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Portugal's Berlengas Islands: How to enjoy a unique boating vacation

Portugal's Berlengas Islands: How to enjoy a unique boating vacation
Picturesque, historic and easier to reach than they appear, Portugal’s Berlengas Islands and the coastal town of Peniche are worth a detour
Built on a rocky peninsula overlooking the Atlantic, Peniche appears at first glance to be a quiet, albeit picturesque, coastal fishing town.  
However, the little city is also one of Europe’s best surfing locations. In the summer especially, the streets fill with Portuguese and international visitors flocking to the long, white beaches that have helped make Peniche famous.
There is plenty to see and to enjoy, including for those who are not so much thrill-seekers as they are chill-seekers. Year-round, the city boasts a gleaming harbour, pretty residential areas, well-preserved chapels and windmills that look like something an old master might have painted.
Berlengas islands Portugal
The city is also home to a dramatic fortress, all sharp geometry and forbidding walls. Currently in the process of being turned into a museum, the fortress is an imposing example of Portuguese coastal defences. As a couple walking their dog near its walls explained, it was also used as a prison for communists and other opponents of Portugal’s Estado Novo regime, a period of dictatorship lasting for approximately 40 years until 1974, under which Portugal was governed by conservative, colonial and autocratic values.  
Indeed, Portugal more broadly is interesting in this sense: history in the form of the regime is always a mere artefact or anecdote away, being well within living memory for many. Happily, during my visit to Peniche, the people closest to the fortress’s door were a family paddling in the rocky approximation of a moat that lies beneath the fortress’s entry bridge. The place felt peaceful. 

Boat rides and hidden bays 

Situated a half-hour boat ride from Peniche is the Berlengas archipelago: a collection of small islands visited only by scientists and a handful of tourists and local guides in the warmer months. They have undoubtedly been left off many maps—but I would argue that they are well worth adding to yours. 
Berlengas Islands Portugal
Even getting to the islands is fun. With tickets available in the 20€ to 35€ range per head for a return trip, boat rides to the islands are good value and make for a memorable day out. Boat companies aimed at tourists usually carry up to 30 passengers per boat. In my experience, everyone travelled on the deck, sitting astride beams reminiscent of mechanical bulls at fairs, albeit with thin plastic-enclosed chains around people’s waists to prevent one from tipping off the side. It did not feel quite as risk-free as being on my own two feet on land, but I did feel alive (not to mention very awake), which can surely only count as the strongest commendation.
"The islands’ residents are above all gulls, lizards, and hardy plants adapted to arid conditions and the salty sea air"
Indeed, the passage by boat can be bumpy—but it is also exhilarating. On the day I travelled, the sea was apparently quite calm, but the waves still felt significant, and travellers on board were gasping and laughing as the boat seemed to leap out of the waves, bow high. Portugal’s coast receded behind us and through the mist ahead appeared the slumbering crags of an archipelago that is barely even inhabited.  
The islands’ residents are above all gulls, lizards, and hardy plants adapted to arid conditions and the salty sea air.

A place of history and natural heritage 

There is more to these islands than immediately meets the eye. With few buildings and barely a tree in sight, one could be forgiven for thinking there is “nothing there”. Yet one would also be wrong.  
The Berlengas Islands are home to an impressive amount of biodiversity and walking around them is a delight even for the traveller who struggles to name common garden flowers. Bushes and wildflowers cling to the exposed land, creating the semblance of a rocky meadowed expanse overlooking the sea. Smaller islands of the archipelago are visible from the largest island, Berlenga Grande, where the tourists are taken, and jut from the water, jagged and tipped like sharks’ teeth. Nestled between the dramatic cliffs are also several rather striking bays and caves accessible by boat, including the blue grotto, which boasts marvellous turquoise waters.  
Berlengas Islands Portugal
The Berlengas Islands are also a place of human history. Their dramatic cliffs were once notorious for shipwrecks, to the point that a monastery was built just off Berlenga Grande in the early 16th century, to enable Hieronymite monks to tend to shipwrecked sailors. The monks were pushed to flee the islands, however, after a century or so of precarious supply chains, pirate attacks and tempestuous weather.  
"There is more to these islands than immediately meets the eye"
The monastery fell into disrepair and was rebuilt as a fort in the mid-17th century, with perilous stone bridge spines connecting it to Berlenga Grande. Today the fort is uninhabited, although it is open to visitors and can even be booked as a (very cold) hotel in the summer months.  
Berlenga Grande is also home to a picturesque lighthouse whose terracotta and white exterior makes for a striking contrast with the natural landscape. In all senses of the phrase, it cannot be missed. 

A friendly local culture 

Writing about the friendliness encountered in particular places can feel highly subjective. However, when everyone one meets proves patient, welcoming and kind, it feels worth noting. Perhaps by virtue of Peniche being simultaneously a small city and one frequented by shoals of international surfers in the summer, the city’s residents seem accustomed to meeting tourists and—at least in my experience—willing to offer a point in the right direction and to have a friendly chat.  
"No matter how vast the quantity of baked goods one samples in Portugal, it will never be vast enough"
The city also had a nice café culture and, as is the case seemingly everywhere in Portugal, the most fantastic fresh foods and traditional desserts. No matter how vast the quantity of baked goods one samples in Portugal, it will (alas) never be vast enough.
Among the locals with whom I spoke, there seemed to be a modest yet perceptible sense of pride to be the custodians of such a beautiful part of their country. “We moved here and never looked back,” said one of my hosts in Peniche.
It was easy to see why.
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