in a 17th-century converted convent. It’s just 10 minutes from downtown Lisbon. Rooms from Dhs303-Dhs1,000. www.yorkhouselisboa.com (+351 213 962 435).
Madeira This little island has long been a retreat for tourists and Portuguese alike. Rustic villages set along a coastline of sandy beaches or nestled in clifftops and valleys, as well as beautiful parks and gardens, draw thousands each year. Visit Funchal for one of the most vibrant fish markets you’ll ever see.
Stay: One of the nicest ways to experience the scenery is to stay at a quinta, an old Portuguese homestead. The Quinta das Vinhas in Calheta is one of the oldest manor houses on the island, and the 17th-century flagstone floors, wooden ceilings and hand-painted tiles exude tradition – as does the home-brewed Madeira served with delicious food. The house is flanked by mountains with views that sweep over its vineyards to the sea. Rooms from Dhs330-Dhs430. www.qdvmadeira.com (+351 291 824 086). Fly from Dubai to Lisbon via Amsterdam with KLM from Dhs3,220 return including taxes. www.klm.com (800 4555).