On the crest of a wave: Portugal’s new eco holiday retreat

Rows of bungalows on stilts are stacked up a slope. Some are painted a pale terracotta colour; others are clad in wood. Sliding glass doors open onto balconies that overlook a wide, sandy beach. Clumps of grass sprout from the bungalows’ flat roofs. Spotlit in the early evening light, the geometric buildings of Noah Surf House are as incongruous as they are striking, as if someone has airlifted a Californian beach resort and accidentally placed it in an unremarkable Portuguese town.

The Portuguese coast is dotted with surf hostels and hotels, many of them between Lisbon and Figueira da Foz, a 300km stretch of shore that draws everyone from world record-breaking big wave riders to beginners dipping their toes in the sport for the first time. In the middle of this surf mecca is the little town of Santa Cruz, a summer escape for Lisbonites – it’s often a good few degrees cooler than the city – but usually bypassed by foreign visitors, who make a beeline for the surf towns of Ericeira to the south and Peniche to the north.

Lacking the cobbled-street charm, food and drink scene and chic boutiques found in the more famous surf towns, Santa Cruz seems an odd choice of location for a designer surf hotel. Yet Noah Surf House became an instant hit when it opened here in July last year, particularly among families in search of an active beach holiday. It’s also a prime example of the government’s new tourism strategy.

“Our goal is to spread tourism all over the country and all through the year,” secretary of state for tourism Ana Mendes Godinho told me when I met her in Lisbon after our stay. Godinho’s mission is the holy grail of tourism – encouraging more tourists spending more money while acknowledging that overcrowding, most notably in Lisbon but increasingly in Porto too, is a problem she can’t ignore. “We grew too fast and we weren’t prepared for it,” she said.

The government’s response is a €100m programme aimed at encouraging tourism developments outside the hotspots of Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve. Since it launched two years ago, more than 600 public and private projects have received support, ranging from wellbeing retreats to literary, surf and religious breaks, Jewish heritage sites to river beaches.

Santa Cruz is one such project – a series of events, including the Pro Santa Cruz surf competition, are putting the town and the surrounding beaches on the map. It was this investment that encouraged the couple behind the nearby luxury hideaway Areias do Seixo to open Noah Surf House. It doesn’t matter that sleepy Santa Cruz only comes alive for July and August. There are 11 beaches to explore and surf year-round. That’s if you ever leave this excellent accommodation.

My immediate thought the first time we climb the Noah Surf House’s spiral staircase up to the funky open-plan reception and restaurant, was wow, immediately followed by, “I’m going to have a job persuading my son, nine, to do anything other than hang out here.” He’d never seen anywhere like it: walls and ceiling hung with an old fishing boat, nets and octopus traps; a giant TV screen playing big wave surf videos on a loop; a rack of surf boards standing by the reception desk; an infinity pool overlooking the beach; a skatepark; a table tennis room; a hot tub; a garden with chickens – basically a very cool playground with, best of all, loads of children his age to play with. He loved the hanging bunk in our bungalow room, too.

Noah received EU funding for its commitment to sustainability. The entire hotel is kitted out in recycled or upcycled materials; the buildings are insulated with cork and don’t have aircon; solar panels generate 70% of the hot water; metal water bottles are handed out for the duration of your stay; rainwater is collected to water the garden and flush toilets; food waste is composted in the small garden.

Before the Surf House came the Noah Beach House restaurant (more distressed wood and artfully arranged fishing paraphernalia and driftwood), which offers surprisingly reasonable lunches (€3.50 sandwiches and a substantial burger for €8.90) in a mesmerising setting on the sand. Dinner is a more sophisticated menu, featuring razor clams, grilled octopus, tuna steaks and other fish. We ate there for a treat one night – a huge slab of cod for me, and two giant shrimps on rice for my partner.

There’s a cheaper dinner option a five-minute walk along the beach. Casa do Pisao is a small family-run restaurant with a simple menu – we ordered rice with prawns and clams for €7.50, which was delicious and exactly what we wanted on a windswept beach. It was chilly and windy when we were there, so we sat inside and watched the steel-blue sea. A few kilometres north at the Santa Rita car park there’s another no-frills option – Grão d’Areia overlooking the long, sandy expanse of Praia de Santa Rita Norte, though it was sadly shut on the afternoon we pitched up in search of ice-cream after a windswept walk on the deserted beach.

You can’t come to Noah and not surf. Or so I thought. My partner was happy reading a book by the pool and, as predicted, my son was reluctant to leave his gang of new friends; and so it was just me who joined a few other guests for a lesson. The waves on the nearby beaches were too strong for our group of novices so our instructor, Nuno, drove us up to Peniche, telling us how he had left a good job working for a construction company to teach surfing and “found his tribe”.

Once we were on the beach, Nuno explained how to find our centre of balance on the board, which made perfect sense when I was practising on a stationary board on the sand. In the water, the theory washed away. I couldn’t stay on the board while lying down let alone standing up; nonetheless, an hour and a half of paddling into the waves, waiting for the right one and attempting to ride back into shore without falling off was was both exhilarating and calming as my mind emptied of all thoughts other than what the sea was doing and how I should respond to it.

Back at the hotel we sat on the terrace looking out at the hazy expanse of sand. “Santa Cruz is my paradise!” said Godinho when we met a couple of days later. “It was where I holidayed growing up.” I wonder if she ever imagined the role she would be playing in its transformation when she played on the beach as a child.

Accommodation was provided by i-escape.com, which has apartments for three at Noah from £148B&B. Bungalows sleeping three-four also available from £148 as well as dorm beds from £50 B&B. Car hire was provided by Centro de Portugal, Flights were provided by TAP, from £83 return including all taxes and surcharges, flytap.com

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