The extensive Portuguese Atlantic coast is a paradise for lovers of pleasure boating, who will find here the perfect sea for them.
With calm waters for quiet sailing, or rough waters ensuring higher levels of adrenaline, the ocean displays its various moods that present no difficulties for those who know it well. The beauty of the landscape is a constant, with its towering cliffs, sand dunes and beaches, providing excellent settings for all water sports.
Some areas are considered among the best regatta locations in the world, so they often host international events and races. In the depths of the sea, divers can discover a world of biodiversity, with fish of every colour and even ancient treasures.
The History of Portugal is full of exploits by explorers who crossed uncharted seas, sailing beyond capes and braving storms, to reach the other side of the world. These days, sailing is done with the support of the latest technology, but the love of the sea, of adventure and of welcoming those who come to visit remains. And visitors arriving by sea will find marinas and yacht harbours all over the country, with excellent facilities and services, where they can dock safely to then explore other wonderful places ashore.
Marinas and Yacht Harbours
Moorings in a safe harbour are always available to anyone cruising along the Portuguese coast. From north to south and on the islands of Madeira and the Azores, there are many marinas and yacht harbours equipped with all the services required to welcome those arriving by sea.
In the 15th and 16th centuries it was at sea that the Portuguese explorers found the seaways that led them to other cultures in distant lands, and they were the first Europeans to reach the Far East and Brazil.
Nowadays, Portugal’s mild climate and abundance of sunshine throughout the year offer excellent conditions for enjoying the ocean, cruising or practising various water sports, and you are sure to find the support and facilities ashore that you need. These facilities are available at the Marinas and Yacht Harbours, many of which have been awarded the European Blue Flag which guarantees their excellent conditions with regard to the quality of water, environmental management, safety and services.
Following the coastline from north to south, you first encounter the Marina at Viana do Castelo which, lying at the mouth of the River Lima, is the gateway to the green Minho region. A little further south are two marinas – at Póvoa do Varzim, a very busy summer resort, and the Porto Atlântico Marina, in Leixões, close to Porto, the country’s second largest city. If you would like to venture into the interior, you can choose the marinas and docks of the River Douro, the region which produces the famous Port wine, an "explorer" itself, since it reaches every part of the world.
In the Centro de Portugal, there is the Barra Lighthouse, the tallest in the country and a reference point for sailors. But there are also several places to drop anchor – Carregal, near Ovar; Torreira and Figueira da Foz, a charming, traditional seaside resort. Further south, Nazaré and Peniche, both famous for their fishing traditions and for the waves that attract surfers from around the world, also offer safe havens.
In the Lisbon area, those arriving by sea have many options, from the Estoril coast, with Cascais Marina and the yacht harbour at Oeiras, to the Parque das Nações Marina in the far east of the city. The Docks area - Alcântara, Santo Amaro, Belém and Bom Sucesso - was converted in the 1990s, and is now the centre of a vibrant nightlife, with restaurants, bars and nightclubs that attract many people.
Across the River Tagus, near the Arrábida Natural Park, the yacht harbour at Sesimbra is a great base from which to set off to discover some small coves and deserted beaches. Similarly, from the Fontaínhas Docks in Setúbal and Troia Marina, you can cast off to go in search of the many dolphins. Further south, Sines serves as a port of call for anyone wanting to go to the Algarve, because it’s already halfway there. And in the interior of the Alentejo, Amieira Marina provides support services for those sailing on the great Alqueva lake. Here, you can even rent a houseboat to relax on and cruise around.
There’s a succession of places to moor safely along the Algarve coast. Vilamoura, the oldest marina in the country, is in the most central area and is a great entertainment centre. But from west to east, Lagos, Portimão, Albufeira, Faro, Olhão, Tavira and Vila Real de Santo António also have their ports and marinas that rival each other in terms of quality.
