Connecting with Nature in Comporta

Ann Abel

The story

The rusticity of Comporta belies its luxury. As we drove from Lisbon, it was the ruggedness that called to us. The region, straddling the border between Setúbal and the Alentejo, is a wild place, with fields of beautifully gnarled cork oaks, meadows of vivid wildflowers, and lush green rice paddies and narrow canals—the name Comporta means “a gate that holds back water”. Beyond the dunes, the white sand beaches are some of the loveliest in Europe, and they may as well be endless, for there’s no way we could walk the length of one.

The architecture adds to the charm. The typical “Comporta cabana” is a Portuguese rendition of a tiny home, but created long before tiny homes came into vogue. Dotting the countryside, they have a distinctive, deceptively simple architecture using humble materials like thatched straw (even for the walls) and weathered wood. They have seduced more than one marquee-name interior designer, fashion designer, or artist into purchasing one as their private retreat from the stresses of city life.

It is those part-time residents that tempt us to call Comporta “the Hamptons of Lisbon” or to compare it to Ibiza, St. Barth, or José Ignacio. But those comparisons do a disservice to Comporta, which has a magic all its own. It’s not only a place where the wealthy and the well-known get to let down their hair, take off their shoes, and remove the mask of public life. It’s a place where everyone is welcomed as a friend, where people eat chicken with their fingers at an unassuming roadside restaurant like Dona Bia, or feast on seafood at a beach restaurant like Sal with their feet in the sand—with nothing but interest in and amiability toward whoever is at the next table, be they a crinkly local fisherman, a foreign tourist, or a celebrity.

Comporta is also far more than the village of the same name. It is a coastal region between the Sado Estuary—an important stopping point on bird migration routes from Africa that’s visited by more than 250 species each year—and the wild Atlantic. Its 12,500 hectares (more than 30,000 acres) encompass seven hamlets and some 65 kilometers (40 miles) of pristine, largely empty beach.

It’s one of those places where there is nothing to do—relax, unplug, and perhaps invite some new friends to your villa for dinner—or everything to do. We like dolphin watching and horseback riding on the beach, and of course we love long, languid days on any of the seven beaches. They aren’t overrun with lounge chairs and umbrellas. They, like the rest of Comporta, are just as nature intended them to be.

When to go?

Comporta is very much a summer destination, with the social swirl in full swing from June until August. We like the warm periods just before and after, especially September and October, when the air is still balmy and the sea is as warm as it ever gets, and when restaurant reservations are easier to come by.

How to get there?

The only way to reach Comporta is by car, and the drive from Lisbon (an hour to 90 minutes, depending on your starting point) is a beautiful one, beginning with the crossing of the 25 de Abril suspension bridge out of Lisbon and into the rugged Setúbal region.

Experiences

Explore the region on horseback

You’ll be guided by a horseman from a family who has been passionate about riding for generations. Your horse will carry you over fantastic beaches, past dunes that go as far as the eye can see, through rice fields, and past the traditional fishermen’s homes known as “Comporta cabanas.” Take a break along the way in a vineyard where you can taste some Portuguese wines.

Meander through the Vala Real

With our qualified guide, embark on a kayak trip to paddle through the Vala Real, or royal canal. It is the main source of water for the region's rice paddies and home to many secrets and a large range of animals. Mid-tour, lunch is a gastronomic picnic alongside the water.

Step into the kingdom of dolphins and seabirds

Leave from Setubal or Troia aboard a boat with a wildlife expert who can explain everything about the marine mammals and birds of the Sado Estuary, a bird-watcher’s paradise. At the end of the day, dine on board, floating through the landscapes as the sun sets.

Our address book

O Dinis

Sublimely simple seafood

Local fisherman Dinis Parreira oversees his namesake seaside restaurant and bar on the beach of Carvalhal. It started out as just a tent, but now it’s set in a pretty blue house in the rustic style of the region. It’s known for excellent, super-fresh grilled snapper, sardines and other fish and seafood. You’re unlikely to go wrong with any of it, but standouts include the seafood rice and the bulhão pato clams, drenched in the typical sauce of olive oil, lemon, and garlic.

