Their floors coated in sand, the forests of cork and pine that cloak the Troia peninsula, just an hour south of Lisbon, are a good place to hide. Especially if you are a designer or celebrity seeking seclusion. The stretch of coast at Comporta, in particular, is quietly developing a reputation as Portugal’s most chic resort.
In recent years, this rice-farming village has found favour as a discreet escape for the likes of Christian Louboutin and Philippe Starck, who both have homes nearby, and Madonna.
Fortunately, the arrival of those high-profile visitors doesn’t seem to have altered Comporta’s character. The low-key village is plain rather than pretty, but it has a setting unlike anywhere else.
Set on a fertile strip of the Alentejo coast, its single-storey houses (occasionally thatched) sit alongside a patchwork of bright green rice paddies that give way to miles of sand dunes and powerful surf. The surrounding area is cloaked by swathes of sweet-smelling pine and cork forests that mask beautiful, modernist glass villas, many built on stilts above the sand and some available to hire (see below).
Travellers looking to escape for a few days to one of Comporta’s villas can expect to find tranquillity by the bucket-load; splendid food in a few modest beach shacks; caipirinhas served on the sand to barefoot drinkers; and dusty lanes that reveal tiny boutiques selling hand-loomed kaftans and hip home furnishings.
Sunset at Palafito Pier of Carrasqueira Natural Reserve CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
The biggest draw, however, is the region’s 12km-long strip of beaches. Piled high with fine golden sand, they are some of the most pristine and wildly beautiful in Europe. Comporta’s strict planning laws help keep the place special, and what measured development there is, is built away from the village and dunes.
Families will feel fully at ease here – my toddler played for hours along the spotless shore – and there’s a botanical reserve up the road, protecting a river estuary that is home to scattered dune flowers and solitary fishermen huts.
Comporta has been compared to Ibiza as it was before the crowds arrived, but there are no clubs and only one sand-in-your-toes beach bar. It has also been likened to an undiscovered St Tropez, but the comparison jars with the village’s unshowy, back-to-nature vibe.
Instead, its bohemian spirit, bossanova soundtrack and wave-pounded beaches make me wonder if this is what Brazil’s Buzios was like before the arrival of Brigitte Bardot.
Towards the dunes of Comporta CREDIT: RUI REBELO
Where to stay and what to do in Comporta
Where to stay
Despite Comporta’s laid back, unpretentious atmosphere, the glimmer of an immense villa here and there among the trees indicates just what an exclusive area this can be.
A few minutes’ walk from Pego beach is Casa da Comporta (from €2,950 a week), a smartly designed space of smooth concrete walls and floor-to-ceiling glass, filled with African masks and driftwood furniture, and crowned with a long rooftop pool, day beds and private terraces.
Casa da Comporta
Even more striking is 3 Bicas (from €7,000 a week). Glass atriums rise from the forest floor in a triple-height cube-shape, above a wrap-around deck that looks out onto endless pines. It is more remote, found down a wooded track about 20 minutes’ drive from Comporta, and benefits from grounds that feature a capacious heated pool that is flanked by four-poster day beds.
If you’d rather check into a hotel, Sublime Comporta is the only true luxury option in the area. A 15-minute drive from Comporta, it has a good restaurant but service was hit and miss when we visited. It offers villa-type rooms, some of which are currently being constructed, surrounded by pine and eucalyptus trees.
Where to eat
Comporta’s oldest restaurant is the Museu do Arroz, located in a former grain store on the edge of the rice fields. If visiting in the evening, be sure to have a pre-dinner cocktail outside, where you can watch the storks flying home while the sun streaks the sky red.
Next door is a museum that tells Comporta’s rice-farming history. Rice dishes are understandably a staple here, and rice stews are ubiquitous, cooked with delicate razor clams or monkfish and shrimp. Nearby and also housed in a grain store – this one dating back to 1742 — is Herdade da Comporta.
Ilha do Arroz
Sunsets are stupendous in this part of the world. Locals rush to the beach to witness them and they are a great excuse to dine out by the sea. The three beaches closest to Comporta have one or two restaurants apiece sitting on boardwalks in the dunes above them — and that’s it.
On Comporta beach is Comporta Cafe, a rustic lounge bar with a row of white cabanas, that has DJs spinning house music at sunset and is an unhurried place for a cocktail or a plate of seafood. The other building here is the beach shack restaurant Ilha do Arroz, a sister to Museu do Arroz. With big windows and a varied menu, this is a more sophisticated spot for lunch or dinner, though it is still fairly informal.
On Carvalhal beach, which has a small surf school, Restaurante dos Pescadores is the place to go for fish and seafood, while Sal, on Pego beach, offers fried fish and hamburgers among the dunes.
The best restaurant in town is not much to look at — though the packed car park gives its reputation away. Fine dining it is not, but Restaurante Dona Bia is a traditional roadside restaurant location where booking is essential. Delicious Alentejo dishes of rabbit and mushrooms, seafood with coriander rice, and Iberican pork with clams are served in huge portions.
Where to shop
Even Comporta’s village shop holds surprises. Called Gomes, it appears to be a regular small-town general store but, step inside, and you can immediately see why it has been light-heartedly compared to Harrods’ food hall.
It is packed with gourmet goods, with an upmarket deli, condiments and spices for every style of international cooking and almost an entire wall devoted to artisanal tinned sardines in pretty boxes.
Herdade da Comporta CREDIT: HERDADE DA COMPORTA
Afternoons are the perfect time for browsing Comporta’s boutiques. You might have to step over the owner’s jack russells to get inside Loja do Museu do Arroz, but its shelves are artfully dressed with Capulette slippers from Paris, beach mats, hippy kaftans from Australian label The White Raven and Berber-style frocks.
Just along from here, Vintage Department offers an eclectic range of furniture and upcycled lighting, while Manumaya sports central American textiles and bags, and Briffa stocks Retromarine swim trunks, leather sandals and silk shirt-dresses. Coral Comporta, meanwhile, is where to pick up smaller souvenirs in the shape of tropical-coloured cushions and stylish pottery.
What to do
Be aware that there is one downside to Comporta living — the prevalence of flies and mosquitos. Be sure to pack repellent. But this is a small price to pay for time spent in such a magical destination.
Local yoga teacher Tomas Mello Breyner tells me: “Comporta is a piece of art made by Mother Nature.” His yoga school is certainly scenically set, standing in an open-sided lodge, or shala, in the middle of a rice field. Group classes run each morning, except Mondays, between June and September, while other classes in vinyasa and hatha-style yoga can be arranged privately.
Horse lovers can explore the rice paddies too, ending with a gallop along a quiet beach. Local stables Cavalos Na Areia arranges rides.
It is predominantly these simple, natural pleasures — sitting among dunes that you have all to yourself or gazing up at branches enveloped by a cobalt-blue sky — that make visitors leave Comporta convinced they have uncovered a glorious secret. And perhaps they have.