If you’re looking for bright skies and warm sunshine and a relaxed cruising destination (maybe even a romantic break?) then we highly recommend heading to Portugal and hiring a Nicols self drive barge on the Grande Lago. This largest man-made lake in Europe is in the Alentejo region and just two hours from Lisbon by car. Grande Lago is surrounded by a mix of rural olive groves and vineyards and numerous villages – all small but very pretty.
The Nicols base at Amieira Marina is the only boat hire base on the lake so the waterways never seem busy. Their hire barges are all in tip-top condition and well-equipped with everything you’ll need. Boats also have a GPS and sonar which makes navigation simple – guiding you safely and avoiding shallow waters or obstacles in the water.
The artificial dam has seen the waters flood the landscape with trees, mills and even a village all now underwater. Some taller hills remain – now picturesque islands in the lake.
The water is extremely clean so can be taken directly from the lake into the boat to be used in the bathroom and the kitchen for things like washing the dishes. A separate tank is onboard for storing drinking water. The environment is important to Nicols so the boats feature dispensers with biodegradable soap so as not to affect the lake and solar panels which help charge the boats batteries.
Another useful onboard item is the mobile phone. At no cost this can be used to call the base team if necessary, but also the restaurants and shops in the villages who will happily pick you up (sometimes even for free!) to go for dinner or shopping. With some villages being a few kilometres away from the lake this is extremely convenient.
When it comes to mooring places you have two options. You can use the floating docks near the many villages or you can go all ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and simply moor up at the edge of one of the islands.
The Nicols team provided us with detailed instructions both in the training room at the base and then onboard our two cabin Estivale Quattro. We felt fully prepared to begin our boating adventure – a short break (Tuesday to Saturday) which will see us take the following route: Amieira Marina – Estrela – Mourao – Monsaraz – Luz – Dam of Alqueva – Amieira Marina.
After 2.5 hours of cruising we arrive at the very small village of Estrela. The mooring pier is only 50m from the village and we are the only boat so we decide to spend our first night on the boat enjoying a simple alfresco dinner on the terrace while enjoying the silence and stunning sunset.
As we head off to bed the cabins feel warm (after all it’s been 33 degrees outside all day!) but after a few hours we start to feel the temperature fall. Fortunately below the bed in a drawer we find duvets for a comfortably night’s sleep.
In the morning, after a good breakfast, we take a leg stretch into Estrela. It is very small so soon head back to the boat ready for the next part of our journey – the next destination being Mourao which is the largest village in the area with approximately 2,000 inhabitants. From the mooring pier it is a 2km walk and at the entrance there are a few shops and businesses and smaller houses but it is at the heart of the village that makes the walk worthwhile. Set on a pretty hill lies the 13th century castle which offers beautiful views across the surrounding area. Also in the middle of the village is a small park where we relax with a tasty ice cream bought from a bistro just opposite. This sets us up nicely for the walk back to the boat.
We leave Mourao and then, after passing under the large unique bridge that crosses the lake we have a clear view of the approaching Monsaraz – a beautiful village also perched high on a hill. As we begin our mooring manoeuvre at the mooring pier we notice that there are four other Nicols boats as our neighbours! As it is a public holiday there are quite a few visitors.
This pier has many more facilities including a restaurant and activity centre where you can hire equipment for a number of watersports. We opt for some sunbathing and a swim in the lake before watching some fisherman bring in a good catch. Once again our evening is spent enjoying dinner onboard gazing at another wonderful sunset!