A ride of a lifetime

By Diana Ballon

The plan was to meet at 4:45 p.m. in the lobby of the Hotel Cristal in Porto on the northwest coast of Portugal.

After an arduous 10-hour flight and a long hot shower, I readied myself for our meeting. Would we like each other? Would the trip lead to more?

Arriving a few minutes early, I sat expectedly under a crystal chandelier in a lobby adorned in bright blue plush décor.  I wasn’t wearing a helmet. That would come later.

The reason for the meeting? It was actually not any kind of tryst, but to be the beginning of an eight-day cycling trip with Exodus Travels, a 45-year-old adventure tour company catering mainly to 50-plus outdoorsy types like myself. The itinerary promised scenic coastal rides along the Atlantic – through fishing villages and pine forests, and past sand dunes as wide as they are long. And of course we would have water often at our side – sometimes lagoons, but more often the majestic ocean bordered by beach and the occasional cliff en route from Porto to Lisbon.

Which brings me back to the lobby. Soon people began to trickle in. We were easily identifiable, each of us looking around with the same expectant scan of the room, followed by a smile of recognition. I had a good feeling.  By the end, we were 15 in total – about half from North America and half from Europe – and fairly evenly split between men and women, solo travellers and couples. All in all, it was a fit group, ranging in age from about 45 to 70.

Our local guide Alexandre Conceição, or Alex, began by introducing us to the trip’s itinerary and details of our next day. We would start with a short van ride to Burmester wine cellar for a port tasting by the river that evening, followed by dinner back at the hotel. Then the next day, starting at 9:30 a.m., would begin five days of cycling, covering almost 300 kms.

As it turned out, the trip exceeded my expectations, which were already high. Here is a recap.

The cycling

This trip is gauged as a Level 2 (leisurely or moderate) activity level with about 50 to 60 kilometres a day of travel. The route is mainly flat with some shortish hills the last couple of days. Cycling usually began at about 9:00 a.m. and finish around 4:00 or 4:30 p.m. with many breaks for coffee and of course lunch. We travelled mostly on paths separate from the road, but occasionally on the side of the road, on gravel, on boardwalks, through a covered bridge, and forests of pine and past villages with their classic orange rooftops.

Trip highlights

There were many. Here is a sampling, listed in the order in which we reached them on our travels.

Nature Reserve of the Sao Jacinto Dunes is a protected nature reserve covering a 700-hectare area, with untouched coastal marshland, long stretches of sand and numerous birds and other wildlife. The reserve is near the city of Aveiro, which is considered Portugal’s Venice because of its network of canals and gondola-like boats, although here the barcos are the traditional flat colourful maliceiros.

Costa Nova: In this small village, colourful vertical striped houses — once fishing shacks, and now vacation homes — stand between beach and lagoon.

Nazaré is a famous Portuguese fishing village where you will still find women merchants in the main square dressed in the traditional seven layers of petticoats, and fishermen drying their mackerel and sardines on big nets next to the beach. Take time to shop at the boutiques on the main square crammed with local souvenirs and handicrafts. Or stop to watch the waves rolling onto the beach: the biggest wave ever surfed in the world was here.

A short bike ride away is the town of São Martinha do Porto, where you can stop for lunch at Cima d’Agua restaurant, and gaze out its floor-to-ceiling windows at the shell-shaped lagoon and sandy dunes beyond. It’s a popular vacation spot for Portuguese but a well-kept secret to other tourists.  Nearby is Foz do Arelho: here wind surfers abound, amidst a cool wind, a hot sun and a beach that seems to go on forever. Next stop is the magical town of Óbidos, with a walled 13th Century castle at the top of the hill, and a labyrinth of windy cobblestone streets leading you there.

Note: If you have time at the beginning or end of the trip, plan to spend an extra day or two in Porto on arrival, or in Lisbon heading out. In Porto, take a boat tour on the Douro river. In Lisbon, explore the Alfama, the oldest part of the city, where people come to hear the hauntingly melancholy Fado music played in the bars along its narrow streets.

Sleeping over

We stayed in 4-star boutique hotels, clean and quiet, with excellent protein-rich breakfasts included each morning. My favourite hotel was The Literary Man in Óbidos, where we stayed after our last day of cycling. A former convent, the hotel now pays tribute to the city’s designation as a UNESCO City of Literature. Walls are lined with books, and you can sample “literary cocktails” at the bar. Wander through its arched ceilings to simple but classy eco chic rooms and enjoy their excellent restaurant.

Food and drink

Expect a Mediterranean diet, delicious and healthy, with lots of fish and seafood, from cod to hake to sardines and octopus. At some restaurants, don’t be intimidated by fish prices: the menus list the amount for the entire fish, of which you will probably want about a third. The caldo verde is the traditional soup, made with onions, potatoes, kale or collard greens, and chunks of spicy sausage, and of course garlic and olive oil. Note that eating from the basket of break and dish of olives set out on the table will cost you, though nominally. For breakfast, you’ll find cheeses, meats, eggs, as well as yoghurt, fruit and usually granola. Don’t expect the North American waffle or pancake – you’ll have lots of good dessert options later in the day like the pastel de nata or Portuguese custard tarts.

The ginjinha, or ginja, is a sweet cherry liqueur that the Portuguese drink straight, sometimes out of small chocolate cups. Of course wine is almost as inexpensive as water (about 2.5 to 3 euros per glass) and the pours are as generous as the wine is affordable! Available everywhere, Vinho Verde is the classic light, refreshing Portuguese wine that often has a slight fizz.

Shopping Portugal is still one of the least expensive countries in Western Europe, so leave room in your bag for souvenirs. But before buying, check the label to make sure it’s locally produced. Here are some retail highlights:

Cork products:  With about a third of the world’s cork forests located in Portugal, you will find everything from cork wallets to purses, to bags and bracelets.

Port wine:  In Vila Nova de Gaia, on the other side of the Douro River from Porto, you can sample ruby, white, red and tawny port from many excellent wine cellars.

Pottery: Find pottery and earthenware in one of the many shops and markets, like the olive dishes with pit cups attached, and the assador or clay dish used for searing chorizo.

Roosters: The Barcelos rooster is the country’s unofficial national symbol, and you can find them everywhere, made of wood or ceramic, or painted on tablecloths and t-shirts and aprons.

Canned sardines: If you’re looking for choice, go no further than Mundo Fantástico da Sardinha Portuguesa, a store in Baixa, Lisbon lined with brightly coloured tins of canned fish. You can buy sardines dated anywhere from 1916 onward, each year highlighting a special event and birth celebrated that year, so perfect to give as gifts with people’s year of birth.

IF YOU GO: Exodus Travels [exodustravels.com] offers walking and trekking, cycling, winter and family adventures as well as culture and mixed activity tours to more than 100 countries worldwide.  This Porto to Lisbon Atlantic Ride includes 7 nights’ accommodation with breakfast in four-star hotels and one dinner, as well as bikes a guide, and a van that follows the route with your luggage.