It was an adventure trip to Cape Town that led Ricardo Viana to develop his travel company, Portugal Active. He saw “many similarities” between the South African city and his birthplace, Viana do Castelo, in the far north of Portugal. “I realized that this is a little paradise that nobody values,” he says.
“It has a mountain in the center of the city, cold water, excellent conditions for kitesurfing but also the opportunity to be ten minutes without wind, and it is a city that is a hub of activities,” he explains. I would add the proximity of some very good wineries, because their base is in the Vinho Verde region, and some very good traditional restaurants, because here we are talking about Portugal. (His last name is a happy brand coincidence.)
In 2017, fresh out of university, Viana spent €5,000 to build a beach hut and set up a school where he could teach kitesurfing. A few years later, he invested another €5,000 in a bunch of mountain bikes and a website. The entrepreneur is rightly proud that his business has grown organically since then, without the help of banks or institutional investors. This means that he is free to do what he wants, or rather, what his customers want.
Eventually, Viana decided to step things up and opened his first Portugal Active Lodge as a platform to launch the adventure tours he loves leading. From then on, he built a portfolio of around a dozen houses – he, his partners and private investors own several of them and are the exclusive agents for vacation rentals – which can be the base for all kinds of adventures, or for free. They receive many guests for a kind of “inactive Portugal” experience, just enjoying the simple serenity of a beautiful house in a quiet location.
That’s good for the company—Viana, her team, and her childhood friend turned COO, André Cardoso, will still be fully stocking the fridges and pantries, hiring the (surprisingly talented) yoga instructors and massage therapists, and providing housekeeping. . Her goal is to help her guests reconnect with life, whatever that means to them.
It’s easy to see the appeal of staying put. The collection of villas is beautiful, ranging from the traditional vibe of the four-bedroom Armada Lodge, whose 16th-century Manueline architecture and stone structures have been restored with care and a contemporary feel, to the six-bedroom Atlantic Lodge, which has an uncluttered, modern design and panoramic views of the sea. There are also T1 apartments (with sofa beds for extra guests) in the heart of Viana do Castelo, with easy access to the city’s kitesurfing beaches and some of its best restaurants.
But it is a mischaracterization to see Portugal Active only as a villa rental agency. On the one hand, Viana and Cardoso maintained a passion for their hometown that led them to commit to Viana do Castelo, instead of chasing the easy money of renting villas in Comporta or in the Algarve. Instead, they decided to promote their city and the neighboring 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 off the beaten path. Some YouTubers recently christened Minho the “true Portugal”.
They’ve also upped their game on the active side of their business. While Viana still caters to the majority of guests and joins them on the waves, hiking or biking trails (if they want to, which they often do), he has also built up an impressive network of professional partners in more specific niches such as horse riding on the beach, sailing in a very comfortable boat, hiking between villages in the Serra d’Arga and mountain biking through the Arco de Valdavez on new top-of-the-range e-bikes with guides who don’t care about the guest. bumpy ground right after a storm. (Not that I know anyone who has.)
I also may not know anyone who has chickened out paddle boarding from Viana do Castelo to the nearby town of Ponte de Lima before sunrise on a crystal clear winter morning. The idea was to watch the sunrise and enjoy the reflection of the magnificent Roman and medieval bridge. It turns out that it’s hard to take your socks off when the temperature is close to freezing, but Viana assures me that the rest of the trip is easy – a buoy that allows people to sit on their boards and eat breakfast as they float along the Lima River. —and that the views are worth it.
However, they can also take guests to Ponte de Lima, which was long considered the oldest city in Portugal. (New discoveries suggest that another site in the Douro valley is slightly older, but Ponte de Lima’s fame has remained.) On Sunday mornings, the city fills with people crossing the famous bridge, strolling along the river and settles down 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 meat, rice and pig blood. While I wholeheartedly welcome any type of all-animal cuisine, I haven’t eaten meat in decades and wasn’t about to get started on this. And that was another curveball I played at Portugal Active.
They rose to the challenge, even booking lunch at one of the remarkably beautiful and luxurious solar (properties) around the Ponte de Lima superpig. At Solar a Carvalheira, I had delicious and succulent monkfish rice for lunch, accompanied by one of the best wines from the Vinho Verde region.
And throughout my time at Portugal Active, I ate very well, with meals at Tasquinha da Linda, now the fanciest restaurant in Viana do Castelo but still the business of one of Viana’s family friends; Shrimp, seaside spot for fresh fish; Mariana, where the 1992 awards still hang proudly on the walls; the point in the city of Fortaleza, which is great for octopus with garlic; and the cozy and romantic Retiro do Ponte, where the lighting is warm and the fireplace crackles while guests eat smoked trout with toast and lush rice dishes.
But the most memorable – and most luxurious – dining experience was when the private chef came to the villa for a group dinner, bringing expected and unexpected ingredients like sea urchins (Viana is the son of a fisherman and grew up catching them even when the neighbors didn’t want anything to do with them) integrated into a beautiful risotto. Even better was knowing I was home and able to sleep comfortably while my house party ended.