Golden breaks on the sil­ver coast

Por­tu­gal’s Eri­ceira is one of only five World Surf­ing Re­serves

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - JAMES STE­WART

AH, the de­lights of surf­ing in south­ern Europe in sum­mer — warm wa­ter, strong sun­shine and waves that have trav­elled 5000km solely to test a surfer’s bravado.

‘‘It won’t be big,’’ a 20-some­thing shop as­sis­tant as­sured me when I called into his surf shop. I’d asked about a swell expected on Por­tu­gal’s Sil­ver Coast. Pad­dle out first thing to­mor­row morn­ing, he ad­vised — no crowds, no wind, no prob­lem, not even for a so-so surfer on the wrong side of 40. Well, that was the the­ory.

In prac­tice, Coxos near Eri­ceira, an hour’s drive west from Lis­bon, is demon­strat­ing why it is the celebrity break around here. ‘‘Not big’’ in the cur­rency of Por­tuguese wave-rid­ing turns out to mean waves that are eas­ily ‘‘dou­ble over­head’’ (dou­ble the height of your av­er­age surfer), and oc­ca­sion­ally spike even higher. In surfer slang, it is ‘‘go­ing off’’. And I, not the bravest of big-wave riders, am slightly go­ing off the whole idea of be­ing there.

Acho­rus of whoops from the 20 or so surfers strung out be­hind the point an­nounces an­other mon­ster wave. It has swung wide and looms as a wall of wa­ter, prompt­ing the pack in the take-off zone to scram­ble over its back for safety. With a stab of panic I re­alise I am caught inside. The wave det­o­nates on the reef and there’s just time to see it un­furl mag­nif­i­cently be­fore my world is oblit­er­ated by foam. Thank you and good morn­ing.

For about a cen­tury, hol­i­day-mak­ers came to Eri­ceira for its cob­bled lanes and fish­er­men’s houses framed in cobalt blue. How­ever, more and more now visit to surf. Sure, Por­tuguese fam­i­lies still daw­dle over cof­fee and cus­tard tarts in the lovely town square, but there are also surfers and skatekids at the largest Quik­sil­ver store in Europe.

Glance at a map and you’ll un­der­stand why. Within sight of the western tip of con­ti­nen­tal Europe, Eri­ceira is sub­ject to what­ever is hurled at it by the At­lantic. Cou­ple con­sis­tency with ideal ge­ol­ogy — rivers that sculpt the sand­bars on beaches, slabby reefs that jut from cliffs — and you have surf nir­vana. There are 22 breaks around Eri­ceira alone and prob­a­bly more if the lo­cals re­vealed some se­cret spots. What­ever your abil­ity, at some time some­where, your dream wave will break here­abouts.

Small won­der that in Oc­to­ber last year, 5km of coast north of Eri­ceira were for­mally ac­cred­ited as a World Surf­ing Re­serve — a sort of World Her­itage site of surf­ing. Dreamt up in 2009 by the Save the Waves Coali­tion, a global group of surfers, sci­en­tists and ac­tivists, the scheme was cre­ated to safe­guard prime surf­ing coast­lines. The idea was that re­serve sta­tus would in­spire com­mu­ni­ties to recog­nise the value of surf­ing coasts, rather than fes­toon them with water­side con­dos.

Eri­ceira was the sec­ond re­serve to be ap­proved, af­ter Mal­ibu, Cal­i­for­nia. Its surf cul­ture stems from an older con­nec­tion to the sea, be­lieves Jorge Car­doso, pres­i­dent of the surf club that ap­plied for re­serve sta­tus. ‘‘Peo­ple here are used to liv­ing by and from the sea. Fish­ing is no longer our core busi­ness, but the sea con­nec­tion has evolved from that to surf­ing.’’

Ad­mit­tedly, 5km of coast­line doesn’t sound much. But be­neath crum­bling cliffs fuzzed with sil­ver agave lie seven world-class breaks that peel in flaw­less walls given the right alchemy of swell, wind and tide. There are breaks such as Pe­dra Branca, a kamikaze tube ride that guns across Empa Bay at the town’s out­skirts, or Ribeira d’Il­has over the next head­land. There are pow­er­ful short­board waves such as Coxos and its mir­ror-im­age, Crazy Left, in a scruffy bay that only a surfer could love. And there are mel­low long­board waves that peel be­fore beau­ti­ful white sands at Sao Lourenco.

This is truly a mag­i­cal place, ac­cord­ing to Will Henry, founder of the Save the Waves Coali­tion. ‘‘I fell in love with this area when I first came here in the 1980s, and I hope that this des­ig­na­tion will pro­vide a great con­ser­va­tion tool to bet­ter pro­tect it, as it has at Mal­ibu.’’

Sur­prised that a mod­est Por­tuguese re­sort is men­tioned in the same breath as a cra­dle of world surf­ing? Don’t be, says Amer­i­can surfer Nick Uric­chio. We meet at Se­mente Surf­boards, the old­est board man­u­fac­turer in Eri­ceira, founded by Uric­chio af­ter he dis­cov­ered Por­tu­gal as a back­packer in 1978. He ar­rives in a van that’s cov­ered with im­ages of surfers in board­shorts on glassy, flaw­less waves. ‘‘Ah, the early days,’’ he sighs. ‘‘Eri­ceira was a lit­tle fish­ing vil­lage. There was un­crowded surf. It was like the early days of Cal­i­for­nia.’’

As in Cal­i­for­nia, surf is now a se­ri­ous busi­ness. New surf-themed ac­com­mo­da­tion springs up each year, and more than 30 surf schools bap­tise hol­i­day-mak­ers. The Por­tuguese pres­i­dent backed the lo­cal surf clubs when they ap­plied for re­serve sta­tus.

‘‘The re­serve is good po­lit­i­cally — it’s a pres­tige thing — but it’s good for us surfers, too,’’ says Uric­chio. ‘‘It means we can pro­tect some­thing that is sa­cred to us. And be­cause it has been stated that this can also be lost, ev­ery­body keeps on their toes. Stuff just hap­pens here — build­ings just pop up. That won’t be so easy any more.’’

Pro­tec­tion is not set down in statute but, given the ca­chet of re­serve sta­tus, town plan­ners now con­sult lo­cal surfers be­fore they rub­ber-stamp new de­vel­op­ment.

Clean waves wrap around the ter­race as I break­fast at Vila Gale ho­tel the next day. It is a per­fect morn­ing; the sun­shine warm, the air as crisp and ef­fer­ves­cent as cham­pagne. A half-hour drive south­east could take me to Sin­tra, sum­mer stomp­ing ground of Por­tuguese roy­alty. Go the same dis­tance again and I could be brows­ing bou­tiques in Lis­bon.

But no one looks at waves like a surfer. Thirty min­utes later I am pulling on a wet­suit by the beach at Ribeira d’Il­has. Peel­ing into a nick in the cliffs, its reef break was the birth­place of surf cul­ture in Eri­ceira in the mid-70s.

I pad­dle out to the end of the line-up — the bot­tom of the pile in surf­ing hi­er­ar­chy — and wait as one surfer af­ter an­other picks off waves that break al­most me­chan­i­cally along the reef. Fi­nally, a peak ap­proaches — a tid­dler by lo­cal stan­dards at shoul­der-high, but it’s mine. I spin the board and pad­dle hard as the wave steep­ens. Then I’m up and skim­ming across a face that un­furls lazily right. My first ride on a World Surf­ing Re­serve wave.

GETTY IM­AGES

Eri­ceira, on the At­lantic Coast, is ‘surf nir­vana’

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