I can't drive a car, let alone a boat and once I even managed to crash a vehicle which could only go 2MPH. So it's a bit of a risk that I'll be embarking on a boating trip around the Great Lake Alqueva in Portugal for the weekend. But it really is that easy apparently...
We pull up to Amieira Marina on late afternoon in October with the hot sun beating down on us. The 30°C heat is most welcome after leaving a damp and chilly London a few hours ago. We'd flown from Gatwick to Lisbon then drove two hours to Amieira Marina on Lake Alqueva. We enjoy a beer overlooking the harbour and then we are taken into orientation where we learn a bit about Lake Alqueva and the boat which will be our home for the next three nights.
Great Lake Alqueva
Lake Alqueva is Europe's biggest man-made lake - and anyone can learn to drive a boat on it in just one hour. You do not need any sailing experience, so that dream can become reality.
After a short orientation and briefing on the lake, we are shown to our houseboat. Within 10 minutes of boarding the boat we have learned how to stop, steer and dock our new home. It really is as easy as that and even I have managed to master it during our short time onboard. The boat is limited to 10MPH and sleeps up to two people, but there are boats which can sleep up to 10 people.
The Great Lake Alqueva is 250 square kilometres of tranquil water. Having flooded the valleys cut through the land by two major rivers there are inevitably shallow areas where the land was higher. Using a route map on a GPS in the cockpit eliminates any danger. There is also a sonar device which shows depth and obstacles in the water. The GPS and sonar are incredibly accurate so even the most nautically challenged can enjoy a trip around the lake in total safety.
Where to visit
The next morning off we went to discover The Great Lake Alqueva, a hidden gem overlooked by neighbouring Lisbon and the Algarve.
Our boat was fully stocked with fresh meats, cheeses, plenty of fruit juice and most importantly, wine.
So made our way towards Estrela. The lake is surrounded by ancient villages, there are 9 villages in total around the Lake Alqueva, two of which are in Spain, so there is plenty to explore and discover.
As the boat can also be controlled from the top deck, we glide along sitting up top with the wind in our hair with a couple of beers and the hot sun beating down on us. As the lake is man-made the waters are really still, so its perfect for those who suffer from sea sickness as the journey is so smooth.
The journey from each village varies, it took us over an hour to reach our first village, Estrela and it was my job to throw to ropes to the dock as I can't be trusted to reverse the boat. Here's a tip, things move on the boat. Don't do what I did and run out to do the ropes and find out that the sliding glass door has closed during the reverse...after you've run into it.
Once we are docked, with the help of a very friendly local fisherman, and my head has stopped spinning we fire up the BBQ. We cook our mixed grill, which was one of the freshly prepared dishes waiting for us onboard on arrival. As we feast on our lunch all we can hear around us is the sound of a cow bell echoing. It's dead quiet and ever so peaceful and the views are mesmerising.
Well fed and watered we safely reversed out of Estrela, waving goodbye to our fisherman friend and navigated our way to Monsaraz where we would be spending the night.
After around three hours of sailing we arrive in Monsaraz, a must-see village which has a population of just 70. The fortified town is built on a rocky spur and gives a 360° view of stunning scenery. The village itself is also undeniably beautiful, it has a preserved mediaeval town-museum, a fortified castle and every cobbled alley way brings you to more surprisingly beautiful views, fresh white buildings or some of the stunning local artwork of the region.
We spend the evening in tiny traditional Portuguese restaurant which is bustling with locals from the small village. There's one wall covered in vintage radios and jugs on our table constantly being filled with the restaurant's own homemade red wine.
Our table shares large bowls of chickpeas in a warm broth which we pour over pork belly and sausages. Copious amounts of red wine wash down the delicious traditional Portuguese pork and chickpea stew. We can't help but go for seconds as well as satisfying our sweet tooth with Toucinho do Céu. This Portuguese almond cake literally translates as 'Bacon from Heaven'.
When we head back to our boat we sit on the top deck and stargaze. It's not every day we get to see a sky like this.
The sky in this region is considered by UNESCO a reservation for stargazing. As the night falls you can get a perfect view of the sky and sparkling stars. The sky is completely cloudless and the moon shimmers on the lake, creating a view I thought only existed on the big screen. A fox runs past on the grassland behind us with the fluffiest tail I have ever seen. This definitely confirms that I am no longer in London.
Luz is our last stop of the trip before we make our way back to Amieira Marina and depart our houseboat the next morning.
Luz is the only village to be submerged by the dam waters, and which had to be literally relocated. A museum was created here, its collection consists of objects from the inhabitants, and where all the memories of the old village are recorded. This is the perfect opportunity to grab the bikes off the boat and cycle to the village.
Food and Wine
Guests can pre-order cooked meals from the Marina's restaurant kitchen which specialises in local cuisine - and wines! There are also restaurants and supermarkets in some of the villages.
On our first night we dined at Amieira Marina's Panoramic Restaurant and Bar. The restaurant gives a, you guessed it, a panoramic view of the lake and serves regional food of Alentejo. Feast on dishes such as the incredibly tasty Sheep's cheese, Codfish fritters, Shrimp rissoles, Chickpeas with Salt-cod and Octopus.
The Alentejo region is the perfect place for wine lovers as it has the best wines that Portugal has to offer. Alentejo is renowned for its red wines, which are rich, fruity and easy drinking. The wines we had in the local restaurants were so full of flavour, very affordable and not a hangover was in sight.
But what else is there to do?
Besides drinking good wine, basking in the sun and enjoying complete tranquility?
Bikes and canoes can be loaded on to your boat. Water sport opportunities include kayaks, ski, wakeboard and 'banana' tow. There is also opportunities for hot air balloon rides, horse and carriage riding, moto quad and kart cross rentals.
Guests can also arrange tours and visits to the wineries and olive oil factories, with tastings included.
Amieira Marina is ideal for families and couples. It is a wonderful opportunity to experience the peace and beauty of a largely ignored part of Portugal. Tourism has made little impact here and life continues much as it has for centuries.
How To Get There
Flights to Faro or Lisbon are all year around from most major airports. Transfer time is around two hours.
How Much Is It?
A visit to Amieira Marina start at just £1,300 for a 7 night family holiday for 4 people.
Boats are available for 2 - 10 people.