THE PERFECT BEACH VACATION IN COMPORTA PORTUGAL

COMPORTA | PORTUGAL

[ALENTEJO, PORTUGAL] — Driving out of Lisbon airport in your rental is absolutely crazy, with GPS or not.

After an overnight flight (or two) you exit the terminal into the bright Portugal sun all bleary eyed, you get your car and just go.  The GPS is playing catch up, while the traffic is not, bearing down on your tail like a dog in heat. The roads are like a plate of dropped spaghetti, turning off in every crazy direction, with signs that don’t match what the GPS is telling you.  After a couple of roundabout orbit corrections, you finally break free of the tangle and head south for the Tagus River.

Suddenly, the bright blue sky opens up, the traffic disappears and you’re back to sanity, with the giant cello strings of the Vasco da Gama bridge looming ahead, a beacon toward your beach destination. Comporta.

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To me, there is nothing more terrifying… and then rewarding… than the first ten miles of renting a car in a foreign country. You’re sleep deprived, your brain hasn’t adjusted to a new language. The crazy exit from the always cramped rental car ramps. You’re trying to remember how to clutch again. Split-second decisions. Honking traffic. Unfamiliar signage systems. All creating  incomparable stress. “Arrrrrrrrrrrrrgggggghhhh!” you scream as you make one fateful last minute turn.

 

To me, there is nothing more terrifying… and then rewarding… than the first ten miles of renting a car in a foreign country.

 

And then, always about ten miles in, the road straightens out, you see your destination ahead and everything turns to “Ahhhhhhhhh…”

That’s the reward part of it. That second when everything clicks into place and you’re on your way. Battle-scarred, but worthy of your pending adventure. In another couple of days, you feel at home on the road, everything familiar. Relishing zipping through the next roundabout with great confidence. The tricks and tics of each country are now known.

Now… you feel invincible. Free.

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About an hour south of Lisbon later, after crossing the broad bays of the swollen Targus river, the road flattens out into lowlands. You start to see familiar names you’ve read about on the autostrada exits. Setúbal. Estuário do Sado. Alcácer do Sal. Yup, we’re on the right path. Bright yellow signs indicate the Algarve to left.  But we’re not heading there this trip.

And then you see it. Comporta. That’s us.

You pull off the highway and head for the salty air. Suddenly you’re dunked into a sea of pine trees, thick and dark green as kelp. Umbrella pines, just like in southern Italy, as far as you can see. The sandy floor below them carpeted in pine needles and not much else.

 

The N253 highway curves and ducks between the pines, a few houses hidden in the trees. You pass the famous estuary on the right “Ahhhhh, I’ve read about that place”… brackish marshes flooded by the tides, home to innumerable birds and oysters.

Comporta boat docks

The marshes are a way of life that’s still influences the entire Comporta region, with the waters moving in and out with the tides.

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I’ve been dying to come to Comporta for years. Everyone goes to Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve, but Comporta is a relatively off-the-radar area of Portugal save for the Lisboan cognoscenti who have been coming to their private homes here for years. Many people refer to Comporta as “the next Jose Ignacio” — the famous Uruguayan beach town and one of my favorite places in the world. Others called it “The Portugal Hamptons.” Famous designers and fashion people post pictures of its vast empty beaches, cool architecture, low-key restaurants and amazing food. Another great quote I read “It’s where Europe’s rich come and live like they don’t have money.”

I mean, check out what comes up on Google when you search for Comporta:

Finally I read an article in Conde Nast Traveler that said: “People come here because it reminds them of St-Tropez in the ’70s or Ibiza in the ’80s, or the Hamptons in the ’90s.”

I had to go.

Best Comporta Beach Fontainhas Gale beach

Herdade de Comporta is a tightly controlled area spread along 40-plus miles of pristine sandy beaches. There are no houses on the beach, no hi-rises or large developments, no big hotels. Most everybody stays in private houses.

 

There are only a handful of small hotels here and they’re usually booked long in advance. This was my fourth trip to Portugal, but each time I tried to book at the last minute, I was out of luck. And then along came Airbnb, which made finding houses for rent so much easier. When my best friends Neil & Lisa said they wanted to go somewhere with a beach, my immediate reply was “Let’s rent a house here!”

