Why Portugal Travel Is About to Come of Age

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Long regarded as an add-on to Spain, Portugal has come into its own. 

“Portugal has completely taken off. People used to ask if there is anything to do besides Lisbon. They aren’t saying that anymore,” Joel Zack, president of Heritage Tours Private Travel, tells Travel Agent

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Virginia Irurita holds a similar opinion. Based in Madrid, she is founder and co-owner of Made for Spain. She tells Travel Agent that her company will begin offering Portugal in addition to Spain. 

“The more I go to Portugal ⎯ and I go every month ⎯ the more I realize it’s important to offer it to clients,” Irurita tells Travel Agent. 

Agents should realize that pre-existing notions about Portugal are not always accurate, she added.

“Take the Algarve. Everyone thinks it has been over-run by the British. It’s true that it’s full of resorts that cater to the British. But I have also found amazing boutique hotels with 20 rooms. We don’t have that on the Costa del Sol,” said Irurita. 

Portugal, adds Zack, “is coming alive lately.”

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He cites hotels such as Six Senses (opened this year in the Douro Valley) and the Aman Resort slated for the Alentejo.

In addition to trendy boutiques, established luxury brands are expanding their presence in Lisbon and elsewhere. The InterContinental Hotels Group, for example, has introduced properties in Estoril and Porto. That follows the opening of InterContinental Lisbon earlier this year. The former Le Meridien and Tiara Park Atlantic first underwent an extensive refurbishment to the lobby and public rooms. 

Lisbon in particular is perceived as a cutting-edge center of design and architecture, said Zack. That’s always a harbinger of enhanced tourist interest. 

“We were just contacted by a highly prominent group of architects and designers that want to have their next meeting in Lisbon. Their last meeting was in Berlin. They voted and Portugal won by a huge margin. There’s a huge shopping and design scene in Portugal. It’s really putting itself on the map,” said Zack.

The country’s reputation as a wine destination is also evolving. 

“Ten years ago, Portugal was thought of only for port. But that’s really changed. The red wines coming out of the Douro as well as the Alentejo region are improving. We’re getting a better selection of them here in the states. The wines offer a lot of bang for the buck,” said Zack.

He typically recommends clients book a car and driver in order to make the best of their Portugal visit.

“I really encourage clients to get to know the country. If you give me a week in Portugal I can give you a diverse experience. You’re not really seeing it if you only do Lisbon,” said Zack.

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River cruising, of course, is another draw. 

In addition to river cruise lines such as Uniworld, Viking, AmaWaterways and Scenic, tour operators are entering the market as well. They’re introducing new collaborations for 2016. For example, Backroads will team up with AmaWaterways to launch a new active river cruise program on the Douro River

“We run it like our other Backroads trips. We have leaders that live aboard with the guests and other leaders that take guests out on bike trips,” Backroads Spokesperson Liz Einbinder tells Travel Agent. 

Avanti Destinations has also added Douro River cruises for 2016 in partnership with CroisiEurope

Although Douro river cruises are seasonal (spring through fall), Portugal also appeals in the winter. The weather remains moderate in most areas other than the Douro. Clients visiting during the holidays can enjoy Christmas Eve bonfires, known as madeiros. 

Zack also recommends the town of Obidos in central Portugal. For the entire month of December, it becomes “Vila Natal,” a Christmas village complete with a market, ice rink and entertainment. 

“It’s the best Christmas fair I’ve ever seen anywhere. Obidos is a tiny gem of a town. But the fair is huge, and it gets a lot of visitors,” said Zack. 

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