Praia do Carvalhal, Lagoa Formosa, Grândola

Sem Porta

Fine dining in a relaxed setting

Fittingly, the name means “without a door,” at this welcoming restaurant within the region’s only luxury hotel, Sublime Comporta. Star Lisbon chef Ljubomir Stanisic (of 100 Maneiras) oversees the kitchen, and is making heavy use of the 300 varieties of herbs and vegetables grown in the hotel’s own organic garden. The menu ranges from roasted cauliflower with coconut milk and kimchi to black pork cheeks in a red wine broth. An intimate new Food Club hosts nightly dinners in the garden.

EN 261-1, Muda, CCI 3954, Grândola

Dona Bia

As local as it gets

It’s nothing to look at, but this roadside dining room offers a truly local experience, where well-heeled visitors dine on rustic farm food like the seafood-studded bread stew known as açorda and rice with razor clams next to native fishermen and farmers. Portions are large, so expect to share. It’s not the only rustic roadhouse in the area: Gervásio and Tobias are even more under-the-radar options.

Torre-Comporta, Comporta

Museu do Arroz

A piece of classic Comporta

Built in 1952 as a rice-husking factory, this venue has evolved into a multiconcept space that includes a museum dedicated to the history of rice cultivation. Along with the exhibitions of old machines there’s a stylish restaurant and terrace, all developed by Ze and Isabel Carvalho, a pair of the earliest pioneers who started putting Comporta on the map 20 years ago and have become local celebrities. The kitchen also turns out excellent rice dishes, but it’s worth a stop for a coffee, a well-crafted cocktail, or a glass of local wine.

Estrada Nacional 253-1 Km 0, Comporta, Alcacer do Sal

Comporta Café

A local institution

This anchor of the Praia da Comporta beach has been a popular, relaxed destination for coffee, ice-cold local beer, or homemade white sangria, a local specialty. The shaded and sunny terraces, colorful bean bag chairs, and hammocks all face the Atlantic, and the whoosh of crashing waves is the soundtrack. At sunset, not only do you get nature’s light show as the sun sets, but DJs or acoustic guitarists send music wafting through the air.

Praia da Comporta, Grândola

Cavalhariça

Quirky and contemporary

An old stable has become one of the area’s top restaurants: modern and eclectic, run by an alumnus of Sem Porta. Barman Fábio Nobre makes some of the most high-concept cocktails in the region, such as the Cavalhariça sour, made with amarguinha (Portuguese almond liquor), tawny port, fresh lemon juice, and apple, and a plum and pear bellini made with homemade fruit purée. There’s also a solid list of non-alcoholic cocktails, and an oysters and cocktails hour every evening.

Rua do Dryer 9, Comporta

Praia de Aberta Nova

Sun, sand, and endless sea

It’s hard to pick a favorite among Comporta’s many beaches, but we love this one, which is less busy than some of the others and unabashedly beautiful: a vast stretch of virtually untouched white sand with turquoise waves lapping at its shore. While it feels delightfully off-the-grid, there are lifeguards, decent washrooms, and a sweet little restaurant serving delicious croque monsieurs with chilled tiny bottles of Sagres beer.

N261, Grândola

Levanda

Hippie chic to go

A prime example of how Comporta can be deceptive. The white-and-blue buildings of the villages look as humble as can be, but sometimes you step inside and find a fashion playground. Levanda is one of those surprises, stocking an extensive array of garments that we’d call breezy bohemian luxe: richly textured and toned beach dresses and kaftans, straw bags and hats, brightly patterned home accessories, candles, understated jewelry, and clothing for children and men. The seats out front are a popular cocktail-hour gathering spot.

Largo de São João 3, Alcochete

Herdade José Maria da Fonseca

Tasting room and more

Pretty much all of Portugal is wine country, and the region of Comporta is studded with vineyards, wineries, and tasting rooms. This one is worth a drive (and possibly a ferry ride) for its splendid 200-year-old manor house and rich history of the family behind it, who have been making all types of wine—from table wines with 94 points from Wine Enthusiast to moscatels and ice wines (yes, even in sunny Portugal!) here for generations.

Quinta da Bassaqueira, National Road 10, Vila Nogueira de Azeitão