Portugal continues to offer some of the best-value holidays in the Eurozone, though for some reason most of us are reluctant to venture beyond the spectacular beaches of the Algarve. This is a shame, for the west coast has near-empty sandy stretches and a growing choice of architect-designed villas and characterful older hotels that have undergone facelifts. Inland, there are dozens of historic cities and towns to explore, many spruced up with EU money and linked by fast roads. Here are 10 good reasons to visit the country this summer, followed by our comprehensive guide to the best ways to book your holiday.
EasyJet is making Lisbon one of its European hubs, so expect a bigger choice of regional flights to this wonderful baroque city. The airline now flies to Lisbon from five British airports, including Edinburgh. There are also new direct flights to Madeira from Gatwick, Stansted and Bristol.
The most talked-about place for a family holiday is the Martinhal Beach Resort near Sagres. The far west of the Algarve was once the preserve of surfers and will appeal to those who love the North Cornwall coast. Martinhal is being featured by many tour companies for the first time this summer. They say they like the mixture of the five-star boutique hotel (only 38 rooms) and self-catering town houses and the concept of the village square, the resort’s sociable entertainment hub, which has good restaurants, a smart bar, a children’s playground and indoor and outdoor pools. You can also book direct through www.martinhal.com.
3. Vicentine coast
Those who find the Algarve too crowded should head for the Alentejo’s Vicentine coast, easily reached using the motorway west from Faro. It’s a protected natural park where tall cliffs eroded by the Atlantic swell into fantastic shapes and sweep down to long sandy strands. Vila Nova de Milfontes is the most attractive resort, though the villages of Almograve and Zambujeira do Mar have the best beaches. Go soon as major development is planned. Stay at the new Herdade do Touril (www.herdadetouril.com), a lovingly restored farmstead near Zambujeira, sold through Destination Portugal (01608 738286; www.destination-portugal.co.uk).
4. Characterful Algarve
The Algarve resort of Carvoeiro is popular with families, especially those comprising teenagers. It’s safer than the larger resorts and has good music bars, and parents can keep an eye on things from one of the good outdoor fish restaurants. The resort beach is overcrowded in high summer but there are superb sandy beaches within a short drive.
5. East of Faro
Tavira, east of Faro, is proving a big draw for British visitors. The Convento da Graca, a renovated 16th-century pousada, is particularly popular because it offers excellent service. It’s a good base for those who prefer not to drive: you can take a train all along the coast as far as Lagos in the west and Vila Real de Santo Antonio on the Spanish border. Nearby, Cabanas sits beside a long sandy beach and is the departure point for boat trips through the Ria Formosa nature reserve. Tour operators are featuring new four-star resort hotels that have sprung up on the reserve’s perimeter. Ilios (0845 675 2601; www.iliostravel.com) is renting the very private beachside Quinta do Mar, constructed from the ruins of an ancient manor, which sleeps 24.
6. Sophisticated Sintra
A favourite of 19th-century Romantics (Byron talked of it as “a glorious Eden”), the royal summer residence of Sintra is being discovered by a new generation of travellers. Its once-fusty hotels have been renovated to provide modern comforts behind the old-world elegance. Palacio de Seteais, which has a relaxed ambience despite its five-star status, is the place to stay for a special occasion. There is wonderful walking, with panoramic views, through the wooded hills.
7. Posh Porto
Porto is an extraordinary city: a combination of old-fashioned shops selling corsets, cream cakes and clodhopping shoes and striking modern design, notably the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art and the acoustically renowned House of Music. Five years ago it had no five-star hotels and its four-star offerings were hardly up to the grade. Now there are a dozen luxury hotels, including the new Yeatman, the Hotel Teatro, the Carris Porto Ribeira and the renovated Grande Hotel do Porto. It’s hard to know how big the market is for all these expensive rooms, so check online agents such as www.booking.com for last-minute offers.
8. Historic Madeira
For a taste of the real Madeira, stay in a historic quinta. Many of these country houses have been given facelifts and now merit their four- and five-star gradings. Above all, there’s been a vast improvement in the food, which is now served with lighter sauces and kitchen-garden fresh ingredients. Light Blue Travel (01223 568904; www.lightbluetravel.co.uk) has put together a Taste Madeira programme from £595 per person for a week in May including three dinners and wine; flight extra.
9. Whales in the Azores
The Azores is flavour of the year for most Portuguese specialists. A wealth of new accommodation options has driven down prices and there are some good offers, especially outside high season, which can be combined with direct flights from Britain. Whaling was once the mainstay of the islands’ economy; the specialist Archipelago Azores (01768 775672; www.azoreschoice.com) has put together week-long trips watching whales and dolphins led by a leading marine biologist. These include four boat trips, a half-day seminar studying the research and a history tour. One based on the island of São Miguel costs about £1,000 including flights and b&b in a boutique hotel in a former 16th-century convent.
10. Cool Estrela mountains
Get away from the heat in high summer and hike the Serra da Estrela, the highest mountains in Portugal. A lot of EU money has been injected into tourism and craft projects here, and there are some good restaurants in remote places. A good base is the town of Belmonte, with its 13th-century castle and vibrant Jewish community. It’s also the gateway to the remote medieval Beira Baixa region. Stay at the Convento de Belmonte pousada or, in the heart of the mountains, at the new 18-room Casa das Penhas Douradas (www.casadaspenhasdouradas.pt), which has a heated indoor pool and rents out bikes.
A week in early August, excluding travel:
Mid-range three-bedroom villa with private pool (rental only) £1,500 (Algarve).
Two-bedroom cottage/apartment, no pool (rental only) £575 (Minho).
A week in June, per person sharing a room, including flights:
Four-star resort hotel (b & b) £600 (Lagos, Algarve).
Highlights coach tour (b & b in mid-range hotels) £900.
Guided, group walking holiday (half board in mid-range hotels) £700.
Algarve Car hire (“compact” class, such as Ford Focus, week in June, including taxes and insurances except excess waiver) £186.
Petrol (per litre, unleaded) £1.19.
Mid-priced three-course dinner, with house wine (per person) £24.
In some sections of our booking guide we have picked out for special mention tour operators offering programmes that we consider particularly interesting or good value.
By Gill Charlton © Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2011