PHOTO: The beachy vistas of Cascais, Portugal. (photo by Rosalind Cummings-Yeates)
Portugal is a favorite getaway for Europeans who love the sunny and affordable country, but I recently discovered under-the-radar fun along the striking Portuguese coastline. Lined with flawless beaches, tiled sidewalks and ancient architecture, the region dazzles any visitor — but there’s so much more to experience than pretty scenery. I spent several days strolling along the water and soaking up the history and culture of Cascais.
From Hotel Miragem, my centrally located, upscale base, I hopped into a van with Eddie of Seagull Tours and took off for Cascais Bay and Marina. As we rolled along the shoreline, I was surprised to learn that Cascais, which is just 30 minutes north of Lisbon, has been an important maritime site since ancient times, when Phoenicians, Romans and Moors roamed the area. Now it’s grown into the richest municipality in Portugal. A winding boardwalk lined by gleaming buildings and castles hug the coastline but the showstopper is the golden sand beach with glistening turquoise waves. Forts and lighthouses dot much of the shore, signaling the region’s strategic position.
The Santa Marta Lighthouse Museum supplies up-close views of the coast as well as five centuries of Portugal’s lighthouse history. At the Museum of the Sea, the region’s seafaring history is laid out with displays of whales, sharks and the traditional fishermen’s nets and dress. An exhibit of 17th-century cannonballs and navigation instruments as well as a galley of boats round out the museum. The Portuguese royal family has kept a summer home in Cascais for centuries and some of the museum’s artifacts belong to them.
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Many of Europe’s royal families continue to keep summer homes in Cascais and the town exhibits a low-key glamor, which is on full display at Cascais Marina, where clusters of yachts and sleek sailboats cover the water. No trip to Portugal is complete without a sailboat ride and I grabbed a whole other perspective as I spotted cliffs, coastal birds, kiteboarders and rock formations from the deck of a Portuguese sailboat.
Vineyards and Wine Cellars
Wine is as important to Portugal as the sea, but I didn’t realize just how significant the country’s wine history is until I visited Villa Oeiras Vineyards. Located on the former grounds of Marquis de Pombal’s 18th-century palace, the bright green vines were planted from cuttings using the Marquis’ original stock. The vineyard produces the famous Carcavelos wines which defined Portugal’s winemaking for centuries.
The geography of the region supplies the wine with the salty tang and high acidity from the nearby Atlantic Ocean. The Portuguese Ministry of Agriculture sponsors Villa Oeiras to make sure that the prestigious Carcavelos wine heritage continues.
The vineyard’s winemaker, Tiago Correia, guided me through 60 acres of vines that produce the mix of grapes that produce the topaz-colored dessert wine. Carcavelos fortified wine is legally required to be aged two years in a barrel and six months in a bottle. Barrels line the winery walls, with the burnished wood of the restored containers beckoning for a taste.
Wine tasting, whether casual or formal, is another Portuguese necessity and Villa Oeiras serves up so many tasty sips that I was tempted to forget my carry-on only luggage and load up with an array of bottles.
It can’t be overlooked that fresh seafood is another benefit of coastal regions and Cascais provides a chance to sample it on practically every corner. Starting from the cafes that line the beach and serve up local specialties like bacalau com natas, or cod with heavy cream, grilled sardines or sea bass, bream or sole, and moving to tascas, the simple, no-frills restaurants that pack the neighborhoods, the possibilities are endless.
I tasted freshly caught and grilled bream while watching the sun glisten off the waves of Parede’s Beach, but the ultimate Cascais culinary experience was eating at a simple tasca. We stumbled on one near the marina, with tables outside of the small eatery. I enjoyed a fillet of sole with razor thin potatoes and the dish was so pure and perfect I felt like I could stay in Cascais forever, feeling the sea breeze and eating fish.