Out in the Atlantic, in the archipelagoes of Madeira and the Azores, important as ports of call during the Portuguese maritime expansion in the 16th century, sea connections provide the main transportation between the islands. In Madeira, in addition to its Marina, the cosmopolitan city of Funchal has one of the country’s main cruise ports and receives yachts and liners from all over the world. But there are other places in the region to moor, such as Quinta do Lorde and the island of Porto Santo, famous for its long expanse of golden sand.
In the Azores, Horta Marina, a mecca for those crossing the Atlantic, is well known for its "sea dogs" who leave its walls full of drawings and paintings, making it one of the most colourful in the world. There are also places to drop anchor on the other islands, such as Terceira – in Angra and Praia da Vitória – and São Miguel - Ponta Delgada and Vila Franca do Campo, where you can safely leave your boat to set out on terra firma to discover the stunning beauty of these magical islands.
Vilamoura and its Marina
Modern, lively and sophisticated, Vilamoura has developed around its marina, and is today one of the largest leisure resorts in Europe.
The town is built around a tourist resort begun in the 1970s. But the Romans already knew the area, as is clear from the ruins of Cerro da Vila, preserved in the museum of the same name, beside the access road to Falésia Beach.
Excellent hotels and tourist villages, and golf courses of international repute offer a complete package for those looking to spend some relaxing days by the sea. The marina, the largest in the country with 1300 berths, is the main hub of entertainment, not only for those who arrive by boat, but for everyone spending a holiday in the area and who come here in the late afternoon or evening to enjoy an ice cream or dinner. It’s also the right place for shopping, with a wide range from local craft stores to the most prestigious international brands. As for the nightlife, there are many bars and clubs with the best DJs and the Vilamoura Casino promises to really get the adrenaline running.
There are countless activities to do during the day. Tennis, horse riding, sailing, windsurfing, jet skiing, parasailing, boat trips, fishing, the range is so huge you’ll be spoilt for choice. The warm waters and golden sands are a stone’s throw away. From the pontoon east from the Marina, the sands of Vilamoura Beach extend to Quarteira; and to the west is Falésia Beach, which stretches for miles, only finishing at Olhos de Água, so there’s plenty of space to lay out your towel and sunbathe on the beach. Safety conditions are the best, and there are many amusements for a few perfect days at the seaside.
Cruising the Algarve Coast
With about 200 kilometres of coastline, great weather and calm waters, the Algarve is ideal for sailing, even if you don’t own a boat, since there’s always the option to rent one or to join the cruises that explore the beauty the coastline.
Seeing the region from the sea is something completely different, with surprises at every turn. From the golden cliffs where erosion has carved out caves and exuberant shapes, especially between Lagos and Albufeira, to the red cliffs and the dunes of white sand that frame wide beaches, there’s a great variety of scenery. The choppy seas to the west, near Sagres, warm and become calm as you head east, making this a more relaxing adventure.
There are navigable rivers too, such as the Arade, which has places of great beauty between Portimão and Silves, with springs of crystalline water, huge swathes of vegetation and memories of the Arab presence. In the far East, going up the Guadiana offers a pleasant trip between its huge banks, where you can glimpse windmills, typical houses and grazing lands. And there’s the Ria Formosa, a protected area of marshland, dunes and uncrowded islands with seemingly endless beaches, bathed by clear waters.
You can discover this diversity aboard small licensed vessels or on organised tours run by a number of companies. Many of them include lunch on board, or a typical Portuguese sardine picnic in some secluded bay. And there are also tours with an ecotourism focus, to observe the flora and fauna in the Ria Formosa Natural Park and the Castro Marim and Vila Real de Santo António Marshland Nature Reserve.
But for those who have the skills, there’s nothing better than cruising at the helm of a boat and discovering the hidden coves between the dunes and the cliffs, deserted untouched beaches inaccessible by land. Diving in these waters, under the hot Algarve summer sunshine, is like being in paradise. And you don’t even have to own a boat, because there are several companies that rent them for a few hours or days. In addition, if you like to fish, and push up your adrenaline levels trying to catch some of the larger species, you’ll find the Algarve a great destination for big game fishing, especially in the westernmost waters.
