In Search of Surf in Portugal

Much of surf culture suggests a laid back attitude is good for the soul, and whilst I happily embrace that philosophy, a teeny part of me tends to pull in the opposite direction. I suggested reading up on Portugal and I tried to book up a few things ahead of the trip, but at each juncture my travelling companion told me to chill. Go with the flow. Who knows what adventures may come from not planning? So began the not so stress free surf adventure of the Easter break.

How not to get from Porto to Peniche

‘There no train to Peniche’, announced the woman at the ticketing office. I was in a room off to the side of the grandiose main hall in the Porto’s central train station and it was far too early for the first day of a holiday.

Having spent a sociable night in the Oporto Poets Hostel cooking spaghetti for a professional gambler, a career gapper and an array of various travellers from Sweden and Italy, we now wanted to be on our way to the legendary waves of Peniche. I had managed to do some minimal reading in preparation – Stormrider stuff – and already the gaps in my knowledge were causing me to grumble with frustration. I had got over the fact that it was now not going to be financially viable to hire a car. Even the struggle of marching up the steep hills of Porto laden with surfboards and rucksacks in the search for a bed had seemed somewhat of a fun challenge.

But now no train to Peniche? Damn it. I wish I’d stuck by my guns and gone with a guidebook.

As it turned out, a train did go to Peniche, or so our tickets said. Yes, it involved a few changes, and yes, I realised as we got get off and fellow passengers peered out at our strange choice of drop-off, it was going to be yet another challenge. We watched the train disappear, critically aware that we were in very rural surroundings with no sea or destination town in sight. Across the road from the primitive platform, two middle aged men were sitting on wooden chairs catching the last warm rays of the day.

‘Peniche?’ I asked them hopefully.

‘Peniche’, the older of the two said, pointing down the street. They chuckled as we started to walk with our luggage. Fifteen kilometres, they reckoned, at least that’s the information I had managed to extract using pigeon Spanish and wild gesturing.

Fifteen kilometres was doable. We were young, fit and despite a heavy load that saw us ready for pretty much every potential European situation, walking was a fine option. We stuck our thumbs out and trudged along.

I started to have some doubts about the distance advice when a couple of hours later we were still walking and not getting anywhere closer to anything resembling the coast.

Maybe it was the Spanish? I shouldn’t have spoken in Spanish; I had been warned how the Portuguese hate the presumption that they’ll understand their neighbour language.

Cars were driving past with no indication of slowing and offering us a lift and I contemplated setting up camp as dusk made a rapid arrival. When we did eventually reach a petrol station, the dark and cold finally got the better of us and we dialled for help.

Twenty five kilometres and a half hour taxi drive later we arrived in Peniche, the outskirts of which were completely deserted. Having learnt my lesson the previous day I had booked a room for the night in what turned out to be less of a hostel and more of a posh apartment bunked up for travelling parties and couples.

A group of Irish surfers were spending their last night on the beers and told us the surf had been pretty flat. ‘It’s due a change’ they assured us.

Peniche is a small fishing port town, boasting some excellent seafood and a choice of surf spots on both the northern and southern sides of the peninsula. The town has a strange relationship between the old part, which is full of quirkiness and character, and the new areas that feel sparse, uniform and bare, but to its credit there are good paths that lead you past a pretty football stadium and pungent fish factories towards the long empty beaches south east of the town.

In search of surf at Supertubos

‘The surf is never flat for more than a week, said João, our host at Peniche Beach House in well practiced English, so we set off on foot for Supertubos.

Stormrider and many reviews refer to Supertubos as one of the best beach breaks in Europe, but on that day it just didn’t deliver. Often photographed to show double overhead, powerful left handers, the waves of that moment represented small time fun for playful bodyboarders, dumping merrily onto the shoreline.

Although this was April and Peniche usually picked up reasonable to good swell, our bad luck was set to continue for the week.

‘Next week it will pick up’, assured João, but next week we would be back at work. We didn’t have the luxury of waiting.

Baleal Sul on the northern neck of the land became our playground for the remainder of the week. Locals must have used the drop in swell to take time out of surfing and catch up on day to day life as the waves were undeniably empty and small.

The local guide to exploring Peniche

With no new visitors to Peniche Beach House we had the apartment to ourselves and spent time out of the water relaxing or exploring the town and its surroundings. With business fairly quiet at Peniche Kite & Surf Center, João volunteered to show us a little of his hometown and educate us in Portuguese ways.

He drove us around the peninsula perimeter, outlined how hitchhiking was a no go and cheerily told us about the direct bus back to Porto.  Taking us to a little ruin on the point, João gave us the week’s news on a cocaine dump that had the police on lookout for packages turning up along the coastline.

On our last night João dropped us at a local seafood place ran by a friendly Portuguese woman whose time spent in New York was evident in her accent and no nonsense attitude. More of a café than a restaurant and sporting plastic covered tables, this place could easily be overlooked by the blinkered tourist looking for a sophisticated eat.

The thought of shellfish had for years turned my stomach but I wanted to pressure my taste buds and experience local cuisine so I ordered a crustacean and mollusc feast. So long as I didn’t examine the squelchy, soft flesh too closely, I found the food to be highly tasty and moreish and accepted that I was probably now a seafood convert. A complimentary short of ginja and plentiful conversation with our hostess finished off the evening nicely. With a full belly and a bit of a head spin, I was ready to go.

Walking back to the hostel along eerily quiet streets through Peniche old town, I pondered what was lacking, other than the waves, but failed to find conclusion.

Lessons and accepting the surf conditions

In the autumn of 2009 The Rip Curl Pro Search took place in Peniche as one stop of the ASP World Tour, and the waves this time supplied the goods. More guesthouses and hostels have since joined the growing surf tourism industry in the area, as have ample accounts of epic surfing conditions at Supertubos and surrounding breaks.

Being disorganised, and more importantly the absence of a vehicle had limited our coastline exploration, but I realised no amount of planning would have changed the state of the waves that week.

I learnt a number of things this trip, including that hitchhiking is a no go in Portugal and that guidebooks aren’t all bad, but the most valuable lessons I learnt?

Dream up the trip, get somewhat prepared and hope and pray for surf. It’s as simple as that, really.


This is an article I wrote following a trip to Portugal in April 2008. Full disclosure: I’m a forever beginner surfer, so Supertubos going off would have been no good for me. But my ex (who I travelled with) is a great surfer and so the no-surf suffering in this article is mostly his. 

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Filed under activity & sport, europe, portugal, surf, travel

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