Earlier this year a group of expert adjudicators met to pore over video footage and photographs of a man surfing a wave. After much deliberation, the team, employed by Guinness World Records, announced its conclusion: this was the biggest wave any human had ever surfed. The rider was a Hawaiian professional called Garrett McNamara, but the 78ft-wave was not on the famed North Shore of O’ahu, nor the famous exotic surf spots of Australia or California. It was at Nazaré, Portugal.
McNamara’s feat has announced the country’s surf credentials to the world, and his plans to return to go even bigger this autumn will draw yet more attention. And as well as the potential for vast waves, Portugal has another selling point – the accessibility of its beaches. Nazaré, for example, is just 75 miles north of the capital, Lisbon, making it perfect for weekend trips.
My destination, Cascais, is more convenient still, just 30 minutes’ drive from Lisbon airport. And while previous explorations of Portugal’s beaches have involved roughing it in camper vans on windy headlands, this time I have opted for a kind of surf trip that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago: a deluxe one.
The Oitavos, which opened in 2010, is a five-star hotel, but rather than frown on guests who arrive in the grand lobby in baggy board shorts, it positively encourages surfers, offering surfing packages complete with lessons and post-surf massages.
This may have something to do with the fact that the general manager, Miguel Champalimaud, is a former national under-21 surfing champion. He has picked the right hotel to work at – Oitavos is five minutes’ drive from the popular surfing beach of Guincho, while Ericeira, whose waves are so good that the fishing-village-turned-resort was last October designated a World Surfing Reserve, is just half an hour away. En route, there is Praia Grande, another well-known surf spot. Even the stretch of coastline between Cascais and Lisbon is blessed with good surf.
Champalimaud has agreed to be my guide but first wants to show me some of the local surf culture. First stop is Santini’s, a 1950s-style ice-cream parlour in the centre of Cascais, an upmarket yet unpretentious coastal town. Champalimaud explains that eating ice-cream outside on the sun-drenched steps rather than within Santini’s retro interior is a Portuguese tradition. Next stop is for hotdogs at Pastelaria Garrett, a patisserie and tea house in Estoril, followed by more ice-cream. The hotdogs are an improvement on their British counterparts, the gelados delicious. Estoril itself, with the Hotel Palácio as its centrepiece, isn’t bad either.
We make our way from Cascais along the coast to Guincho. Within minutes of paddling out into clean, uncrowded waves, it’s clear Champalimaud has lost none of his ability. As a surfer of a certain age, I keep up about as well as I would have fared in the monster wave of Nazaré but, then again, one of the joys of being an older surfer is that competitiveness fades, to be replaced by appreciation of the simple joy of being in the sea.