We’ve had some brilliant ‘traditional’ family holidays in Portugal over the years, but now the kids are older we wanted to be a bit more adventurous and leave our comfortable villa holidays behind. Portugal is an easy country in which to self-drive, with a great deal to see and do without driving for days on end.
We opted for a seven-night touring holiday on road and water, combining the lively capital Lisbon with historic Evora and an unforgettable few days of navigating our own boat around the largest artificial lake in Europe.
After a quick and easy flight to Lisbon, we soaked up the sights of one of the most friendly and relaxed cities in Europe. With a zoo and aquarium and some wonderful restaurants, it had something to please us all. After ticking off most of the cultural highlights and testing most of the custard tarts in the city, we hired a car and drove to Lake Alqueva via Evora. The latter, a stress-free 90-minute drive from Lisbon, is one of Portugal’s oldest cities and a UNESCO World Heritage sight. The kids were fascinated by the spooky Chapel of Bones and refreshed by the sun-drenched pool at the Hotel Mar de Ar Muralhas.
The ‘Great Lake’ or Lake Alqueva, 60 minutes from Evora, covers a vast area bordering Spain, with a smattering of tiny unspoilt villages around it. Arriving at Amierira Marina (amieiramarina.com), we discovered the most fantastic restaurant, with stunning food and wine to go with a gorgeous panoramic view of the glassy lake reflecting the rolling Alentejo plains like a mirror.
The houseboats vary in size, sleeping from one to 12. You are the crew, so you experience complete freedom on the lake. We had a relatively brief but clear training session before we set foot on the boat to ensure no accidents (boating licences are not required), but I was very glad that my husband had driven boats before as the sunloungers on the deck looked far too appealing! There are very few obstacles in your way but staff are always on hand just in case anything goes wrong. All boats have a bathroom, fully equipped kitchen, living area, sundeck, BBQ, safety equipment and navigation technology including GPS.
This holiday is definitely for the more adventurous family and is best suited to those with older children (or at least those who can swim). My kids were reticent about jumping from the roof of the boat into the warm water below – until they saw me plunge disgracefully into the water, holding onto my swimming costume for fear of lakeside nudity, after which there was no stopping them.
We hired some canoes to visit small islands and breakfasted on deck watching the sunrise. I sunbathed with a good book, oblivious to the route taken by the amateur drivers (the children). We shared the lake with wildlife and birds, with the only thing to disturb the peace being the tinkling of cowbells. Bikes are included for a small fee – very useful if your kids are old enough to ride to civilisation when you're moored near a village. We particularly liked Montsaraz, a quaint ancient hilltop village with winding streets and an incredible fortress with a bullring – what a place from which to watch the sun set!
You could also twin this holiday with a week’s traditional beach holiday down in the Algarve (a three-hour drive from Lisbon) or with a trip up to Oporto (also three hours) to visit the beautiful Douro Valley.
Read more about family holidays in Portugal, including places to stay and eat, and things to do with kids.