watch surfers ride Portugal’s monster waves

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Planning a trip around a natural spectacle is risky business. How many people have planned a trip to see the Northern Lights, hoping to see nature at its most spectacular, beautiful and extraordinary, only to return home disappointed?

In recent years, the gigantic Atlantic waves of Nazaré have been added to the traveler’s list of seasonal phenomena. The Portuguese seaside town is the perfect place to watch the towering white-water behemoths rising from Europe’s largest and deepest underwater canyon, 5,000 meters below the surface.

From November to March, the city becomes a magnet for big wave surfers, an extraordinary group of men and women who are towed to the crest of the wave by a jetski partner, before hurtling down their face. As lifelong sea lovers who have holidayed in Croyde and Newquay countless times, my partner and I can’t resist the chance to watch someone ride a wave three times as high than our home (and cracking at over 50 mph), especially if it means fleeing to Portugal in the depths of winter.

From the moment we book our trip, we watch Wind Guru, hoping for the right combination of swell and winds to feed the large slices of water in the canyon. I also wonder what else there will be to do in Nazaré in February, especially if the sea is calm. Will we settle in a sleepy town during the colder months, waiting for the first wave of spring tourists.

It’s all blue skies and sunshine when we arrive in Lisbon, and after a few days of exploring on foot, fueled by too many dougheast of nata, we took empty roads during the two hour drive north. When we arrive in Nazaré, we head straight for the old town, Sitio, on the 300 meter high promontory that separates the calm waters of Praia de Nazaré from the tumultuous breaks of Praia do Norte. It’s the perfect vantage point to watch the monster waves rolling in.

Bubbling and bubbling white water rushes from different angles, collides with itself, crashes on the shore

Luckily we timed our visit to coincide with such a swell that the surfing powers decided to hold the Nazaré Tow Challenge while we were there. So much for a snoozy off-season town. We park at the Sitio to find pop-up food trucks lining the path to the promontory, passing TV vans and dozens of other visitors – many carrying serious cameras – heading towards the lighthouse.

Nothing prepares you for the first glimpse of Praia do Norte. It’s a wide stretch of beach – a wide curve of sand that stretches out to seething, bubbling white water that rushes from different angles, collides with itself, crashes into the shore. The waves themselves are truly breathtaking – tall shimmering walls of water that rise and wobble, then roll in on themselves, filling the air around us with a deep, shivering roar and a fine mist of spray.

golden beach and rocky promontory.

Praia da Nazare, south of the promontory of Sitio. Photography: Tetyana Kochneva/Alamy

They are 10 or 12 meters high on the first day – small squalls for Nazaré, but gargantuan for us. After watching for about an hour, we walk 10 minutes inland to the bustling square of Sitio, with its whitewashed houses and panoramic views. We take the last table at Casa Pires, a small low restaurant opposite the imposing church of the city. Fresh sardines come with homemade fries and a heap of salad; around us, families and groups of friends dive into platters of fresh fish and pass large carafes of wine.

Our hotel is in the south, in the main part of Nazaré. It’s a long stretch of low houses and shops along the wide Praia da Nazaré. In summer, the beach attracts Portuguese visitors who come for the acres of sand and calm, clear sea that give few clues to the drama unfolding on the other side of the promontory. Even in low season, the souvenir shops and ice cream parlors along the waterfront are busy and the restaurants are full. It’s only when we venture out in the evening that we feel a little deserted, with many restaurants in the tangle of lanes behind the seafront practically empty.

We cross a lively place, the restaurant Canastra a Grelha, and we sit down to eat some succulent riflemen – jumbo shrimp – and a steaming cauldron of caldera, a classic fish stew made with monkfish, prawns and pleasantly nutty rice. The broth is so rich and flavorful that we eagerly pour it out, mopping up the rest with bread. But it is the dessert that is the most unusual: molotoF is an extraordinary meringue pudding, cooked in a double boiler to keep it fluffy, covered in a rich caramel sauce.

With all the meals, the tough half hour walk back and forth to the headland turns out to be a good thing. On the day of the Tow Challenge, we take the funicular up to Sitio, gliding slowly past the whitewashed houses that cling to the dizzying slopes. When we arrive at the lighthouse, several hundred people are already sitting on the grassy slope above Praia do Norte, staring at the surreal sight of towering waves bisected by a tiny white line, as a surfer hurtles down his face.

Four hours later, when we’re sitting still watching wave after wave, we can both agree that it’s one of the most incredible sights we’ve ever seen. It helps that Nazaré is still not commercialized: there are no fees to walk the promontory, where you can sit wherever you want, no souvenir shops or tacky cafes. There are only a few makeshift stalls and a lone guitarist, sitting on the hillside, singing surf-hippie songs. It seems to me that even if we had arrived to find calm seas and small waves, it would still have been a delightful break from the gloom of an English winter.

The trip was organized by the Portuguese Tourist Board. Accommodation was provided by Emerald House Lisbon, a new hotel in the capital, with an elegant bar and restaurant filled with antiques and art reflecting the city’s rich commercial and maritime history (double from €133 per room only), and the Hotel Maré in Nazare (double from €80 B&B).

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