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Off the Beaten Path: Nature in the Raw

The area around Alcobaça contains two of the least discovered but most dramatic havens for nature in Portugal: a national park and an offshore island that's ideal for scuba diving.

Parque Natural das Serras de Aire e Candeeiros straddles the border between Estremadura and Ribatejo, almost halfway between Lisbon and Coimbra. Encompassing more than 30,000 hectares (74,100 acres) of moors and scrubland, the rocky landscape is sparsely settled. A center for hikers is the small hamlet of Minde, where women weave patchwork rugs that are well known in the region. Take along plenty of supplies (water, lunch, sunscreen, and so on) for a day's hike in the wilderness.

In this rocky landscape, farmers barely eke out a living. They gather local stones to build their shelters, and they get energy from windmills. If you'd rather drive than hike through the area, take N362, which runs for some 45km (28 miles) from Batalha in the north to Santarém in the south.

The other great area of natural beauty is Berlenga Island. A granite rock in the Atlantic, Berlenga is an island hideaway and nature preserve. Eleven kilometers (7 miles) out in the ocean west of Peniche, a medieval fortress once stood guard over the Portuguese coastline from this island. Berlenga is the largest island in a little archipelago made up of three groups of rocky rises known as the Farilhões, the Estrelas, and the Forcadas.

The medieval fortress on Berlenga, Forte de São João Batista, was destroyed in 1666 when 28 Portuguese tried to withstand a force of 1,500 Spaniards who bombarded it from 15 ships. Rebuilt toward the end of the 17th century, it now houses a hostel. You can take a stairway from the fortress to the lighthouse, stopping along the way to look over the panorama of the archipelago. A cobblestone walk from the top of the lighthouse site takes you down to a little bay with fishermen's cottages along a beach.

The Furado Grande is a long marine tunnel that leads to a creek walled in by the granite cliffs. Under the fortress is a cave the locals call the blue grotto, but its pool is really closer to emerald green. The clear waters of the grotto and the island itself make Berlenga a mecca for snorkelers and scuba divers. Local waters contain an array of fish, including bream, red mullet, and sea bass. To reach the island, head first for Peniche, 92km (57 miles) north of Lisbon. A ferry makes two trips a day to the island in July and August; the first leaves at 9:30am. A same-day round-trip ticket costs 18€. From September to June, one ferry a day leaves at 10am and returns at 6pm. This boat ride is rough: If you're prone to getting seasick, take the proper precautions.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.