It was a first for me.
I’d never slept in a campervan before, let alone one jauntily decorated with pictures of snails, and perched on the edge of a cliff.
But the idea of a whole week of unplanned, open-road freedom, with stunning beaches at every turn, was too good to ignore. So off we went.
I don’t know how, but Portugal has managed to keep its magnificent West Coast free from the kiss of death of property developers. Perhaps the golfers are content with the South Coast, perhaps the crashing waves of the Atlantic are too bracing. Whatever the cause, the effect is marvelous.
From Sagres to Lisbon you have mile after mile of uninterrupted coastline. Jagged cliffs, hidden coves, and beach after glorious beach, with white sand, vigorous waves, and happy surfers.
And the food.
The fish. The fish! Fresh, delectable, and cooked to perfection. Each dinner took us by surprise for its quality and the love that had so clearly gone into it.
And it is all there waiting for you (and your van). Drive where you want, explore where you want, sleep where you want. Total freedom.
But to whet your appetite – some suggestions working from south to north:
If you’re driving from Faro, Sagres, at the bottom southwest corner of the peninsular, is likely your first stop. It is a sprawling surfer town, and the gateway to your West Coast adventures.
Restaurante A Sagres was our first lesson in not underestimating places based on location or appearance. On a roundabout at the edge of town is this unexpected treasure. The fish stew is delicious, and one is enough to feed four.
For a good camp spot, follow the main road north. Just out of town, you’ll find a clifftop to pull in for the night. The sunsets are spectacular and Praia do Tonel is perfect for a secluded morning splash.
The coast around the pretty village of Carrapateira is wild and rugged, with high cliffs and sand dunes. It has a collection of nice restaurants. Try the salads at Microbar, or the goats cheese toasty drizzled in local honey.
It has two great beaches:
Praia Da Bordeira, on the mouth of the Ribeira da Bordeira, is a huge beach, popular with surfers and families. The river, which runs along the south of the beach, is shallow enough for frolicking toddlers.
Praia do Amado is a wide beach, flanked by steep cliffs. It’s ideal for surfing, with plenty of smaller, forgiving waves for the enthusiastic novice. There are surf schools offering lessons and board/wetsuit hire, and two beach bars for sunset beers. Head past the rocks at the north end and you’ll find a secluded corner away from the crowds.
Sítio Do Forno is an excellent restaurant on a cliff a few minutes drive from Praia do Amado. Heavenly seabass, crisp vino verde and a sunset… Book in advance.
To camp, follow the rough road which leads you through the village and along the clifftops. Here you will find no shortage of places to pull in for the night. There is even a spot, which is staggering distance from Sítio Do Forno. And what a view you’ll have when you wake up.
The village of Odeceixe clings to the hillside above the banks of the Ribeira da Seixe, which meanders through wheat fields and orchards to the sea. It has a hippy, surfer feel to it, and some nice-looking restaurants and plenty of places to stock up on wonderful local produce.
Odeceixe beach sits at the mouth of the river, about 4km from Odeceixe village. So when you’re not riding waves, you can hunt for crabs in the salty shallows. In the late afternoon, climb the cliffs overlooking the beach and watch the tide roll in, as the day gives way to evening, and the surfers bob gently on golden waves.
Camping is on the other side of the river. So park up and wade across for dinner. Don’t worry, even at high tide you can wade back again (we tested this theory).
Between Odeceixe and Porto Covo, are a couple of hidden gems:
Praia da Amália is tucked down a winding path which takes you through a bamboo forest and along a hillside awash with purple flowers. It is less crowded than the larger beaches and even has a waterfall, giving salty campers like us a welcome blast of fresh water.
A word of warning: I may, or may not, be speaking from experience when I tell you to be careful when parking on the soft sand. There won’t always be a friendly Portuguese man with a 4×4 and a steel cable to tow you out if you get stuck…
Praia de Cavaleiro is a tiny sandy cove tucked between high cliffs with impossibly clear, clean water. The rocks provide some shelter so swimming is easier. But be careful at high tide, when the Atlantic comes roaring in across the sharp rocks. At low tide, climb over the rocks at the north end and you’ll find another beach waiting for you. At the south end you’ll find a huge cave to explore, if you dare.
Porto Covo is a small town surrounded by an infinite number of beautiful beaches, so plentiful that it is almost inevitable you will have one to yourself.
Praia Samoqueira has high cliffs, rock formations and caves. Come early and you’ll be the only ones.
The restaurant Zé Inácio was recommended to us by our friend at West Coast Campers. Wonderful fish and a liter of good cask wine will set you back about €30. Definitely book ahead.
To sleep, follow the road out of Porto Covo heading north. There are plenty of clifftop parking places (within easy walking distance so you can enjoy that liter of wine without worrying).
Between Sines, and Lisbon, stretches mile after mile of wide sandy beach. No rocks, no cliffs, just unchecked Atlantic waves and sugary sand.
Melides is a solitary spot on the coast before the beaches become more crowded with Lisbon day-trippers. Walk for 15 minutes in any direction and you’ll find yourself alone with the sea.
The restaurant Flor de Sal wins no prizes for ambiance (at least not at the tail end of the season) but my God it makes up for it in the quality of the food and motherly attentiveness of the service. The pork belly sent us into raptures.
To camp, drive past the beach restaurants and turn left onto a track which winds through sand dunes and pine trees.
Azenhas do Mar
Azenhas do Mar is a gorgeous village north of Lisbon, not far from Sintra. Its whitewashed houses are cut straight into the rock, and there is a nice little beach with a buzzy beach bar and man-made sea pool for splashing in when the sea is too rough.
Água e Sal is generally upstaged by its acclaimed neighbor Piscina Azenhas do Mar. But the food is delicious. Try the fried green beans and, if they tell you to order the tuna, order the tuna.
Just north of the town, a rough road forks off to the left, taking you along the cliff where you can park for the night.
Notes on wild camping
Let’s start with the basics. Our van (aka Sylvia) was a Renault Trafic, equipped with a bed (two in fact, but I think that’s pushing it), a sink, cooler and portable gas stove. Give West Coast Campers a go – they were friendly, helpful and their vans are painted fun colours.
Of course you can upgrade to a van with loo and shower. But nothing quite beats a morning splash in the ocean to wake you up. And who wants to have to faff about with septic tanks? We found there was always a beach bar or a café when you needed one.
There are lots campsites, but nothing quite beats the magic of waking up with nothing between you and the ocean. So we wild-camped all the way. Technically this isn’t allowed, but everyone does it. Just avoid places that explicitly forbid it, and move on if you’re told to.
I could go on… And of course there is infinitely more of the West Coast to discover. This should put you on the right road, so to speak.
Now, go forth and get lost.
Anything to share? Comments below!