If UNESCO’s server is ever hacked and they lose the records of all of their designated Biosphere Reserves they can call Brunette and she won’t be very far into the alphabet before she says “Berlengas”.
If we were going to a desert Brunette would be trying to find a UNESCO oasis where we could snorkel. So when we began planning our trip to Portugal she lasered in on a new tour offered by Viator. It was a private (there’s also a small group version) excursion from Lisbon to the Berlengas. The description included the magical word “snorkel”.
And so it would be.
Portugal boasts 300 days of sunshine a year and we believe them but the day of our tour was one of the 65 where the sun doesn’t appear.
The trip had already been rescheduled once due to high seas that were making the 45 minute ferry ride too rough so we weren’t sure what to expect. We’re both believers in those sea-sickness preventing wristbands so put ours on and ventured (sea sickness-free) forth.
Our guide, Raquel, picked us up at our hotel and probably broke the heart of the doorman when she drove away. It was about an hour’s drive to Peniche where we caught the ferry to the Berlengas. We were warned that the wind across the water might make for a chilly journey so willingly accepted the one-size-fits-no-one fashion attire provided by the ferry company.
Accommodations in the Berlengas Islands
When we reached the island we were surprised to see a collection of small houses high up on the cliffs. Raquel told us these houses (suitable for summer living only) are assigned to area fishermen and are quite sought after. Some people have been accused of using them as summer homes and not as lodging for fishing season resulting in more than one snit fit.
The only other lodging options on the island are camping in tents or renting a room and doing chores in the old fort. We did not apply to be considered for any of the options.
Abridged history of the Berlengas Islands
The Berlengas Islands are said to have had human occupation as early as 1 millennium B.C. but it’s hardly a hospitable terrain. That might have a lot to do with there being a collection of shipwrecks throughout the archipelago. This is a place many divers have on their Bucket Lists or their I Hope I Don’t Get the Bends and Die lists.
It’s quite a hike along the ridge of Grande Berlenga where we did all of our walking. It’s a rocky but fairly good path and gradual.
There were quite a few gulls with chicks along the route and they were not all happy to see us in their neighborhood. The return journey was by boat.
Like many old islands this one has had quite a few lives. One of its earliest was as an important point for navigators crossing from Northern to Southern Europe. In the 16th century, a Hieronymites monastery was built where the restaurant now stands. The Hieronymites were hermit monks and settled on Grande Berlenga to provide religious teachings to ship crews. No word on how welcome this was but let’s just say they’ve been gone for a very long time. (This was most likely due to lots of pirate raids and no women on the island to hold bake sales to do fundraising.)
Next the Portuguese king constructed a fort as part of his naval defense strategy. Before it had even officially opened for business it kicked the butts of three Turkish ships that attempted to invade. And, even more gratifyingly to the Portuguese, they managed to fend off 15 Spanish ships as well as take out 400 men who had invaded by land. The Spaniards had 100s of men and there were only two dozen from Portugal.
We wouldn’t believe this in a movie or book but apparently it’s well documented so who are we to question? The Portuguese had cannons and a fort which the Spanish did not so that could very well explain it (at least enough for us).
It turned out that we didn’t snorkel as the weather was a bit chilly and the idea of getting wet had lost its allure. There is a very pretty little beach where you can venture out to snorkel and a few hardier souls were doing that by early afternoon.
We enjoyed walking around the old fort and the view from the roof where Raquel led us like two aging Nancy Drews.
Volunteers who maintain the park and scientists can get permission to stay in the very modest rooms. (We’re talking Port-a-Potty and no wi-fi.)
Rock formations of the Berlengas Islands
The boat ride to return us to the original ferry landing was interesting as the driver took us into a couple of the sea caves. The geology was fascinating; you could basically see where the continent had shifted and broken (not recently).
The main island, Grande Berlenga, is a gigantic granite rock. On the very top it has a flat surface formed during the last Ice Age. The Berlengas are regarded by the “scientific community as having the world’s best record of the transition from the ‘Pliensbachian’ age to the ‘Toarcian’ age in the early Jurassic, about 183 million years ago”. But then you knew that.
Dining on Grande Berlenga
More importantly there is an excellent restaurant on Grande Berlenga ! Good thing it’s excellent as it’s the only place there is to get something to eat. Because of that we had low expectations but it was one of the best meals we had in our two weeks in Portugal. (If you go there be forewarned that they do not accept any credit cards.)
We had to personally select our fish which always has a certain ick factor. When served it was so fresh and simply prepared on the grill that we didn’t care that we had recently made its acquaintance.
Returning to Peniche from the Berlengas Islands
The ride back was on smooth seas and with a flirtatious ship captain who wanted to share his port with us in tiny plastic cups. He didn’t speak any English but clearly enjoyed age-appropriate women, port, the sea and the thumbs up gesture. What more can you really hope for in a man?
Raquel was nice enough to take us on a quick side journey to see a local town, Baleal, known for its surfing – although there wasn’t any impressive wave action that day.
It was a Bank Holiday (Our Lady of the Assumption?) so traffic was light and we were back in Lisbon within an hour.
The outing had been a really enjoyable way to get out of the city for a day and experience nature without having to decamp from our 5 star hotel or arrange any of the logistics
And that’s how we prefer our nature outings.
Disclosure: Viator was generous enough to give us this trip for free. If they hadn’t we probably just would have said “it was interesting” instead of going to all the trouble of telling you the history, etc.