The first time I went to Portugal I was 16 and on my first holiday with friends; giddy at the prospect of having no adults around, we spent the week lying by the pool, getting horrifically sunburnt and drinking strawberry vodka lemonades (we thought we were the height of sophistication). Needless to say, I did not leave with much of an appreciation for the country beyond the fact that the drinking age was significantly lower than in the rest of Europe and felt, like many Brits, that there was little more to Portugal than golf courses and piri piri chicken. How very wrong I was and, having spent a week travelling the country from top to bottom, I'd like to debunk several of the myths that have rather unfairly attached themselves to Portugal.
Portuguese food is a bit rubbish
This can actually be true of anywhere if you go to the wrong places, and whilst I admit Portuguese chefs could chill out a bit with the salted cod, I also ate incredibly well throughout my trip. You can't really beat a plate of grilled octopus - so fresh that it practically waved you good morning - eaten in a shack restaurant on the beach with hunks of crusty bread dipped in golden olive oil for less than you'd pay for a cup of coffee in London. There are also roughly half as many custard tarts left in the country as when I arrived and I can only blame this on the fact that they make the most perfect mid-morning, mid-afternoon and midnight snack imaginable….
With good food you need good wine and luckily Portugal's got you covered for that too, although it's probably best not to listen to one vineyard owner who claims that you're still safe to drive after 'three or four' glasses of wine.
Portuguese beaches aren’t a patch on those in the Med
Yes, being on the Atlantic means that you need to be slightly braver when you strip off for a swim but if you like your beaches a little on the wild side, with miles of untouched golden sand and nary a sunburnt Brit in sight, then Comporta is the place for you. Only an hour or so outside Lisbon, the peninsula has thus far been protected from developers but go there now before this changes and you'll enjoy some of the best beaches outside of the Caribbean pretty much to yourself.
Everything south of Lisbon is basically one big golf course
Perhaps the most persistent myth about Portugal is that it consists of Lisbon and then a sprawling mess of high rise hotels and driving ranges known as the Algarve, but this is probably the most nefarious of the lot. The rolling hills and olive trees of the Alentejo mean that it can more than hold its head up when being compared to Tuscany or Provence and is littered with World Heritage Sites and menhirs that predate anything we have in the UK. Most of these stone circles are reached by bumping along dirt tracks for 20 minutes or so, adding a layer of mysticism and adventure that is distinctly lacking when you drive along the A303 to gawp at the infinitely more famous Stonehenge (although it isn't that fun explaining to Europcar why you thought it might be a good idea to go off-roading in a Punto).
Even when I was in the Algarve I actually saw more wild pigs (4 - we shared a picnic in the forest and I felt like I was in a Disney film) than golf courses (1 - and it was part of the hotel so does it really count?). The coastline around Sagres in particular is stunning with the rugged clifftops of the national park petering out into beaches that offer some of the best surfing in Europe.
Portuguese hotels are pretty underwhelming
I don't know if anyone actually does think this but I couldn't come up with a neat reason to rave about the hotels, so forgive me. The Yeatman is reason to visit the northern town of Porto alone (drinking a barrel-load of port is a fairly good back-up though) and the prospect of the new Six Senses opening in the Douro Valley in July has us all counting down the days until summer.
It would be nearly impossible for Storfjord in Norway to topple from its position as my favourite hotel in the world, but two of our Portuguese hotels give it a damn good shaking. Areias do Seixo is one of the coolest places I've ever been allowed into in my life and I want to emigrate and live on the Malhadinha Nova estate.
So please give Portugal a chance and if you come back not having had an incredible time, then the strawberry vodka lemonades are on me.