Cycling from Porto to Lisbon is a treat for the senses, writes Stephanie Holmes
If this story had a smell, it would be fresh pine needles and eucalyptus, warmed by the sun. If it had a colour, it would be the deep blue of the relentlessly-rolling Atlantic Ocean. If it had a sound, it would be the rich, mournful melodies of a fado singer in a candle-lit restaurant.
Think of Portugal and the tourist favourites of Lisbon and Porto spring to mind — terracotta rooftops, yellow trams, custard tarts. Perhaps the Algarve might feature — golf resorts, golden beaches, the sunburnt skin of beatific British tourists.
But on a trip down Portugal's Atlantic coast, I discovered there is so much to love away from the usual tourist tropes.
I was travelling on two wheels, a cycling trip with Exodus Travels, an adventure travel company with a diverse collection of itineraries. There are walking, trekking wildlife and culture holidays, family trips and self-guided adventures. Since first guiding a group in Nepal in 1974, the company has expanded to 500 itineraries in more than 90 countries.
The popularity of cycling holidays is growing, with travellers searching for low-impact, active getaways that allow deep immersion in local culture. And for those of us with desk jobs, when a normal week is spent sedentary, the chance to get out in the elements is a rare treat.
To get my own taste of this style of travel, I joined a group of 10 for eight days — five days cycling, bookended by stays in Porto and Lisbon.
The group met for the first time at Porto airport, with our guides — Paolo and Joao — welcoming us. From this point, they would take care of all our needs, from transfers and transport, to hotel and restaurant bookings.
We were an eclectic bunch — British retirees, two younger women on short breaks from busy careers, two American widowers who had recently found love on a dating website, and me — the lone Kiwi.
Our cycling experience varied — many had never done an active holiday before, but the most experienced was on his seventh tour with Exodus, and despite turning 70 during the week, was the fittest of us all.
We began with a walking tour with local guide Rita, born and raised in Portugal but with a curiously Scottish-tinged accent after a couple of years working in the UK.
She showed us Porto's stunning beauty — colourful historic buildings and the sparkling Douro river bisecting the city. Rita took us past Lapa Church, where you'll find the heart of King Pedro IV — otherwise known as "the Liberator". (The rest of his remains are interred in Sao Paulo's Monument to the Independence of Brazil).
We stood on Liberdade Square and took in grand Cardosas Palace, and the monument to King Peter IV, an important historical figure who fought to protect the country's constitution during the Liberal Wars in the early 1800s.
We walked across the impressive double-decker Dom Luis I bridge, and made our way to the cathedral, down winding streets to the river's edge and the cellars of Burmester's, where we sipped moreish tawny port.
We were not here to walk, however; this was not a holiday for people who wanted to laze at the beach. With long days in the saddle, there was not much time for meandering through laneways and getting lost in unfamiliar streets. Our journey was nomadic — every night a different hotel, and, arriving late every afternoon, down-time was minimal.
But when our busy days were spent whizzing along coastal bike paths, and cresting hills with views that go on forever, no one complained. It was a holiday that allowed us to see the best of Portugal's coastal towns and villages, places your average tourist doesn't get close to.
Heading out from Porto on our first day of cycling, we took a well-maintained cycle path to Furadoura, a beach town on the Silver Coast. An easy ride, at first on a beach-side boardwalk, we co-existed with active wear-clad couples walking dogs, and families on a day out.
The sand was littered with colourful striped beach huts that cost $5 a day and though the weather was uninspiring, people brought supplies and staked out spots.
Often we diverted from the main beach path, passing pretty houses and gardens, the air full of the smell of fresh laundry drying on lines.
At Miramar, we stretched our legs with a walk on the sand to the Capela do Senhor da Pedra (Chapel of the Lord of Stone), a tiny hexagonal 17th-century shrine perched on a rocky outcrop. Originally a pagan worship site, the chapel was built to assert Christian dominance over the superstitious locals. Now, it's mostly used by wannabe Instagram-influencers, posing for countless "candid" photos.