The sea and the tailwinds provide fantastic conditions for sailing competitions that attract participants from different parts of the world. As the setting or as a staging point, the Algarve features in the calendars of the most prestigious international sailing events. And sailing is available to everyone, as there are many schools and yacht clubs in most of the coastal cities and towns where you can learn. It’s yet another way to discover the Algarve: just plot a route, hoist the sails, cast off and set out exploring!
Horta: The Most Colourful Marina in the World
When on Faial, a visit to the Horta Marina is a must for the excitement of seeing the yachts moored there and for the great open air exhibition of paintings made on the jetty by all the visiting sailors.
This nautical amenity was opened in 1986, and is the modern extension of a harbour and bay of long-standing importance. The marina has space for 300 vessels, and is currently the fourth most visited ocean marina and certainly one of the most important in the world. It has held the European Blue Flag since 1987.
Its location offers an excellent shelter against the winds from any direction and makes it an almost essential stopover for the hundreds of yachts from different nationalities that call here annually on their voyages across the North Atlantic, and also for yachts travelling between the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.
Several international regattas are held here every year, usually directed at ocean-going cruiser yachts, with this marina acting either as the finishing line or one of the ports of call, making Horta a meeting point for many international sailing events such as Les Sables-Les Azores-Les Sables, Atlantique Pogo, La Route des Hortensias, ARC Europe, Ceuta-Horta, OCC Azores Pursuit Race, amongst many others.
Peter’s Café Sport, the most charismatic café in the North Atlantic, is often associated with the marina and sailors. It opened its doors for the first time to sailors more than 80 years ago, and it has offered its hospitality and fantastic stories of the sea, tempered by the simplicity of the Azorean people, over a gin and tonic, ever since. Upstairs, you can visit the Museum of the Art of Scrimshaw, which contains the largest private collection of utensils and pieces of art carved out of, or etched into, the jawbone and teeth of sperm whales.
Amongst all this activity, the Horta Marina has another source of fascination too: the myth of the paintings on the walls of the port. Nobody knows how and when it started, but probably one day a crewman from a yacht anchored in Horta decided he should leave a painted souvenir of his stay on Faial on the dock wall.
The first painting was followed by others, and they now occupy the entire length of the wall. New ones are painted over old paintings and what was a dark, uneven surface has been transformed into a colourful display of drawings and words recalling the many yachts that have docked in Horta.
A superstition began circulating among residents that vessels which, for one reason or another, failed to leave a record of their presence, would suffer a serious accident.
So as not to tempt fate, every sailor now uses his brush and paint to sketch a drawing and some words that refer to his vessel or voyage, and a giant mosaic of vivid murals has thus been created over the decades by countless crews.
Horta Marina is also the point of departure for observation boats setting out to catch sight of the large marine mammals and agile dolphins that find abundant feed in the waters surrounding the islands of Faial, Pico and São Jorge. The vocation of Faial for sea sports is supplemented by fishing and by underwater observation. And its high point is the Sea Week, in August, in which the yacht regattas and races for whaling canoes join together in a festival that enlivens the whole city.
If distance is an unforgettable milestone for any yachtsman, if you finish your voyage in Horta Marina, you’ll have the added bonus of achieving such a feat in a place where the sea is its very lifeblood.
Cruises in Portugal
The sea is a natural way of getting to Portugal and a good starting point to gain an insight into the history of this country of explorers.
Boats from all over the world dock here, whether via the Atlantic to the west, or the Mediterranean to the south, and in the Madeira and Azores archipelagos.
Portugal is a country with a long history and a centuries-old culture, and will welcome you at this crossroads between Europe and the American continent.
If you stop here on a cruise, you will find many points of interest in the cities of Porto, Lisbon and Portimão, which are well worth exploring. Ponta Delgada, on the island of São Miguel in the Azores, and Funchal, on Madeira, also offer their seafaring visitors a comfortable and friendly welcome.