Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Comporta travel guide

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The question I’m most asked as a travel editor is: “Which is your favourite place on earth?” And the answer is: Comporta. For more than a decade, it’s been my family’s summer destination of choice. If I had to pinpoint one reason, it’d be Comporta’s empty expanses of beautiful wild beach, even in August. This is thanks to rigorous coastal protection, which restricts beach development, roads and car parks — thus, there are only a few points at which you can access the sea. The bits in between are desert-island quiet, the sand soft, the water clear and — since they take some effort to reach, through dunes and pine forests — always warrant a well-planned picnic of Evora cheese, chunky Alentejo bread and mini Sagres beers (no facilities here in paradise). The second reason that I love Comporta, ironically, would be the hubs themselves — those few built-up beach towns. Here, stilted wooden restaurants serve turbot and clams right on the sea, while a handful of stylish shops sell exactly what you want on holiday: chic kaftans, beach bags and flip-flops. The bars are as good as Lisbon’s, so — really — you have everything you need. Sun, sand and serenity with a shot of city style. What’s not to love?

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What to do

It might seem odd to recommend clothes shopping on a beach holiday, but they don’t call Comporta the “Portuguese Hamptons” for nothing. So critical is Comporta to the Portuguese design scene that the Spot Market — a co-op of independent crafts people in Lisbon — sets up camp on the coast in Comporta village for the summer, with outdoor stalls most weekends in July and August. You might find kitsch crochet beach hats, cute kids’ swimwear, or a geometric-print kaftan; it’s all gorgeous and glamorous, and surprisingly affordable.

When The Spot Market isn’t in town, Casa da Cultura is a permanent, undercover parade of stalls within former stables (opposite Cavalarica restaurant, also an ex-stables). Expect to find higher-end designs here, including pimped-up sequinned baseball boots, leather beach bags and hand-carved wooden homeware, as well as one clever designer who dreamed up the now-iconic Comporta icon — a stork — and applied it to bags, T-shirts and hoodies. There’s also popular Pizza Pisco cafe and bar inside.

Where to stay

The name of new-ish hotel Quinta da Comporta in Carvalhal is proof of how far you can stray from Comporta village and still cash in on its cachet. But, despite the 15-minute drive to Comporta, Carvalhal is a stylish spot itself, with the best beachfront and excellent restaurants. Quinta da Comporta’s owners know this and have made the hotel part of the village, with a bar and spa that lures non-guests, and the option to rent on-site villas (as well as hotel suites) for big groups who prefer to live like locals. The transparent swimming pool — with walls of clear Perspex that give views through to the rice paddies — must surely be the best in Portugal. B&B doubles from £219.

None of the mainstream, UK-based villa agencies have Comporta homes on their books — British travellers are still new to the Comporta scene. Yet a villa is a brilliant way to get to know the area and is how most Portuguese experience their summer here. So consider Boutique Homes, which specialises in unusual or architecturally unique holiday lets, with a significant stock in the Alentejo region, including thatched beach cottages near Praia Carvalhal and a brutalist-style concrete villa in Melides. “Comporta Wood Houses” are two timber-and-glass cabins in the pine forests, 10 minutes’ drive from the coast; they can be rented separately or as one, sleeping two people each from £176 a night, self-catered.

A short drive inland, among umbrella pines, natural lakes and wild grasses, you’ll find Sublime Comporta — so enveloped in the landscape you could miss its entrance on the rural back road (as we did). Within the gates, imagine a small village of different places to stay: a five-bedroom Cabana Villa with private pool; Bio-pool Suites, which share use of a freshwater biological pool; or a Friends Room with terrace in the adult-only Owners House — perfect for a long weekend. Five restaurants and bars plus a wellness centre keep guests amused, and if they also make it to the coast, Sublime Beach Club at Praia Carvalhal gives them priority. The Beach Club restaurant is so good that we recommend you book lunch there, even if you’re not staying. B&B doubles from £168.

Food and drink

“Comporta” has become a nickname for a stretch of coast that measures over 18 miles, and actually includes many beach towns — from Troia in the north to Melides down south — as well as Comporta itself. So, Carvalhal beach is considered “Comporta”, and Dos Pescadores, a family-run, no-frills fish restaurant, is a Comporta institution, attracting a loyal Portuguese patronage rather than the latest influx of Instagrammers. Here you’ll find unobstructed sea views and exquisite grilled sole served at half the price of its neighbours.

Stopping at Sal Burger in Carvalhal village on the way home after a day on Praia do Carvalhal — either for takeaway or to settle in and wait with a Caipirinha in the shade of acacia trees — is a Comporta ritual. Sal serves nothing but home-made burgers to sandy-footed diners who choose to perch either at picnic tables, or in a hammock. Recently, a couple more food trucks opened on the same outdoor site, so non-meat eaters are catered for with sushi and such.

Right in Comporta proper — moments from AlmaLusa hotel — Da Comporta, also known as Jacare, does pizza and pasta with panache. The stone-floor, high-ceiling space was once a farm outbuilding, yet chandeliers now hang from its timber rafters and oil portraits prettify the rough walls. The lack of windows makes this an after-dark kind of place, though there are retro sofas outside in the sun and a long cocktail list if you want to catch the last light before dinner.

On the Comporta beach, Praia da Comporta, there are two restaurants and — to be honest — you can’t go wrong with either Ilha do Arroz or Comporta Café. Ilha do Arroz is our preferred spot as it’s less sceney, more foodie, and worth heading to even on a bad-weather day thanks to dramatic picture windows. Order local specialties such as rice with razor clams, cuttlefish or salted cod, alongside a bottle of Herdade da Comporta white — the wine estate is the best around and owns the restaurant.

Don’t miss

There is a look to Comporta holiday houses that’s so influential it’s spawned a shelf-full of coffee-table books: the style might be described as part-Brazil beach cottage, part historic-Lisbon apartment, part Atlantic-coast surf shack. Put it together yourself at Stork Club in Carvalhal village, where an antique chaise longue might sit artfully beside 1960s ceramics and contemporary lighting — the store ships all items to the UK. Or just treat it as a day trip; this shop is as inspiring as an art gallery.

Know before you go

The satnav will tell you the quickest way to Comporta from Lisbon airport is via the inland A2 motorway. But the much prettier way is to drive south to port town Setubal instead, from where a fleet of green-and-yellow ferries shuttles pedestrians and cars to Troia — which is just a 15-minute drive from Comporta. The journey may talk 20 minutes longer, but the commute by boat — along with the chance of spotting local estuary dolphins — is worth it.

Take me there

Inspired to visit Comporta but yet to book your trip? Here are the best hotels from Expedia and Booking.com.

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