At the water's edge, rotund elderly women paddled in the fierce, frigid Atlantic, their pendulous bosoms hanging low to their waist — an endearing antidote to the carefully constructed photoshoots taking place above them.
After lunch in Espinho, where a well-deserved beer cost $2, we were back on the bikes and along the boardwalks over Lake Paramos. This protected wetland conservation area is home to around 160 species of birds.
We journeyed next through ancient pine forest planted by royal order hundreds of years ago. The trees were used to build ships for the great explorers, but careful management saw one tree planted for every one chopped down, so the forests continued to thrive.
The intoxicating smell of sun-warmed pine needles and smokey wood is the most vivid scent memory of the trip. As I rode, I would take deep inhalations and breathe the scent right into my lungs.
Sadly, the pine trees weren't quite this lush and fragrant for the rest of the trip. Our route took us through forests that had been decimated by the deadly wildfires of 2017, when 66 people were killed in June, and a further 45 in October.
The environment was damaged beyond belief, and much of the coastal landscape has changed forever. Our day three ride, from Mira to Figueira da Foz, cut through barren dunes, once home to towering trees, now just sand and ash. The next day, on our way to Sao Pedro de Moel, we rode through acres of charred forest — trunks standing black and lifeless, casting a ghostly beauty against the misty skies.
Exodus is supporting the regeneration of the forests, working with local schools and communities on replanting trees. Although the beauty of the area is not what it was before the fires, Paolo said it was vital tourists continued to visit, to sustain businesses and livelihoods, as well as spreading the burden away from already over-crowded Lisbon and Porto.
In fact, the entire tour had a strong connection with local communities.
Most lunchtimes, we enjoyed elaborate picnics prepared by Joao, who would drive ahead in with our luggage while Paolo would lead us by bike. We'd arrive at scenic rest stops to tables groaning with fresh salads, cheese, meat, fish, olives, melon, bread, juice… all bought from local producers.
At snack stops, Joao appeared with freshly baked pasteis de nata — Portugese custard tarts — still warm from a village bakery's oven.
Each night, our guides would give us restaurant recommendations, and each was a winner. In Salgaboca, a seafood restaurant in Mira, the fish was bought from a boat across the road earlier that day.
We let our waiter choose our meals for us and soon we were rhapsodising over the freshest sardines, cuttlefish salad, tuna pate, cornbread, calamari, clam risotto, boiled vegetables, grilled sea bass and grouper.
Even the wine was local, made from two varieties of red grapes and one white, from a vineyard 30km away.
We parked our bikes for the last time in the medieval village of Obidos, where a 12th-century castle stands imposingly on the hill. We'd come via surf town Nazare, where we marvelled over giant waves, then relaxed at a restaurant overlooking the almost-perfect circular bay of Sao Martinho do Porto. Though weary and sweaty — with more than 300km under our belts — no one wanted it to end.
The village was endlessly charming, with cobbled laneways and colourful cottages inside castle walls, but being among scores of tourists again was a shock. For days, we'd been surrounded mostly by locals — even the holidaymakers in the tiny beach towns were mainly Portuguese families on coastal getaways. It was strange to be suddenly among myriad nationalities, in a town popular as a day trip from Lisbon, 90 minutes' drive away.
In the morning we travelled to the capital ourselves, our last chance to explore it at our own pace. The group splintered and visited Lisbon's varied sights and delights on hop-on tour buses, trams and on foot.
I wasn't yet ready to give up my wheels, so I hired a bike and wove around the city's streets. There was no smell of pine needles but it was a perfect way to end.
Exodus Travels' eight-day Porto to Lisbon Atlantic Ride is priced from $2979pp, which includes all accommodation, breakfasts, a wine tasting and one dinner, local bike hire and a tour guide throughout.