PADDLING IN PORTUGAL
Its 6 o’clock in the evening, it’s the middle of winter and I’m sat here under a palm tree drinking cocktails with names I can’t pronounce. I’m here in Alvor, a traditional Portuguese fishing village relatively new to tourism but already home to a selection of excellent restaurants and most importantly, a canoe outfitters.
My day started really early (for me) at 9.30am, when I met Frank who runs ‘Outdoor Tours’outfitters on the promenade. There I was in my bikini top and flip flops all excited for the day ahead and here was Frank all wrapped up in his big fleece, jumper and long trousers. My attire obviously amused him and seemingly caught the attention of the local fishermen who waved and smiled as they walked past with their big lobster pots and fishing nets.
The little village of Alvor has its own natural lagoon filled with fishing and leisure boats, which opens out onto the Atlantic Ocean. Further along there are long open beaches and a number of small coves tucked under the cliffs. We decided to launch off one of the beautiful golden beaches where the surf was a little intimidating, but Frank assured me was fine. I was feeling a little chilly, especially when the sun disappeared behind a large cloud, so on went my cag and trousers and the idea of a suntan disappeared.
I sat there in my boat, as Frank, up to his waist in water, braved the waves to push me out to sea. It was fantastic. I had never been out in such big surf before. It gave me an incredible buzz being amongst it all but I have to admit feeling happier when we left the white frothy stuff behind. The swell became larger but smoother the further out we went, which made it a nice easy paddle and I even braved getting my camera out. The rock formations all along the coast were like nothing I had seen before. Colossal pyramid shaped rocks pushing their way out of the crystal clear waters. The cliffs seemed to radiate a warm orange glow from the suns rays and then there, in the distance a school of dolphins. I could have watched them all day but it was now lunch time and time to head to shore.
Back towards the white frothy stuff again, I really wasn’t looking forward to this bit at all. I had managed to stay dry all morning and even though the sun was now out, I didn’t want to get wet. Frank smiled as I expressed my concern, he said “it’d be fine” with glint in his eye. I tentatively paddled towards the shore with worried glances behind waiting for that inevitable wave to get me and then it came. I went higher and higher as this wave grew and grew. It got faster and faster and then, just for one second….. I was surfing. I was on the crest of a wave and it felt great. I wanted this feeling to go on and on, it was awesome. I turned my head to see if Frank was watching. Then, “Ouch” the next thing I new, my boat was being twisted round, flipped up, turned over and hurled towards the beach. I was under the water having being hit on the head by my paddle. I tried to stand up only to be knocked down by the next wave. I tried again, this time I got to my feet, had chance to take a breath just before another huge wave came and wiped me out again. It took several attempts and a good trashing from the sea before I finally managed to crawl ashore. After a few minutes reflection on the beach, I couldn’t decide if that had been the best few seconds of my life or worst, either way it was lunch time and off we went.
The food in Alvor is marvellous. Last night I had the most delicious Vegi Korma I’ve ever tasted at the ‘Indan Hut 2’ just off the promenade (sorry, but it was so good, it had to get a mention).
For lunch we chose the Windsurfers café situated on the beach. It had stunning views and served the most perfectly presented pancakes I’ve ever seen. The freshly caught Sardine’s in a toastie were out of this world too according the others. As we ate and watched the kite surfers playing on the waves, we discussed our plans for the afternoon. Frank had been booked by some other clients so I decided to hire one of his open boats and potter around the harbour and up the Estuary for a few hours on my own. It turned out to be a great decision. I picked up the canoe from the harbour and paddled my way carefully through the criss-cross of shore lines appearing in every direction from beneath the beautifully painted fishing boats. The tide was still coming in and the canoe was a little harder to paddle than my lovely Prospector back home, so it was a bit of a hack to get out onto the estuary, but it was worth it. As I paddled along I saw some remarkable birds like the Spoonbill which are so unusual they look like cartoon characters. Further along I saw a turtle as he swam straight past me totally oblivious to my presence. About 1km further on I stopped on a small beach. I had seen what looked like an old canoe beached up but on closer inspection it was some sort of homemade catamaran. As I sat there wondering who had built it and if it would still float, I noticed two caves in the cliffs above the beach. There were clothes and cooking implements scattered all around. Someone was actually living there and by the looks of it had done so for a very long time. This was probably his boat I was sat on. I really wanted to find out more but I didn’t want to intrude and time was getting on, so I got back in my boat and gently paddled back towards the village. The scenery was so stunning and so tranquil that I almost didn’t notice the 50 or so Flamingos (Yes Flamingos) that had landed ahead and blocked my way back to the harbour. What an amazing sight and so close too, only thing was, I didn’t know what to do. I needed to get back to the harbour before dark and the sun was already starting to set. There I was with 50 pink, (well more a dirty whitish colour really) large, imposing and very long beaked birds in front of me. It’s not a scenario that’s ever come up in any paddling books I’ve read. So I decided the safest option was to just drift through. I crouched down as low as I could whilst still being able to peek over the side and hoped the tide would do the rest. Being so close to so many exotic creatures, not knowing if they would attack or ignore me was absolutely mind-blowing. As I got closer the flock seemed to move from side to side, then just like gates magically opening, they separated and there in front of me lay a clear way through the entire flock. As I drifted through, too scared to even breathe I imagined what this must look like from the shore and hoped someone somewhere would have their camcorder out and were capturing this moment.
Now here I am sat back on the shore drinking my cocktail. I’m watching the last rays of sunshine disappear behind the palm trees and beneath the sea. I think a trip back in the summer is definitely in my plans, with temperatures in the high 20’s and best of all, water that is lovely and warm.
I can’t promise the Flamingos or the Turtles but if you’re after a great day out paddling around some of Europe’s most spectacular coastline then Alvor is a great place to start.
More details : http://www.outdoor-tours.net/english_version.htm