The vista from the entry level of the Estremoz Castle in Portugal's province of Alentejo was impressive in its own right.
The setting afforded broad views of the town of Estremoz below, where the buildings are constructed largely from local white marble. Beyond the 850-year-old town walls, the evening light revealed the fields of the surrounding countryside in this region known for its vineyards, its cork and its olive trees.
Still, I wanted to see more, so I climbed the 88 feet of the castle tower, arriving at the lookout as the remnants of the sunset illuminated the sky in a brilliant mix of orange, red and pink and paused there, alone. Alentejo is often described as timeless; in that moment, I understood with clarity why.
Alentejo is the largest of Portugal's provinces, comprising 30% of the country, including rugged coastline south of Lisbon and vast plains that run east to the Spanish border. The province is also Portugal's least dense, containing just 5% of the nation's population.
During a recent stay in the area, I spent three nights in the regional capital of Evora, a charming town of cobblestone streets that is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Later in my visit, I made my way via ferry to the Troia peninsula, where the landscape of rugged sand dunes house one of Europe's top-rated golf courses, with another highly anticipated course set to open in June.
Visit Alentejo, which hosted a portion of my stay along with United Airlines and Air Canada, is keen to draw new American tourists. In 2022, Americans logged 97,000 overnight stays in Alentejo, accounting for 10.3% of the foreign share. The province offers 25,000 hotel rooms; among them are coastal resort hotels and charming, high-end pousadas occupying centuries-old monasteries and palaces.
Among the many historical treasures in the Alentejo capital of Evora are the ruins of a Roman temple. Photo Credit: Robert Silk
In Evora, I stayed at the Hotel Vila Gale, a modern hotel of 185 rooms just outside the city walls that counts three attractive swimming pools among its amenities.
The narrow, hilly streets of Evora periodically open onto broad plazas that are home to thousands of years of history. A plaza near the top of town, notably, is the site of the well-preserved ruins of a Roman temple. Immediately next to the temple and occupying a 15th century convent is Pousada Convento de Evora, where I enjoyed cocktails and a tasty chicken dinner one night.
A couple blocks from the temple lies the magnificent Evora Cathedral, which was constructed in intervals between the 12th and 18th centuries.
Beyond Evora, the countryside and small towns of Alentejo offer more cultural attractions as well as outstanding culinary tourism.
During a daylong guided tour, my group of five made our first stop in the ancient town of Vila Vicosa. There, we toured the massive Ducal Palace, which until the end of the monarchy in 1910 was one of the residences of Portugal's reigning Braganza family.
The palace is filled with tapestries, paintings and period furniture, but my favorite room was the kitchen, where hundreds, maybe thousands, of copper utensils hang from walls and line the shelves.
At the Mercearia Gadanha, the desserts are works of art, like the white chocolate stuffed with goat cheese, which was presented as an apple. Photo Credit: Robert Silk
Next, we headed back to Estremoz to enjoy a long lunch at Mercearia Gadanha, where chef Michele Marques prepares modern takes on Portuguese cuisine. (One of my lunch companions declared the lamb croquettes to have been the best croquettes he has ever had.)
From there, it was off to the nearby headquarters of Joao Portugal Ramos wines for a tasting and tour. Joao Portugal Ramos is one of more than 250 wine producers in Alentejo, some of which still make wines in the large clay vessels used by the Romans and called vinho de talha.
During the late summer harvest at Joao Portugal Ramos, visitors can pay $88 to help harvest grapes from the vineyards, then stomp them in the nearby warehouse. Lunch, with wines, is included.
The following day, I headed west to the coastline on my own. A sizeable portion of Alentejo's Atlantic exposure lies within the Southwest Alentejo and Vincentine Coast Natural Park, which is regarded as among the best preserved coastlines in Europe.
Dunas, a new golf course on Alentejo's Troia Peninsula, weaves through towering sand dunes. It opens to the public in June. Photo Credit: Robert Silk
Being an avid golfer, however, I chose to spend a day farther north, on the Troia Peninsula, where Troia Golf is ranked by Golf Digest as the third-best course in Portugal.
It runs through seaside sand dunes, providing a feel in some respects of golfing on the famed seaside courses of Scotland and Ireland. But Troia differs sharply from those courses because its narrow fairways are lined by native pines. The sand and trees, coupled with small greens and that day's sideways rain, made for a tough but exciting round.
With the rain still falling, I closed my time in Alentejo by taking a tour of the new Dunas golf course, about 25 miles farther south on the Troia Peninsula. The course, which opens to the public in June, works its way through enormous sand dunes, making golfing there a visibly striking experience. But wide fairways and large greens will give golfers a fair opportunity to avoid the gaping sandy areas.
The addition of Dunas will bolster Alentejo as a golf destination.