Europe’s best beach holidays: Peniche, Portugal

It was the small and enigmatic Berlengas archipelago that drew us to Peniche harbour. Peniche, 60 miles north of Lisbon, is famous for its surfing beaches, but the islands off its coast often get overlooked. Every morning a couple of hardy passenger boats bounce over eight miles of waves from the peninsula of Peniche to Berlenga Grande. We took our seats on deck between sacks of onions and oranges and, flecked with sea-spray and followed by flocks of screaming gulls, we watched green hills emerge from blue waves ahead. At the port, the goods are unloaded with gulls wheeling and cawing overhead.

Seabirds nest everywhere: in the island’s grass, its sea caves and its hidden coves. Keeping out of nesting areas, we followed a footpath to a pair of sandy beaches. The sea is warmer here than at the more open mainland stretches and, at Praia da Berlenga, it is as still and clear as sea-green stained glass and offers fantastic diving.

An arched bridge zigzags from the main island to the 17th-century fortress of St John the Baptist. Monks used to provide shelter here for seafaring people, until they, too, fell victim to pirate attack. Underneath the fort is a shadowy cave, whose water lapping inside is lit up by its quartz stone walls, like swimming in dark sapphire.

We explored nearby caves with a snorkel but took a trip with AcuaSubOeste to sea caves such as Cova do Sonho and the shallow wreck of an Italian steamer, the Primavera, sunk in 1902. In addition to the wreck, its cargo of marble has created a rich and strange habitat that attracts lobsters, octopus and conger eels.

Hopping on the boat back from Berlengas, we found Peniche seafront in full flow. Restaurants facing the seafront and old fortress offer seafood: razor clams, mussels and local delicacy percebes (gooseneck barnacles), perfect with a cold cerveja. We headed into the tangle of streets and bars behind to the colourful Bar São Pedro, which had caldeirada (Portuguese fish stew) chalked up on the menu outside. Our favourite haunt was the Sol é Vida snack bar, where we ate the freshest of dressed crab while looking out to sea.

Because Peniche is a surfers’ mecca, there are plenty of places to stay, including Mercearia d’Alegria, a boutique B&B in town (rooms from €77) and for those wanting to stay longer on wilder Berlenga island, there’s Mesa da Ilha (from €75).

The west-facing Peniche peninsula is perfect for sunset. Timeless and elemental, the cliffs at Cabo Carvoeiro, once thought to be the most westerly tip of Europe, have been sculpted by the ocean over millennia. Fuelled by seafood, we left the buzz of town for coastal paths looking out to Nau dos Corvos, a rock pinnacle resembling a half-shipwrecked vessel, and followed steps down into smooth caves at Gruta da Furninha and Varanda de Pilatos. Sea and sky are framed by their stone, and here we watched the sun slip into the ocean behind the archipelago.