Europe’s hidden gem by Ann Abel | 31st August, 2018 | Travel
Europe’s hidden gem For years, the untamed stretch of Portuguese coast known as COMPORTA was a well-kept secret. Here, south of Lisbon, the air is scented with pine, the houses are thatched and the paths are sandy. Storks and flamingos live undisturbed alongside fishermen and farmers. These days, they are joined by creatives from the capital and lots of people with famous names.
There are a handful of places that defy certain rules of economics: the Hamptons in the ’70s, St. Barts in the ’80s, José Ignacio and Trancoso in the early 2000s. These are places where people who have a great deal of wealth go to spend a few days as if they had none at all. Where boldface names trade their Berlutis for Havianas and sit drinking cheap, local beer with weathered old fishermen. Where everyone gets to be themselves, forgets about being “on” and stops being a socialite. Where everyone takes off the mask.
The next of these places is Comporta, a cluster of coastal Portuguese villages spread out over an area of more than 30,000 acres about a one and a half hour’s drive from Lisbon. “The Hamptons of wherever” has long been lazy shorthand, but Comporta is a favored weekend getaway for Lisbon’s elite, a well as other in-the-know Europeans. Christian Louboutin, Jacques Grange, Philippe Starck and Anselm Kiefer are among those who own homes here – many of them in the traditional “Comporta cabana” style, with small footprints and thatched roofs and walls. But not on the 7.5 miles of pristine white beach, on which nothing can be built and which is one of Europe’s most beautiful. Now Americans are also starting to take note.
For now, there’s no glitz. Even the biggest village, also called Comporta, looks like any other southern Portuguese town, with lime-washed white buildings with bright blue trim and terra-cotta roofs, thatched little houses, and narrow streets and small squares dotted with red café umbrellas advertising Sagres beer. That is, until you go inside. There are several shops selling beautiful, locally made scarves for €200 and hippie-chic dresses for €800. The unassuming minimercado is stocked with caviar, pink Himalayan salt, imported cheese and French Champagne. Until a few years ago, the only way into Comporta was to have the right friends or to rent a private villa. There’s still just one hotel, and thankfully, it’s one that’s sublimely comfortable. That one isn’t just a lazy adverb. Sublime Comporta, which opened in 2014, is a retreat on a 42-acre swath of land that lives up to its name. Once the private estate of a prominent Portuguese family, Sublime Comporta has 34 rooms and suites spread out across several building, a main house and a handful of private cabana villas with private pools and a central lodge that serves as a gathering place, designer boutique, reception area and bar – its glass windows inscribed with quotes from Winston Churchill, Mark Twain and Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa about the pleasures of wine. But most of the land remains rugged, grounds for gnarled cork trees, pines and unmanicured wildflowers. The interiors likewise emphasize the outdoors, with natural materials, understated tones and floor-toceiling windows. Designed by José Alberto Charrua and Miguel Câncio Martins (known for the Buddha Bar and the Man Ray in Paris), the public spaces and guest rooms don’t have a lot of flash, but they want for nothing. There are more, bigger villas, with two to five bedrooms, in the works.
One of the joys of Comporta is the (lack of) dining scene. People invite new friends into their homes in the evening. That’s not so easy for hotel guests, so Sublime Comporta just updated its restaurant, called Sem Porta (without a door), in collaboration with a hotshot chef. The menu is long and varied. They’ve also planted a 16,000-square-foot organic garden with more than 300 varieties of herbs and vegetables. They’ll be taking that other cliché, “garden to table,” seriously, with private dinners among the plots. The hotel also just finished a major upgrade of its spa and is amping up its wellness programming. Still, you don’t go to a place like Comporta to hole up in a hotel. Along with those endless beaches, the area brims with the beauty of the Alentejo: cork trees, vineyards, gleaming-green rice fields and every so often a stork’s nest. Driving is fine, but a better to way to explore is on horseback, on a ride organized by Cavalos na Areia over tree-covered hills, past rice paddies and over sand dunes, and finally along the beach. The company owner was so friendly that when my friend asked about buying his weathered gaucho hat (indeed from Argentina), he insisted he just take it for free. My horse had some spunk, but I didn’t quite work up an appetite with my trotting. I still went for a beach lunch afterward, as you do in Comporta. At Sal restaurant in Praia do Pego, the staff brought out a parade of perfectly simple dishes – terrific octopus salad, the lightest calamari I’ve ever had – and excellent local rosé. Apparently there were some celebrities nearby. Feet in the sand and fingers messy, everyone’s mask had been tossed aside ages ago.