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Herdade da Comporta has long been the private playground of Lisbon’s elite families, the vast pine-covered lands long controlled by one of Portugal’s wealthiest families. Development was very restricted, no big hotels or ostentatious houses and controlled height limits. Nobody could build along the beaches. No mass developments, only carefully planned small tracts carved out of the trees here and there.

Rice fields are everywhere in these low lands.  Once cultivated and owned by the British to feed their home market, later jettisoned once the Empire found cheaper sources in Asia and India. They sold it for a song to the generations-wealthy Espírito Santo family who then controlled this area, called Herdade de Comporta, for years until their family’s famous Banco Espírito Santo collapsed in bankruptcy. The future is up in the air for now, but you wouldn’t know any of that was going on when you’re there.

 

 

What makes Comporta so unique (and famous) is its 40+ miles of pristine beaches. Contrast that with the cramped stony beaches of Italy and France and you’re talking paradise.  End-to-end beaches, with cool restaurants perched in the dunes with perfect sunset views. No houses can be built on the water, so it feels like a deserted paradise.

 

Comporta location on map

Comporta is so easy to get to, an easy hour drive south of Lisbon, surrounded by pristine Atlantic beaches on one side, the Sado estuary on the other, with vast acres of pine trees and rice fields between you and the forty plus miles of uncrowded beaches.

 

The Best Beaches in Comporta

Pego Beach colors

There are 40 some miles of beaches in Comporta, end to end, one after the other. All soft and sandy and totally uncrowded. All spread along a giant sloping bay. So flawless, it’s actually hard to tell one from another. I had to double check several times before posting these.  But they all are as perfect as can be.

 

Pêgo Beach

Pêgo Beach umbrellas

Pego Beach is probably the best known and one of the nicest beaches. With oodles of length, some rent-able beach chairs and other areas where you can bring your own beach gear. The turquoise water is nearly perfect. It’s also best because of the near perfect beach restaurant, Sal, sitting right above the beach, perfect to scoot away for a lunch lunch and then back to nap. (Details later in the post.)

 

 

I don’t know about you, but I like stuff like this….

Comporta Beach

 

Just down the road from Pego beach and closest to the small town of Comporta is Comporta Beach. Two great restaurants also serve this beach.

 

 

 

Praia Galé-Fontainhas

I’d seen pictures of this amazing beach in travel articles before — it’s the place where I said “Wow, where the hell is this? I need to go there…” — but I never was quite sure where it was.

It took us being in Comporta several days and eliminating all the other prominent beaches before a google image search helped narrow it down.

This ended up being my favorite beach, stunning.

Praia Galé-Fontainhas. On the southern end of Comporta, you just have to plug it into your GPS and trust the directions. There’s a huge, well-known and well-signed camping ground that you dead-end at and think you have the wrong directions, but then you skirt around that, zigzag through a small neighborhood until you find a stairway down to the beach. It feels like you shouldn’t be parking there, but you can. The path literally follows the campground border fence down to the the most incredible view of coppery eroded cliffs.

 

Fossil da Galé cliffs

You walk down a narrow path along the campground border fence, then face a steep stairs and are hit with this amazing view. Waves gently pounding the shores, about as good as it gets.

 

How to get to Fontainhas Gale beach

Here’s how you get there: Plug “Fontainhas-Gale” into Google Maps, drive to the end of the road at the camping entrance, turn right along the road, drive thru the apartment complex to the back corner (it will seem obvious) until you see an entrance to a staircase. There’s a small parking lot there. You take the path along the camping platz fence, to the big stairs, then be prepared to be wowed.

 

Galé Beach path

After you descend the steep stairs, you walk through this organ pipe array of eroding copper sand, the colors are mind-blowing. Suddenly, the path opens to the sea. And you squeal with glee.

 

Fossil da Galé formation

Organ pipes. From any angle, stunning…

 

Praia da Gale-Fontainhas waves

Like swimming in Listerine.

