Walking Where Land Meets Sea in Portugal

If you build it, they will come. At least that’s what Casas Brancas hopes will happen.

After all, the sustainability-focused non-profit just unveiled a long-distance hiking and biking route, the Rota Vicentina, through the southwest coast of Portugal. And, in keeping with the authenticity of this wild acreage that includes a gorgeous 287-square-mile natural park, the low-slung accommodations, restaurants, and outdoor activities — from snorkeling to boating — on offer along the way are all locally owned.

So, yes, they have built it with the hope that many will come, bringing with them their respect for nature and the culture that surrounds and informs it.

One type of accommodation at Herdade da Matinha. (Photograph by Jeanine Barone)

My journey begins two miles from Cercal do Alentejo at the Herdade da Matinha, a rural casa with bold abstract paintings covering almost every surface. They’re all the creations of co-owner Alfredo Moreira da Silva, who, along with his wife, Monica, helped design the property. Before tackling the trail, I dig into a lunch of spinach soup, sardines with mustard and thyme, and octopus rice, then lounge poolside under the blazing noonday sun beside almond and cherry trees. The vibe here is as laid back as the Alentejo region itself. But the trail awaits.

The Rota Vicentina spans more than 200 miles from Santiago do Cacém in the north to Cabo de São Vicente in the south. Divided into two interconnected paths, the trail highlights two of Portugal’s best features: its rural charm and its rugged coastline. The aptly named Fisherman’s Trail hugs the shoreline, where hikers and bikers encounter deserted beaches, abundant stork nests, and the occasional fishermen perched on cliff tops, while the Historical Way sends them through cork oak forests and farmlands interrupted by an occasional village.

No need to shoulder heavy packs or suffer through extreme distances, though, unless you so desire. Trekkers can make arrangements with each inn (or with Casas Brancas directly) to be picked up and dropped off at predetermined spots, and  to have their luggage shuttled ahead. To ensure you won’t get lost, you can download a GPS data file on your mobile device from the Rota Vicentina website that provides a trail map (it will be augmented with hiking guides in the next few months).

Cork trees lining the Historical Way. (Photograph by Jeanine Barone)

I take on the Historical Way first, tracing a path the Romans once used to bring iron ore from the mountains to the sea. The air smells of eucalyptus, while lavender dots the landscape. The only people I encounter on this six-mile flat hike are two farmers who make wine from the plump grapes in their tiny vineyard. I round a corner, and the ocean suddenly appears, as does a centuries-old fortress built where Roman fortifications once stood.

Another day on the Historical Way, listening to the calls of warblers, kingfishers, and nightingales. After starting in the whitewashed village of Sao Luis, I wander past fern-rimmed streams linked to the Torgal River where butterflies dance. Among these gurgling waterways, I stop at Pego das Pias, a bucolic swimming hole where families and couples alike are spending the afternoon sunbathing on the cliffs or swinging into the calm waters using a simple rope.

After hiking another 15 miles, I rest my weary bones near Odemira at Quinta do Chocalhinho, a place that evokes another era and another part of the world. The owners, Luís Freitas and his wife Margarida, spent time in Macau, so it’s no surprise that I’m served an Asian-inspired dinner consisting of a vegetable wrap with sweet and sour sauce with a side of coconut rice. After dinner I explore the treasures Luis has amassed: a lounge adorned with his grandfather’s furniture and walls festooned with contemporary art from the owner’s own travels.

The next morning, I set off on a section of the Fisherman’s Trail that takes me through ankle-deep sand and yields a beautiful view of waves crashing against limestone cliffs. Along this 12-mile hike from Porto Covo to Vila Nova de Milfontes, rock rose, sea pink, ice plants, and other wildflowers are abundant. Praia do Seissal is one of several picnic-perfect spots cradled in wee bays bound by low cliffs. Ahead, fishermen perch with their poles poised to snag dourada or sea bass, while set-suited surfers flock to the 13-foot waves at Malhao Beach. A stork sits patiently atop a rocky monolith rising from the sea, but she’s not alone. Her chick, a tiny ball of white feathers, nestles at her feet.

And that’s just the sort of experience — intimate, remote, authentic — Casas Brancas hopes will lure travelers to this unspoiled stretch in Portugal where the land meets the sea.

Jeanine Barone is a freelance travel and food writer. Keep up with her on Twitter @JCreatureTravel


  1. Claire McCall
    New Zealand
    May 30, 2014, 3:31 am

    Hello. We are planning to walk some of the Rota Vicentina in September. We are fairly fit as we hike a lot in New Zealand.
    We only have about 7 days to spend. What would you suggest is the best parts not to miss since we can’t complete the entire trail?

    Thank you

  2. Maria Santos
    Fall Rver Ma
    January 19, 2014, 10:50 am

    I am Portugues and hope to visit my country of birth one day, It looks so beautiful and seeing the pictures of Algarve i realize that along with the Acores and Coimbra Algarve is definately worth a visit.

  3. Patrick Ruymaekers
    Antwerp, Belgium
    January 5, 2014, 4:42 pm

    I visited north of Portugal last year, Serra da Estrela and surroundings, was stunningly beautiful . Guess it will be the south, Algarve this year… cant wait

  4. Betty
    New Zealand
    January 4, 2014, 4:26 pm

    I love Alentejo. Try to taste the wonderful Bolo Podre, made from almonds, honey and gila, a type of spagetti squash.

