Seven days, two surfers, one van, and a Portuguese summer adventure! (Part 1)

A takeaway from travelling through Alentejo and West Algarve learning about surfing and van life. A prelude.

Romantic notions of getting lost in remote corners of Europe, surrounded by sea sounds and sunsets, good wine and my wonderful man.

That was the premise when I started to plan my summer holidays, back in April 2017. I knew two things for sure; we would not take holidays until September and we would undoubtedly want to surf in the sun. This allowed us to narrow our options relatively easily. If we are to stay within European boundaries, we need to go Atlantic. If we want guaranteed sun in September, we need to go south.

After some brainstorming about what we wanted from our holidays, we came up with the idea of renting a camper through Portugal. Somehow the idea of living in a camper; exploring lost beaches and surfing when and where we wanted sounded like the ultimate adventure. The kind of adventure we go on young, before we are too afraid to test the limits of our comfort.

Camping, good food, surf, beaches, remote wilderness. It sounded perfect!

I scoured the internet. Clearly I was not the first to come up with this holiday idea, and the options for doing the coast of Portugal were surprisingly abundant. I have the joy of working with quite a few Portuguese colleagues, who offered me the type of invaluable advice that only locals can know. A roadtrip through Portugal without visiting Alentejo and West Algarve was no trip at all.

Equipped with this smidgen of local knowledge, and a desire to try something completely new, we narrowed our trip down to go from Lisbon to Faro. Once again, I was not the first to think of this trip. We were still awash with choice. We settled on a family sized company called Siesta Campers to rent our van from, mostly because we wanted to support a small family sized business. Siesta Campers is a family owned company based in the Algarve who rent out converted VW transporters and old school VW buses.

Freedom, enlightenment, adventure here we come…

So was the trip the enlightening, hippy surf dream one might think of? Yes.

And no. Our trip was amazing, and we have both agreed that we would do it again. But we also learned a huge amount about what we would do differently, how it could have been better, what we did right and what kind of person would enjoy this sort of trip. To try and optimise anyone else’s trip who would be thinking of doing something similar, I have written below our experiences; where we went right, where we went wrong and simply where we went on our adventure.

If you look up the word adventure in a dictionary, you will come across a definition similar to the following “an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks, with an unknown outcome”. We embarked on this trip pursuing the new and the unexplored, both geographically and emotionally. And like all adventures, ours had ups and downs.

Neither of us had driven a camper before or even been on a holiday like this. Sure, I had stayed in mobile homes for a lot of my childhood holidays, and sure, my boyfriend Ben has a good bit of tent camping experience, but this was brand new…


Before I start however, I will highlight some of the most important lessons learned, for those of you who cannot or do not want to read further.

  • Never drive the van onto sand — you will get stuck
  • The sooner you develop a routine the quicker and easier setting up camp will be
  • Think outside the box. Your home travels with you everywhere which means you can eat anywhere you can travel to, have a nap in the middle of the day in bed on a car park if it so takes your fancy, make a cup of coffee at the side of the road…conventional living does not need to apply
  • Have an idea of where you want to go but remain flexible
  • Don’t pack too much into the trip. Just because you can drive anywhere doesn’t mean you should
  • Don’t pack too much into your suitcases either for that matter
  • Keep your camper clean, the space is too small to let it get dirty or sandy
  • If you are doing this trip to surf, don’t wait to get yourself into the water; drive to the sea and surf. And if you don’t have your own boards, then rent them for your whole trip so you can surf whenever it takes your fancy
  • Earplugs!
  • We are very happy we went just out of season, less people and weather was sublime. If you have no school holiday obligations, I would strongly recommend this approach
  • It is about fun. Some things will not go right, but they should not get to you. Have fun!
  • Google Maps changes everything!

I have listed below all the places we visited that were in anyway noteworthy. The coast has so many stunning spots that I am sure someone else doing the same thing as us could come up with twenty different spots all within throwing distance of where we went. However, even the most intrepid and remote traveler would have to go through some of these places.

Finally, before I continue with what is a very personal account of our adventure, it is worth noting that the distance we covered is actually very short, and we still felt like we had to, at certain points, rush through. People often talk of ‘secret spots’ when they travel as if they are the holy grail. I do not think we found any undiscovered secret slivers of paradise. The whole place was sublime, and you do not need to go digging to come up with magic places that will take your breath away. None of the below is a ‘secret spot’. They are all places that anyone can find — but they are no less worth it for that!

Thank you Ben Breckler for the map, the trip and everyday

Setubal Peninsular — A short hop from Lisbon and probably worth more than the time we gave it. Full of vineyards and oil producers, it is countryside with an upmarket feel.

Porto Covo — A tiny fishing village who’s population must treble over the summer. Almost no international tourists, it has a welcoming and lively feel to it.

Vila Nova de Milfontes — Larger than Porto Covo, and only a short drive away, Milfontes feels must busier and the crowd noticeable more international. With an Old Town feel and young crowd it would be a very pleasant place to while away a few easy carefree days.

Malhao & Aivados — Spectacular. Vast patches of sand that stretch in both directions and are untouched and as empty as you could hope for.

Odeceixe — Small busy beach with nice beginner waves and a handy drop-off zone. Parking is tricky and can probably get jam packed in the high season. Nudist beach considerably less busy… Has a couple of very nice campsites around it.

Arrifana — Perhaps an unfortunate experience for us, but much much too busy when there are so many other beaches that are so empty nearby. More developed than other beaches we visited although we did not stay long enough to know if the vibe is nice or not.

Amoreira — Beach with massive sandbank meaning the water stays shallow even when tide is quite high. Convenient drop-off zone on the beach and easy parking. Little beach cafe is the only infrastructure around.

Amado — Surfers beach, with lots of different levels of surfers. Classes available but wide enough beach that it did not feel crowded in the water. Easy parking and a few beach huts offering lessons and a catering van are the only things around.

Sagres — Cheerful but busy international town. Touristy but the vibe stays laid back and easy going. Probably a nice place to be based if you want a bit of nightlife and be close to beaches, but perhaps not an ‘authentic’ Portuguese experience.

And now, here is our story…