Discovering a Hidden Beach

Brejos beach Comporta

There’s another hidden beach, reserved only for local residents with a key card to get through the unmarked gates. The house we rented had access to it, so we went there to check it out, losing our way several times. But it was worth it. We happened to be there on the day Portugal played in their last World Cup match in 2018. As much as I wanted to see them play, we really wanted to check it out. Not a sole on the beach.

 

You use the private key card, only available to residents and renters, and open up an umarked gate. After getting lost criss-crossing the ricefields, finally we found a hidden parking area nestled in the bamboo reeds and pine trees.

You hike about a half mile in, over a thoughtfully laid out concrete paver path, through the pine dunes and down to the beach.

 

 

Praia dos Alteirinhos

After several days spent walking the endless Comporta beaches, my friend Lisa said: “I want to find a dramatic beach that you can see from high on a cliff. And then go there.”

So we googled a bunch of images and finally found the beach town of Zambujeira do Mar, at the top of the Costa Vicentina —  “Portugal’s Wild Coast” —  about a 45 minute beautiful drive from Comporta. So we headed there.

Praia dos Alteirinhos

When we go to Zambujeira do Mar the main beach parking was full, but a sign directed us up a steep steep hill to another parking lot. What I love about traveling is the unexpected surprises. When we parked up high, Lisa, seeing the sexy cliffs ahead, said “why don’t we check out this other beach before heading back down.” And so we did. Low and behold, the curling path scraggled along the rocky coast and took us to HERE!  Praia dos Alteirinhos. OMG.

Praia dos Alteirinhos path

The Praia dos Alteirinhos is one great stop along the Fisherman’s Path, an interconnected trail that goes all along the Costa Vicentina. You can hike it, town to town, beach by beach and camp or stop at hotels all along the way.

Additional Information on Comporta

The town of Comporta was nice, but I was hoping for a little of a cooler place to hangout.  There are a few great restaurants, described in my other posts. But all along the coast you see these great storks and their nests on trees, chimneys, power poles. They just set the tone for a relaxing beach vacation.

People have long said that Comporta is “the next Jose Ignacio”, notably because of the famous people that already come here — Madonna and her family rode by on her horses while we were here.  But honestly, I think it has another five years to go for more restaurants and shops to round out the offerings.  I think  it was well on its way, but the economy slowed its evolution a little bit.

I still can’t wait to go back.

Here are some great links to other articles and resources for Herdade da Comporta:

I’ve created a YSGH Google Map of the whole area (and of Portugal) that has all the places in my posts mapped out… as well as other highlights that others have pointed out.  You can save the map to your phone and use it when you’re there, or just get a  lay of the land to help figure it all out. Here it is.

Here’s the article in Conde Nast Traveller UK edition that first wowed me to come here.

A great article on Comporta in The Telegraph. And in the UK’s Independent. And Where the Rich Got to Get Off The Grid in Conde Nast Traveler.

Here’s more info on Praia dos Alteirinhos from TripAdvisor.  And on the Visit Portugal site.

An article called The Next Great Beach Destination in Forbes. And an article on wild Portugal in The Spaces website. And a great overview of Alentejo and other cool boutique hotels all over Portugal on the beautiful Joandso.com site — two Portuguese sisters who specialize in cool stuff.

A great article in Architectural Digest on Comporta. A great article on What to do in Comporta in Travel & Leisure. And a great article in Vogue on Comporta — they are always ahead of the rest of us.

Another great article in The Guardian. A very comprehensive guide on Comporta on the official Visit Portugal website. And in the Financial Times How To Spend It. and another article in The Times of London.  And two Comporta hotels profiled in Wallpaper.

I’ve been to Portugal four times now, here are all my other posts.

— LAST VISITED JULY 2018 —

Comporta rice fields

Everywhere you go in Comporta, you see the endless bright green rice fields, in flooded lowlands between the pines and beach.

 

Comporta sunset rice fields

You read a lot of reviews about the mosquitoes in Comporta — with all that stagnant water around, how could there not be. We totally lucked out and barely had any, but everyone says right before/after sunset is the worst. Bring some DEET.

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“THE PERFECT BEACH VACATION IN COMPORTA PORTUGAL”

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