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Portugal’s Alentejo might be the perfect place to escape to this winter

With cold weather on the way — many Canadians are thinking about where to go for a month or two to escape winter. But  no one wants overcrowded beaches, empty seasonal towns or the non-desired "mass tourism.” 

Everyone wants a place that is not crowded, has a mild winter climate, easy to get to, and has great lodging and things to do. Well, there is an emerging destination, one that is accessible with regular non-stop flights of several airlines from Toronto and Montréal - and easy connections from all major Canadian airports. The Alentejo, Portugal: Less than 1 hour from Lisbon Airport, or Faro Airport to the South. The Alentejo is exactly the type of destination that can offer peace, solace and safety, with a mild winter climate, open sandy beaches, vast rolling plains, great local cuisine and excellent wines. And, the price of an extended escape is quite affordable, too. Unlike some other countries now "accepting” visitors, mainland Portugal does not require a confinement/isolation period for new arrivals. And with non-stop service on TAP Portugal, Air Canada, Air Transat and Azores Airlines, there are lots of options.

From a distance, the Alentejo has everything you want; no major cities or crowded places, open miles of unique landscapes and miles of Atlantic beaches. Add to that mild winter temps, a few millennia of history and some of the best wines in Europe. The Alentejo is a mystical place of green plains, unexpected mountains, and the largest cork forests in Europe. This is a lightly populated region making up one-third of Portugal with open horizons where the rhythm of life flows like the rivers that frame it.  The picturesque Alentejo region is an hour's drive from Lisbon. Its boundary to the North is the Tejo River and, to the South, rolling plains dominate, then taper off into mountains to the East and into Portugal’s southernmost region, the Algarve. The Atlantic Ocean is the region’s western border.

Life moves at a different pace in the Alentejo. Days are sunny — but never dull. From the North of the Tejo to the very south of the Alentejo the diversity of landscapes and culture makes for a wide offering of adventures.  Look at it as Portugal’s "hidden treasure,” the Alentejo offers Roman and Moorish ruins, with medieval villages, white-washed towns and small fortified cities (such as Evora and Beja) with some of the most evocative natural scenery in Europe. The Alentejo’s Atlantic coastline combines rocky coves and cliffs with idyllic sandy beaches.

As for where to stay, the Alentejo is almost un-branded, with 99% of the hotels being locally owned, small, and service based. With lots of intimate small hotels, boutique hotels, rural inns, villas and bed and breakfasts, the Alentejo offers luxury, local flavor and intimate accommodations.

The road network is quite good, with traffic on the same side of the road as Canada. Getting there from the airport is fast and easy, and new motorways lead to smaller rural roads that link small towns with rolling countryside. And the rail links from both Lisbon and Faro, with service on CP Portuguese Railways.

The Alentejo is also one of the country’s finest wine regions. In recent years, local winemakers have ushered in modern advancements in the wine industry, earning international acclaim for its full-bodied, fruity reds and light, and crisp whites. The rolling plains are dotted with agricultural estates, where the hot summers and mild winters help to create flavorful grapes that transfer into characteristically ripe and complex wines. Vast wine estates, olive groves, or a white and blue house on a hill occasionally interrupts these ancient forests, which have produced cork for millennia. After the cork bark is harvested, the cork oaks light up the landscape with their red hues, a sign of a renewable bark. 

The Costa Vincentina offers up wildly beautiful beaches. Nestling between bluffs and stretching out to form vast expanses of sand that are perfect for long walks, these beaches are the ideal place for enjoying complete rest and relaxation. Cyclists can traverse the beach trails, stopping at little fishing villages and working their way toward a rest under the sea cliffs or the umbrella-like pine trees that shelter some parts of the Alentejo’s coast. While crossing the Alentejo, you might pedal or hike past a grove of olive trees or a field of sunflowers. You might find shade within one of the many cork forests. You might stop to snack on pata negra cured ham and some locally sourced goat cheese. You might ride or hike the region’s coastline trails or test your muscles by venturing into the mountains along the Spanish border.

Its endless landscapes are rich in reminders of its past. From prehistory there are countless Dolmens, Menhirs, and burial mounds. Impressive Roman relics are everywhere, from the still-standing temple at Évora to a mostly intact Roman villa at São Cucufate. While the Alentejo flourished under centuries of Roman rule, it thrived in the 400 years that the Arabs held it. They left behind cultural and architectural ties, a Mosque at Mértola, and legends.

These are just a few of the wonders of the Alentejo - the perfect winter escape for Canadians.

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