  5. Alexander
    Algarve - Portugal
    August 19, 2013, 6:50 pm

    Thank you very much for xour article, Jeanine!
    You describe the South of Portugal just as I have always experienced it during the past 33 years of visiting the Algarve.
    @ cummings10: “Portugal Travel Agents” are not as united and influential as we might think – thanks god.

  6. Jeanine Barone
    New York
    May 8, 2013, 4:30 pm

    Hi Vera Maria, Do both, just as I did. If you stay at these accommodations you can easily do the seaside route and the inland route. Doing both provides a wonderful perspective of everything the region has to offer.

  7. Vera Marie Badertscher
    May 7, 2013, 12:00 pm

    It’s easy to decide I should go to Portugal. But you’ve made the decision about “historical route” vs. “Seaside route” a tough one. Both are very alluring.

  8. Jeanine Barone
    New York
    April 20, 2013, 9:46 pm

    Hi Mariea, Thanks much. Glad you enjoyed my article. If you have any questions on the Azores or mainland Portugal, don’t hesitate to ask. I’ve visited five of the nine Azorean islands and they each have a very distinct personality.

  9. Mariea
    Folsom CA
    March 17, 2013, 9:04 pm

    I am of Portuguese descent and most years as a child I would write a report on Portugal. I have traveled the world but have yet to make it to the mainland or the Azores where my family originated. It is on my bucket list though. Reading your article took me back to pouring through Encyclopedias and books on Portugal at the library with pure childhood intrigue. We were going to Belize later this year but I think now that Portugal will be our destination. Thank you Jeanine for this wonderfully inspirational review.

  10. Jeanine Barone
    New York
    February 10, 2013, 3:01 pm

    Hi Phil, Glad you enjoyed my article. Yes, this trail and this region of Portugal are gems.

  11. Phil
    February 8, 2013, 5:42 am

    Hi Jeanine, just a quick thanks for referencing my hobby travel website (the Vila Nova Link) in the respected National Geographic and bringing this stunning region to the attention of your readers.

  12. Jeanine Barone
    New York City
    January 28, 2013, 2:46 pm

    Hi Joselia, Good points, of course. Yes, the sun can be very intense in Portugal. But, I happen to be one of those unusual travelers who loves very hot weather. I wear a broad-brimmed hat, and apply plenty of sunscreen during my hikes.

  13. joselia Santos
    vancouver, Canada
    January 28, 2013, 12:40 pm

    I am portuguese Canadian and go to Portugal often, my last visit lasted 22 years, and I adore the vincentino coastline….thanks for sharing….please mention if travellers go hiking during summer months to avoid the sun from 1:00pm till 4pm because of the intense heat…sunscreen will not protect you if temperatures are close to 40 degrees…

  14. Jeanine Barone
    New York City
    January 22, 2013, 11:40 am

    Hi Cheryl, Yes, those cliffs are very close to Lagos.

  15. Jeanine Barone
    New York City
    January 20, 2013, 1:48 am

    Hi Johanna, Yes, so many people don’t associate hiking with Portugal. Instead, most flock to the Algarve’s beaches and miss all this other wilderness.

  16. Peggy Coonley/Serendipity Traveler
    January 13, 2013, 9:58 pm

    Inspiration for all!

  17. Cheryl
    January 11, 2013, 2:52 am

    A lovely photo of the cork trees. Are the Algarve cliffs near Lagos?

  18. Jeanine Barone
    New York City
    January 9, 2013, 12:15 pm

    Hi Donna, Thanks for your enthusiastic comment. Yes, this trail is for everyone, from hard core hikers to those who would rather just stroll in woodlands or along the coast.

  19. Johanna Bradley
    January 9, 2013, 11:19 am

    It’s so much easier to get off the beaten trail in Portugal than people might think. Can’t wait to get up that way again.

  20. Donna Hull
    January 9, 2013, 10:31 am

    What a delightful active travel experience in Portugal. This would certainly appeal to hikers, bikers and nature lovers in general. Jeanine Barone has captured the experience vividly.

  21. Jeanine Barone
    New York City
    January 9, 2013, 10:19 am

    Hi Travel Agency in Manila, Glad you enjoyed reading this article. And thanks for commenting.

  22. Jeanine Barone
    New York City
    January 9, 2013, 10:18 am

    Hi Jens, Yes, the Azores is an amazing archipelago that I have written extensively about. Each island has a distinct personality.

  23. Jeanine Barone
    New York City
    January 9, 2013, 10:16 am

    Hi Alfredo, Thanks much. Glad you enjoyed the article. And appreciate you picking up on that.

  24. Alfredo Moreira Da Silva
    January 9, 2013, 6:10 am

    the article is great!
    just one detail:
    herdade da matinha is mispelled
    insted of herdade da martinha should be herdade da matinha
    can you please be kind to change it, thank you very much

    • Leslie Trew Magraw
      January 9, 2013, 9:54 am

      Thanks for the correction, Alfredo! Will make the change now :)

  25. Travel Agency in Manila Philippines
    January 9, 2013, 3:47 am

    Nice post again! I really appreciate the effort you’ve put into this blog, the articles are entertaining and quite informative. Hope you don’t stop writing. Best wishes! ;)

  26. Jens Kuhfs
    January 9, 2013, 12:06 am

    Thanks for Sharing. I really like Portugal and the Azores (whales and dolphines).