It was an adventure trip to Cape Town that led Ricardo Viana to develop his travel company, Portugal Active. He saw a “lot of similarities” between the South African city and his hometown of Viana do Castelo, in the far north of Portugal. “I realized that this is a small paradise that no one values, internationally” he says.
“There’s a mountain in the city center, cold water, great conditions for kite surfing but also the opportunity to be [regular] surfing ten minutes away with zero wind, and it’s a city that’s an activity hub,” he explains. I would add proximity to some very good wineries, because his base is in the Vinho Verde wine region, and some very good traditional restaurants, because we’re talking about Portugal here. (His family name is a happy, on-brand coincidence.)
In 2017, just barely out of university, Viana invested €5,000 of his earnings as a kite surfing instructor to set up a beach shack for bike rentals and tours. The entrepreneur is rightly proud of the fact that his business has grown organically since then, without the help of banks or institutional investors. This means he has been free to do what he wants, or, rather, what his clients will want.
Eventually, Viana decided to step things up and opened his first Portugal Active Lodge as a staging ground from which to launch the adventure tours that he loves to lead. From there, he built a portfolio of about a dozen homes—he, his partners and private investors own several of them and are the exclusive rental agents for rest—that can be home base for all kinds of adventures, or for nothing at all. They get plenty of guests for a sort of “Portugal inactive” experience, just enjoying the simple serenity of a beautiful home in a quiet place.
This is fine with the company—Viana, his staff, and his childhood friend-turned-COO, André Cardoso, will still fully stock the refrigerators and pantries, hire the (surprisingly talented) yoga instructors and massage therapists, and arrange for the housekeeping. Their aim is to help their guests reconnect with life, whatever that means to them.
It’s easy to see the appeal of staying put. The villa collection is gorgeous, ranging from the traditional vibe of the four-bedroom Armada Lodge, whose 16th-century Manueline architecture and stone structures were restored with care and a contemporary touch, to the six-bedroom Atlantic Lodge, which has an uncluttered, modern design and panoramic sea views. There are also one-bedroom apartments (with sofa beds for extra guests) in the heart of Viana do Castelo, with easy access to the city’s kite surfing beaches and some of its best restaurants.
But it’s a mischaracterization to see Portugal Active as merely a villa rental agency. For one thing, Viana and Cardoso held onto a passion for their hometown that led them to commit to Viana do Castelo, rather than chasing the easy villa rental money in Comporta or the Algarve. Rather, they set out to promote their city and the surrounding region of Minho, the oldest part of Portugal, home to some of its most prosperous but still genuine towns and cities, and an epicenter of gastronomy that’s off the beaten path. A couple of YouTubers recently christened Minho the “real Portugal.”
They’ve also upped their game on the active side of their business. While Viana still meets most guests and joins them on the waves, hiking paths or bike trails (if they want, which they generally do), he’s also built a network of impressively professional partners in more specific niches, such as horseback riding on the beach, sailing on a very comfortable boat, hiking between villages in the Serra d’Arga, and mountain biking around Arcos de Valdevez on new, top-of-the-line e-bikes with guides who don’t mind if a guest gets a little freaked out on the rutted terrain right after a rainstorm. (Not that I know anyone who did this.)
I also may not know anyone who chickened out on paddle boarding from Viana do Castelo to the nearby town of Ponte de Lima before sunrise on a crystalline winter morning. The idea had been to watch the daylight break and appreciate the reflection of the magnificent Roman and medieval bridge. As it turns out, it’s difficult to remove your socks when the temperature is flirting with freezing, but Viana assures me that the rest of the trip is easy—a float that allows people to sit on their boards and eat breakfast as they drift along the Lima River—and that the views are worth it.
And anyway, they can also drive guests to Ponte de Lima, which was for a long time considered to be the oldest town in Portugal. (New discoveries suggest that another place in the Douro Valley is slightly older, but Ponte de Lima’s claim to fame has stuck.) On Sunday mornings, the town fills up with people who stroll across the famous bridge, promenade beside the river and settle in for a long lunch. Small children and their grandparents are particularly welcome.
Ponte de Lima is known for sarrabulho, a rather advanced Portuguese dish made from pork, rice and the blood of the pig. While I wholeheartedly salute any sort of full-animal cookery, I haven’t eaten meat in decades and wasn’t about to start with this one. And so that was another curveball I threw at Portugal Active.
They rose to the challenge, even booking a lunch at one of the notably beautiful and lavish solares (estates) surrounding the super-porky Ponte de Lima. At Solar a Carvalheira, I lunched on delicious, soupy monkfish rice, paired with one of the better wines from the Vinho Verde region.
And throughout my time with Portugal Active, I ate exceedingly well, with meals at Tasquinha da Linda, now the fanciest restaurant Viana do Castelo but still the business of one of Viana’s family friends; Camarão, a seaside spot for fresh fish; Mariana, where the awards from 1992 are still hung proudly on the walls; the city spot Fortaleza, which is great for the garlicky octopus; and the cozy, romantic Retiro do Ponte, where the lighting is warm and the fireplace crackles as guests tuck into smoked trout on toast and luxuriant rice dishes.
But the most memorable dining experience—and the most luxurious one—was when the private chef came to the villa for a group dinner, carting expected ingredients and unexpected ones like sea urchin (Viana is the son of a fisherman and grew up catching them even when his neighbors wanted nothing to do with them) integrated into a beautiful risotto. Better still was knowing that I was home, and able to sleep comfortably as my house party was done.