Portals To Portugal's Past

On a narrow peninsula at Europe's southwestern tip sits a 15th century stone fortress and seafaring school built by Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator. Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco da Gama both took sailing lessons there. Today, these same rocky shores are home to one of Portugal's 32 pousadas.

Like the paradores of Spain, pousadas are government-owned inns scattered about the countryside in historic and scenic spots. Popular among German, British, and Spanish vacationers, they attract few Americans. One reason may be that they don't promote themselves much. Most have fewer than 25 rooms, which are usually full. But if you make reservations now, you should get your pick of dates for the peak summer months. Once you arrive, as my wife and I discovered on our honeymoon, you'll find yourself steeped in romantic luxury for $70 to $100 a night, including breakfast for two.

HILLTOP RESPITE. Pousadas come in two varieties. The regional type was built solely to accommodate travelers, while the historic pousadas are restored centuries-old castles, convents, fortresses, and mansions. Since the whole country is the size of Maine, it is easy to drive from one to another, staying a night or two in each. If you have time, consider a short plane ride to the mountainous island of Madeira, which has two pousadas. Marketing Ahead in New York City (212 686-9213) handles reservations for all 32.

Our trip began in the Algarve, Portugal's most famous vacation zone, on the southern coast. The Algarve has in recent years become crowded with postcard stands and high-rise hotels. But the 23-room Pousada do Sao Bras provides a hilltop respite from the clutter and is only a half-hour's drive from the region's best beaches. From the inn's windows, you can see the seaside town of Faro and a sliver of ocean in the distance. A picturesque resort strewn with shops that sell hand-painted ceramic roosters, Faro is worth a visit by day. At night, you're better off nestled high in Moorish farmland where real roosters wake you each morning.

A stay in one of the two historic pousadas just south of Lisbon will make you feel like royalty. We opted for one in the industrialized city of Setubal. There, perched atop a hill overlooking a crescent-shaped harbor, is a castle-- ramparts and all--that shelters the 15-room Pousada do Sao Filipe. Named after the Italian architect who designed it, this 400-year-old fortress was built for Spain's King Philip II, who invaded and ruled over a Portugal impoverished by the high costs of the Age of Discovery.

Like most, this pousada is a quiet place without much in the way of entertainment. Many have pools and tennis courts, but when night falls, eating is the main event. We found pousada dining delicious, but the atmosphere is almost too elegant, as if you were eating in a museum. You can usually get your fix of crusty bread, fresh fish, and wine in town at less expensive and livelier places.

RUSTIC CHARM. After dinner, you can stroll into the inn's comfy sitting room and strike up a conversation with an eclectic group of travelers. One chilly night in Sao Bras, we found ourselves sitting up late sipping brandy by a roaring fire and discussing politics with a British solicitor.

All the rooms we stayed in were charming, complete with antique furniture, handsomely tiled bathrooms, and spectacular views. But to really appreciate pousada living, you must put aside any notions of what a top-notch hotel should be. These inns are designed to reflect rustic Portuguese culture and tradition. Occasionally, you will encounter a saggy bed or poor TV reception.

Nevertheless, this network of inns should make Portugal a top choice for a European vacation. Besides, Americans might like to learn more about Prince Henry and his country. After all, a daughter of one of his students married a young navigator named Columbus.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.